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The Essential J.M. Coetzee

Some authors you love for their fire; some you love for their ice. J.M. Coetzee, the South African-turned-Australian novelist, has spent half a century engaged with the biggest questions of human reason and human dignity, but his novels are not what you’d call grand. They’re sleek, unadorned, unfailingly precise; most top out at 200 pages or so; the sentences have been knapped to their sharpest. Stylistically, his novels are quite brisk. Morally, they are heavyweights.

Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940, into a family of what he has called “recusant Afrikaners”: They spoke English rather than Afrikaans at home. By the 1980s his spare, stinging prose had won international acclaim as one of literature’s strongest responses to apartheid, though more militant South African writers were dubious of his ambiguity and discretion. He’s now won every literary gong available (a Nobel in 2003, two Bookers before that), and has as good a claim as anyone to be the most significant living author in English — a language about which he has lately grown ambivalent.

If you’re new to Coetzee, we’d better start with the most obvious matter: It’s pronounced kuut-SAY, two syllables, rhyming with “day,” not with “idea.” The J stands for John, and the M — well, we now know it stands for Maxwell, but for decades he let people believe it was Michael. That accidental alias is the first of many personal and literary feints, and he has always leavened the seriousness of his prose with metafictional evasions.

His 15 novels (along with three volumes of autobiography that might as well be fiction, plus essays on censorship, race, linguistics and psychology) include head-on realist fictions of South Africa during apartheid and after. But there are also Coetzeean stand-ins both male and female, characters who migrate from one plane of existence to another, and more shattered fourth walls than on HGTV’s “Flip or Flop.” The books written since his move to Australia in 2002, especially, have the schematic beauty of Heinrich von Kleist’s marionette theater. (This abstraction is one reason that the movie versions of Coetzee’s novels are universally terrible — the “Disgrace” with John Malkovich truly lives up to its title — while more oblique adaptations, such as operas of “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “Slow Man,” have fared better.)

I’m sure it says something about me that my favorite novelist is known for works of unrelieved seriousness, psychological extremity and reliably joyless sex. He’s the very last writer you should go to for lush description or richly drawn landscape. (Here is an example of scene-setting in “The Pole,” his new novella: “It is a pleasant autumn day. The leaves are turning, et cetera.”)

But Coetzee is no misanthrope and no Gloomy Gus: a reputation that may come more from his aversion to interviews and prizes than his fiction anyway. As with his early hero Samuel Beckett, there’s an essential truth — even, believe me, an optimism — in the muscles of Coetzee’s fat-free prose. (Also like Beckett, Coetzee has a dark humor that’s very underrated; when you are buried to your neck in sand, you gotta laugh.) Here’s where to start.

I like a good dystopia.

After two early novels with some showy, youthful acrobatics (twinned narratives, numbered paragraphs), Coetzee published the intense, dislocated “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1980). From its first line — “I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire” — we are plunged into a third-tier dusty frontier town of some authoritarian empire, so far from the capital that even sunglasses are a novelty. The local magistrate has been a dutiful, if concupiscent, colonial administrator. But the fanatical Colonel Joll (he with the sunglasses) becomes obsessed with heading off a supposed barbarian invasion. His campaign of terror forces the magistrate into a moral dilemma that will cost him much more than his job.

This book is lean and mean; as regards dystopian brutality, it makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” look like “Little Women.” But Coetzee’s paranoid and segregated empire is not an allegory for apartheid South Africa — indeed, that was what irritated his South African critics most. Yes, the true “barbarians” are the empire’s men, but there’s a larger and more troubling universality to Coetzee’s torturers, and to our own desires to read about them. “The dark, forbidden chamber,” Coetzee wrote in a 1986 essay for this publication, “is the origin of novelistic fantasy per se.”

Show me what apartheid did to the soul.

You should read “Life & Times of Michael K” (1983), the rangy parable of dignity and diminishment for which he won the first of his two Bookers. Michael K is a gardener in Cape Town whose mother is a housekeeper in ill health. They try to leave the city for the Swartberg Mountains, but she does not survive the journey, and K falls into a bad dream of bureaucracies and brutality. Unlike in “Waiting for the Barbarians,” here we are in contemporary South Africa — except this South Africa has fallen into civil war, where whites-only suburbs have been ransacked and the apartheid-state flag flies over detention camps. (K’s race is never specified outright, though the context makes clear he is of mixed white, Black and Asian heritage.)

This was 1983. Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were still in prison; international boycotts were successfully targeting South African athletes and artists; the apartheid state was fighting not only its Black majority, but guerrillas in Namibia and Angola. A civil war was hardly unthinkable, and the one Coetzee imagined was as stupid as it was violent, running on well after the oppressors had lost the will to fight. (Even more than the imperialists in “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the whites in “Michael K” know they are doomed.)

Slow-witted but unwilling to yield, K abandons society and lives, barely, off the land — shriveling into a size-zero Crusoe who must embrace insignificance as the price of being free. It is a strange exaltation of freedom, this small life of K’s. And yet in reducing one man to the pith of animal existence, Coetzee wrote one of the few books I know that merits the most clichéd of all praise: life-affirming.

Keep it short, but give me everything.

Breathless, bedraggled, her petticoat heavy with saltwater, the castaway Susan Barton washes ashore on an island off the coast of Brazil, but two men are already there: the Englishman Robinson Cruso (no E), and his man Friday (no tongue). The trio are rescued. On the voyage home Cruso dies. Marooned in London, Susan has nothing but “all that Cruso leaves behind, which is the story of his island.” She tries without success to write, while Friday — Cruso said slave-traders had mutilated him; Susan has her doubts — seems to have no language at all. They must turn to a morally dubious and deeply indebted ghostwriter: one Daniel Foe, whose views on literature and the market for true stories will cleave her forever from Cruso’s isle.

I am ever and always in love with “Foe” (1986), which, from a bare plot summary,may sound like one of many the-empire-writes-back sequels of the English canon — Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” (an Antillean “Jane Eyre”), Peter Carey’s “Jack Maggs” (an Antipodean “Great Expectations”). Two generations of comp-lit students have gorged now on the novel’s irresolvable tangle of speech and writing, gender and colonialism, and wrung every drop of theory from its fewer than 160 pages. But “Foe,” written in an extraordinary ventriloquism of 18th-century English, is so much more than a postcolonial just-so story, and much more, too, than a reverse Robinsonade.

Who is an author, and who has a “life story”? From its three-letter title on, Coetzee’s shortest and greatest novel is about how art and life will always be at odds. It’s about the irresistible seductions of bankrupt writers, and literature’s insufficient promise to show you another world. And above all, this inexhaustible novel is about how to hold onto your true self when new media — the novel in the 18th century, the TikTok account in the 21st — want to warp your life into a narrative for sale.

I want to know his real life — or as close to it as I can get.

Coetzee has written three volumes of autobiography — but no less than the novels, these ostensible memoirs (all narrated in the third person, a “he” held at arm’s length) have a shifty relationship with the truth. “Boyhood” (1997) relates the author’s life from ages 10 to 13, with unhappy days at school and a deep alienation from his father relieved through rapturous trips to the Karoo, the Western Cape’s arid farm country. “Youth” (2002) follows a 20ish Coetzee to London, where he strikes out with the ladies.

The last, best, and strangest of the three is “Summertime” (2009), which ostensibly covers the 1970s, his return to South Africa and his initial efforts at fiction. But it seems the author named on the cover is already dead; the book comprises five interviews with former lovers, students and acquaintances, conducted by a biographer of “the late John Coetzee.”

I can handle him at his bleakest. (I think.)

For the 50-something professor David Lurie, a mastery of English Romantic poetry seems to offer an ethical exemption for seducing one of his students, whose degree of consent we could generously call ambiguous. The affair is exposed; Lurie loses his job (after a terrifically drawn scene of a university tribunal, with all the dark comedy of Kafka); he leaves Cape Town to join his daughter, Lucy, on her farm in the Eastern Cape. But then comes another act of sexual violence, far more brutal than his own transgression — and as Lucy considers her well-being, her father must cleanse the gangrenous foundation of his moral life.

Unlike his equivocal 1980s fictions, “Disgrace” (1999)demanded to be read in light of contemporary South Africa: a new multiracial democracy, engrossed in the public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. When David begs his daughter to go to the police, Lucy insists she must not report her gang rape “in this place, at this time … this place being South Africa.” I can’t lie, this book is bleak — but so is “Oedipus Rex.” There can be a beauty in bleakness, and the austere fatalism of “Disgrace” has made it one of the most debated novels of the last 30 years.

It netted Coetzee Booker No. 2 (as with the first time, he did not bother to pick it up) and a public renown he manifestly disliked. It also elicited angry opposition in South Africa: from the top of the African National Congress, who decried its “racism” to the U.N., and from white conservatives who thought they were the real victims. Today, though, its more immediate value may lie in its scrutiny of gender: “Disgrace” is, of course, a proto-MeToo novel, all about the desires and deficiencies of men, and the public and private cancellations they may bring upon themselves.

“Disgrace” also inaugurates a major theme of Coetzee’s later writing: the relationship of humans to animals, examined with a philosopher’s rigor in “Elizabeth Costello” and in his short fiction. If Lurie finds even the slightest absolution — or grace, the title’s not-quite-opposite — it is in a veterinary clinic, caring for animals in a world where men are dogs.

How about his criticism?

In his novels Coetzee evades, contorts, ironizes; in his nonfiction, he has the exactitude of the surgeon. “White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa” (1988), the most original of his several collections of essays, studies the novels of “people no longer European, not yet African,” and the national and racial mythmaking of white novelists working in both English and Afrikaans. (The bulk of the novels he studies, by authors such as Sarah Gertrude Millin and C.M. van den Heever, were written before the institution of apartheid in 1948.)

There are syrupy miscegenation tragedies, there is repellent crypto-anthropology about the lazy natives and the industrious Dutch, yet Coetzee’s key object of study is the plaasroman, or “farm novel” in Afrikaans. In these settlers’ pastoral tales, the South African soil is mythologized and feminized, but it’s a harsh and “infertile” Earth Mother that seems to reject even the dead. I value “White Writing,” especially, as a model for how a critic should engage with racist works from the past: no dismissal, no excuses either, just a calm and unflinching exposure of their fatal contradictions. “Our craft,” as Coetzee writes here, “is all in reading the other: gaps, inverses, undersides; the veiled, the dark, the buried, the feminine; alterities.”

I’m not afraid to get a little weird.

Coetzee has had a fascinating third act since immigrating to Australia in the 2000s; his books have grown more experimental and philosophical, blending fiction with nonfiction and often defying traditional novelistic structure. The most important of his Australian novels — a book of real power and deep mystery — is “The Childhood of Jesus” (2013), the first in a trilogy of peculiar and deadpan stories about a boy and a man making new lives in a world “washed clean.”

Like everyone in Novilla, the featureless town they have arrived at by boat, Simón and David are refugees whose memory has been erased, mastering the rudiments of a new language. (That language is Spanish — and recently, as a little personal protest against the hegemony of English, Coetzee has been releasing his novels in Spanish more than a year before they come out in the original.) Simón introduces the boy to a woman, Inés, and in an outlandish parody of the Annunciation convinces her that she is David’s mother. But David’s behavior … well, it’s not quite divine. He’s an entitled brat with a serious hangup about mathematics, propounding a mystical belief that numbers are “islands in a great black sea of nothingness,” beyond the reach of arithmetic.

This book, and the two that follow it, are quixotic, in the original sense: “Don Quixote,” or at least a children’s adaptation of it, figures centrally in David’s personal gospel. Even more than “Waiting for the Barbarians,” this one snaps all allegorical readings before you can say Noli me tangere. Yet “The Childhood of Jesus” brings home so many of the themes that have animated Coetzee since 1970: above all, the tension between emotion and reason. There is an ardor that can lie behind even the greatest austerity.

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