DIARY OF A BAD YEAR
By J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 231 pages, $24.95
Remember Roland Barthes’ distinction between “readerly” and “writerly” texts? If the answer is no—and especially if the answer is a pointed “no thank you”—then I suspect that J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year is not for you. I enjoyed it, and I admired it, but I was aware as I was reading it that this kind of novel is an acquired taste only a small minority will be interested in acquiring.
Barthes’ idea is that the writerly text enlists the creative collaboration of the reader, so that the reader is “no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” (The readerly text, on the other hand, is impervious, a finished object, a closed circuit—no assembly required.)
Diary of a Bad Year is writerly in the extreme. On every page it forces the reader to make choices, to be active. Mr. Coetzee provides three strands of a story and invites us to braid them in any way we see fit. Along the top we get the polished, public opinions of a distinguished elderly writer; in the middle we get an intinate account of his tentative relationship with Anya, a sexy young woman who lives on the uppermost floor of his apartment building; and down below we get Anya’s perspective. Though the narrative strands are separated on the page in the de facto hierarchy of top, middle and bottom, you’re free to decide which is most important, and in which order to read them. It’s a freedom some will find exciting, others annoying.
The old man, a South African-born novelist living in Australia, is a stand-in for J.M. Coetzee—that is, he’s J.M. Coetzee appearing as a fictional character in a novel by J.M. Coetzee. (It’s like Zuckerman and Roth, only cozier.) His opinions, solicited by his German publisher for an anthology to be called Strong Opinions, are deliberately provocative, often brilliant and at times comically pompous. “If I were called upon to give my brand of political thought a label,” he writes, “I would call it pessimistic anarchistic quietism, or anarchist quietistic pessimism, or pessimistic quietistic anarchism.” He pontificates on intelligent design, probability, pedophilia, Guantánamo Bay, Tony Blair, Tolstoy and so on.
Torture and the “war on terror” are his best topics. He argues that the crimes of the Bush administration have dishonored not just Americans but Westerners in general, which leads in turn to this little aria: “Is dishonour a state of being that comes in shades and degrees? If there is a state of deep dishonour, is there a state of mild dishonour, too, dishonour lite?”
The beguiling Anya, whom he hires as a typist, wishes he would spend less time opining about politics. “Write about cricket,” she tells him. “Write your memoirs.” She would like him to tell a story (“If you tell a story, at least people will shut up and listen to you”); she wants “gossip, sex, romance, all the juicy details.” And of course that’s what we’re getting below the line, on the bottom two-thirds of the page, in twinned, his-and-hers versions.
IT’S NOT MUCH of a story, but it just about manages to tow the narrative along. The old man and the young woman engage in an ageless dance of seduction. Anya calls him Señor C, and wags her perfect behind; he thinks of her as “this earthly incarnation of heavenly beauty,” and tries to camouflage his intermittent lecherous yearnings. “As I watched her,” he tells us, “an ache, a metaphysical ache, crept over me”; he thinks of this lust as “post-physical”—though Anya has no difficulty detecting it.
Anya lives with Alan, a clever, shallow man who earns lots of money and despises Señor C and his superannuated opinions. Here’s her more-or-less accurate summary of the situation: “The old bull and the young bull, fighting it out. And me? I am the young cow they are trying to impress, that is getting bored with their antics.” Eventually Alan and Señor C meet—a painful encounter, humiliating all around. The rest is denouement.
The story below is consistently less interesting (and less convincing) than the miscellany of ideas Señor C expresses up top. But the events of the story also cause Señor C to consider revising his opinions: “I should cull the older, more decrepit ones,” he tells himself, “find newer, up-to-date ones to replace them.” His rapport with Anya pushes him in fresh directions. The layout of the text is an active agent here, forcing the eye to flit up and down and up again, forcing the hand to turn the pages both forwards and backwards: This is a novel that won’t tolerate stasis.
SENOR C WORRIES about the novels he has written. He worries that his art is not “great-souled,” that it “lacks generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.” Critics accuse him of being “a pedant who dabbles in fiction.” I can see how some readers would feel the same way about the author of Diary of a Bad Year: The novel is both stingy and demanding, the pleasures it offers almost exclusively intellectual. It’s a technical triumph and a showcase for the author’s wit, his learning, his critical acumen. Touching, it’s not.
Anya says she wants to be by Señor C’s side in his final hour (already he’s “a bit trembly, a bit doddery”); she paints a fetching, sentimental picture of the deathbed scene. She will whisper to him, and comfort him. “I will do that. I will hold his hand.” She’s probably moved by the thought of this last farewell, but I doubt it will bring a tear to the reader’s eye, and I don’t believe it was meant to.
However grim and uncompromising, however controlled and cerebral, Mr. Coetzee has shown many times that when he wants to, he can melt the heart. Consider another terminal leave-taking, from the very end of Disgrace (1999), when David Lurie, who’s volunteering at the Animal Welfare clinic, decides to put down a dog with a withered hindquarter, a dog he’s become fond of, a dog that has adopted him. David, too, promises comfort: “He will do all that for him when his time comes.” At last he goes to get the animal from its cage. “‘Come,’ he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. ‘Come.’”
A cruel scene, and tender, and unbearably sad. Barthes would have called it readerly.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.