One might begin to place novelist J. M. Coetzee at a conjunction of influences: Dostoyevsky, Defoe, and Beckett. His novel The Master of Petersburg (1995) is one of the finest studies of the Russian writer, maybe the only one that seems to operate from within Dostoyevsky’s consciousness. The imposture causes Coetzee little contortion because he shares Dostoyevsky’s impassioned concentration on essential questions and complications of being, if little of his wild humor. From Defoe, Coetzee may have learned that allegory need not operate in a misty forest of capitalized nouns, that a hard focus on material reality and concrete things simply named opens a sturdier doorway to absolutes. (One might also adduce Hemingway here, were Coetzee not so much less flamboyant in his reticence.) Actually he may not have had to look as far as books: Coetzee grew up in South Africa, a country which, under apartheid, might itself have been invented as allegory.
His novel Foe (1988) refracts Defoe’s most famous book, and its metaphysical gamesmanship is sparked by the insight that if Robinson Crusoe is the foundation of the English novel, then the form was launched under false colors, since Crusoe was published and initially received as a straightforward traveler’s tale. Fiction begins in forgery and approaches truth roundabout, through deception and misdirection.
Beckett’s influence is the deepest and comparatively covert. Though Beckett has not (yet?) been the subject of a novel, Coetzee’s encounter with his second novel, Watt, forms the climax of his oblique memoir (it is written in the third person) Youth (2003). That reading marked the birth of the writer: “How could he have imagined that he wanted to write in the manner of [Ford Madox] Ford when Beckett was around all the time?” Here he finds an author whose “pace fitted exactly to the pace of his own mind”—a confession that might seem a little scary to anyone who has read the wonderful Watt, since its style faithfully reflects the title character’s compulsion to trace every effect to its cause and work every possible permutation on a given set of elements, a pursuit that leads to madness.
But Watt is also very funny, “so funny that he rolls about laughing.” It is difficult to picture either the chilly youth of Youth or the smooth-faced, clear-eyed man of contemporary jacket photos, one corner of his mouth cocked in a grimace of impatience, in quite this position, but such is the force of revelation. And something in “rolls about laughing” points to a larger tendency in Coetzee’s work: within the realm of conflicted feeling that Coetzee is uniquely gifted in exploring, cliché may be employed but is always given a surprising turn. Outside that circumference, say, in the description of a man giddy in laughter, cliché is left to do the hauling on its own.
Beckett may indeed represent something of a synthesis of Coetzee’s other two major influences. Like Dostoyevsky, he relentlessly pursues essence through the convolutions of consciousness (with the “I” of the author ever appearing and receding) and possesses an ingrained sensitivity to the brute simplicity of human pain. Like Defoe filtered through Buster Keaton, Beckett is intent on things and processes, the development and dissolution of systems. Above all, he seems to have instilled in Coetzee a respect for the balanced weight of a sentence and a studied parsimony of word choice (tossed with an occasional ringer) in a greater economy of expression (his student work in linguistics was largely given over to analysis of language patterns in Beckett’s fiction).
Coetzee’s new novel, Slow Man (2005), is an anatomy of care—of the multiple uses and meanings of that single word. It begins, with typical concision, in extremis, at the moment of impact between auto and bicycle, which derails the steady and strictly patterned life of sixty-year-old photographic historian Paul Rayment. The vehicle’s driver is a young man named Wayne “Blight or Bright,” and in that confusion of names, allegory—always just a step away in Coetzee’s highly selective landscapes—intrudes pretty directly. Is the prime mover of Paul’s fall an agent of devastation or a bright messenger? In thrusting the detached Rayment1 back into his depleted body, does Wayne accelerate his descent into Yeats’s “wreck of body, / Slow decay of blood, / Testy delirium / Or dull decrepitude” or bear the challenge of Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo: “Change your life”? It’s the central question of the novel.
As a result of the accident, Paul loses his leg and, refusing prosthesis, is given over to the ministrations of the “caring professions” for the indefinite future. He dispatches his first attendant, Sheena, pretty quickly, repulsed by her euphemisms (e.g, “potty”) and the gross flirtations behind them. (“‘Now if he wants Sheena to wash his willie, he must ask very nicely,’ she says. ‘Otherwise he will think Sheena is one of those naughty girls. Those naughty, naughty girls.’ And she gives him a playful slap on the arm to show it is just a joke.”) But her replacement, Croatian émigré Marijana Jokíc proves more than adequate—in fact, her efficient and not unaffectionate ministrations soon lead him to muddle the meanings of care, to respond with initially hesitant but increasingly, helplessly, expansive feelings of love.
It will not, he knows, be an easy love, even under the best circumstances—Marijana is married, with three children. He has seen two of them and finds them perfect. His love extends to them in part because they seem to supply a ready solution to the barrenness (spiritual, yes, but mainly biological) he perceives in the geography of his life from the raised and perhaps terminal vantage of his accident. As his love grows too large for him, he awkwardly declares it—and Marijana fails to show up for work the next day, or the day after.
Enter, with a suddenness perhaps more blighted than brightening, Elizabeth Costello.
Some background on Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee’s frumpy White Goddess: She was introduced in 1997, when Coetzee accepted an invitation to deliver Princeton’s annual Tanner Lectures. He surprised his audience when he read not a lecture but a short story about an aging Australian novelist named Elizabeth Costello who accepts an invitation from the fictional Appleton College to deliver its annual Gates Lecture. Elizabeth surprises her audience by choosing as her topic nothing comfortably literary but rather animal rights, an area still widely regarded as the province of cranks. Her son is a professor at Appleton and their relations are somewhat strained (Elizabeth seems to have the proto-Coetzeean inner chill when it comes to interpersonal relations). They orbit each other with the wary affection of relations who find some difficulty putting their love into practice. Her daughter-in-law, on the other hand, is distinctly hostile. (Coetzee’s story-cum-Tanner Lecture was published in 1999 as a part of the University Center for Human Values Series put out by Princeton University Press. The Lives of Animals also includes responses from literary critic Marjorie Garber, religious scholar Wendy Doniger, primotologist Barbara Smuts, and Peter Singer, philosopher and leading advocate of animal rights.)
Elizabeth is unwell: Elizabeth is always unwell, will forever be unwell. Her arguments are somewhat muddled. We read all of her first lecture—occasionally interrupted by muttered asides from the daughter-in-law, “She is rambling. She has lost her thread”—and parts of her second, as well as a debate with a philosophy professor which fails to find common ground. This introduces the primary Costello frustration: the reader (or, at least, me) always wishes her arguments to be a little better than they are. One recognizes that they are often grounded in a resonant fictional context and also that their habitual foreshortening is a call for the reader to continue the debate in him/herself, while still wondering whether Dostoyevsky would have chosen quite so leaky a vessel in the exercise of what Bakhtin called his dialogic imagination.
Nonetheless, the first lecture introduces the primary Costello reward: moments of insight so sharp and surprising their very naïveté slips past the guard of our settled responses. Her initial talk, entitled “The Philosophers and the Animals,” is a variation on Coetzee’s central and inexhaustible theme: empathy, our abilities and refusals to feel the pain of others. What are the limits of empathy? Certainly if we were wholly to open ourselves to suffering it would be impossible to function in the daily world. That path leads to isolation and/or sainthood. Yet the issue of where those limits can securely be placed is unresolvable; its provisional resolutions make up the moral task of a lifetime. Coetzee’s work induces uncomfortable reminders of its necessity because the day-to-day workings of atrocity feed on our failures.
So Elizabeth makes the bold leap of comparing our treatment of animals to the Holocaust. Since the Holocaust has assumed an ultimate position in our culture—the atrocity to which no other can be compared, an event unavailable to history or moral instruction beyond the localized context of anti-Semitism—it’s at this point, very near the beginning of her lecture, that she loses a good part of her audience, both inside and outside the story. Yet her apprehension of those horrors can hardly be called unfeeling. In fact, it constitutes one of Coetzee’s most moving passages, the steady drumbeat of orator’s rhetoric rising to a conclusion of shattering simplicity:
The particular horror of the camps, the horror that convinces us that what went on there was a crime against humanity, is not that despite a humanity shared with their victims, the killers treated them like lice. That is too abstract. The horror is that the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims, as did everyone else. They said, “It is they in those cattle-cars rattling past.” They did not say, “How would it be if it were I in that cattle-car?” They did not say, “It is I who am in that cattle-car.” They said, “It must be the dead who are being burnt today, making the air stink and falling in ash on my cabbages.” They did not say, “How would it be if I were burning?” They did not say, “I am burning, I am falling in ash.”
Even some readers who sympathize with Costello’s/Coetzee’s attempt to return the Holocaust to history balk at its extension to the treatment of animals. But Coetzee’s strongest work always pushes beyond our comfort zones, and beyond even the discomforts of uneasy conclusions hard-won. Elizabeth might make the point that we easily extend our empathy to pets, discover rich reservoirs of compatible emotion in them, while blinding ourselves to the pain of animals raised for food or scientific testing. But she does not. And she pointedly refuses to detail the nightmarish conditions of “factory farming” (“reminding you only that the horrors I here omit are nevertheless at the center of this lecture”), perhaps because she feels that direct confrontation with slaughter leads to a false catharsis, that our empathy must be invoked more indirectly if the issues are to remain under the skin.
Instead, she moves to the death camps of Germany and Poland, and only after having shocked her audience to attention (or utterly alienated them from her point), returns to her main topic. She makes a weak argument that the nearly infinite expansive capacities of our empathy are clearly indicated by her power as a novelist to put herself into the mind of a figure who “never existed.” (Philosopher Singer shoots that one down pretty quickly.) She is on more solid ground when she sticks to cases. So she cites pioneering animal behaviorist Wolfgang Köhler and the ape he named Sultan, one of the subjects of his experiments, which are not particularly cruel, at least comparatively. Her rhetorical procedure is to invert the terms of the experiment: it becomes not a test of apes’ reasoning abilities but an animal’s education into the minds of humans.
For a few days, Sultan is regularly fed bananas. Then one day the bananas fail to arrive. When they return, they are suspended from a wire high above the ground. Sultan is also supplied with crates. He is a reasoning being:
Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one’s thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not need these crates anymore? But none of these is the right thought…. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?
Sultan drags the crates under the bananas, piles them one on top of the other, climbs the tower he has built, and pulls down the bananas. He thinks: Now will he stop punishing me?
The answer is: No.
Instead, the challenges become more elaborate, new difficulties are added to the equation, and Sultan realizes that very little of his inner life corresponds to what the man expects or wants from him. (“One is beginning to see how the man’s mind works.”)
The experiments are unending, their complexities increasing, the limits of their results inherent in their conception.
At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled toward lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus toward acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied. Although his entire history, from the time his mother was shot and he was captured, through his voyage in a cage to imprisonment on this island prison camp and the sadistic games that are played around food here, leads him to ask questions about the justice of the universe and the place of this penal colony in it, a carefully plotted psychological regimen conducts him away from ethics and metaphysics toward the humbler reaches of practical reason.
Are apes capable of metaphysic speculation—is there a bit of intellectual Disney standing behind this anthropomorphic ape? Elizabeth might respond that such experiments can’t decide the question, that they’re predicated on its denial (at least one of the contributors to The Lives of Animals—animal scientist Barbara Smuts, who lived among baboons—has no doubt of their advanced reasoning capacity, though she’s mum on whether this extends to metaphysics). But perhaps in choosing a higher primate, Elizabeth is making things a bit too easy on herself. Can she extend the same empathy to a creature more remote from human form—say, a bat? She’s willing to try:
To be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being. Bat-being in the first case, human-being in the second, maybe; but those are secondary considerations. To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.
And there is the crux of her argument. It does not finally rest on cognitive similarity but something more fundamental we share with animals. She has effectively flipped the arguments of Descartes and the behaviorists, who argue that animals are basically machinelike due to an inability to rationalize and anticipate. If that is so (she does not concede it is so), then by birthright animals possess a unity of being, toward which humans can reach only at epiphanic moments or as the result of prolonged spiritual effort. In denying this unity to animals, we deny also its possibility for ourselves and foreclose the possibility of being fully alive.
Having divided the audience into the baffled and the hostile, Elizabeth’s lectures cannot be called a success. There is a tense scene at a reception dinner and an eloquent note from a Jewish professor outraged by her Holocaust comparison. The reunion with her family is no better. She is temperamentally incapable of bridging the emotional divide, and her daughter-in-law speaks frankly to her husband on the subject of Elizabeth’s shortcomings as both a philosopher (“It’s the kind of easy, shallow relativism that impresses freshmen”) and a human being (“She has no self-insight at all”).
The story concludes with Elizabeth and her son on their way to the airport. In a final attempt to communicate something of herself, she confesses why she has become devoted to this particular cause.
“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.
“It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say, ‘Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.’ And then I go to the bathroom and the soap-wrapper says ‘Treblinka—100% human stearate.’ Am I dreaming, I say to myself? What kind of house is this?
“Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human-kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?”
She turns on him a tearful face. What does she want, he thinks? Does she want me to answer her question for her?
They are not yet on the expressway. He pulls the car over, switches off the engine, takes his mother in his arms. He inhales the smell of cold cream, of old flesh. “There, there,” he whispers in her ear. “There, there. It will soon be over.”
That’s the end, those brutal, loving, knowing and inadequate words of consolation. What will be over? The trip, of course, but also her life, the hard struggle of trying to discover how much of the pain of others we can integrate into ourselves and try, however quixotically, to rectify, how much we ignore at a cost of our own humanity. In all kindness, her son is wishing her a speedy death.
I have quoted from The Lives of Animals at such length because I think it’s a strange, powerful, and underappreciated story, and also to indicate something of the uses to which Coetzee puts Elizabeth Costello. The story is blunted somewhat by its inclusion in his following book, which bears her name as its title. (Elizabeth may not be a vessel which can bear much reuse.) There, in the context of pieces written for other occasions as well as some original material to round out its peculiar shape, Elizabeth loses her single-minded focus on animal rights and is thrust into a number of other debates, from the uncertain position of third-world novelists in the literary world to the ethics of evil in fiction, to the claims of erotic versus spiritual love. It is a frustrating and wonderful book, one largely greeted with incomprehension by U.S. reviewers, many of whom saw Elizabeth as a dishonest dodge and made the echt-American call that Coetzee should just take a stand and say what he means.
But if Elizabeth is intermittently and powerfully a character, she is always something else as well: a position from which to articulate difficulty. Critics who accused Coetzee of evasiveness amazingly failed to see that the book contains their complaint. We last see Elizabeth making fumbling attempts to secure a place in the afterlife by formulating, as exactly and honestly as she can, what she believes.
Since it seemed that Coetzee had pushed Elizabeth as far as (and maybe a bit further than) she could usefully go in Elizabeth Costello (2003), her introduction into Slow Man arouses considerable apprehension. Her ontological status in the novel is uncertain, as perhaps it would have to be since we left her postmortem. She simply turns up at Paul’s apartment. He has never met her but has a vague awareness that she enjoys some stature as a writer. She knows an awful lot about him, though—about his life and his accident, about his thoughts and romantic ambitions, even about the book that tells his story (she quotes descriptive passages we’ve already read on a couple occasions). Her goal in introducing herself and then moving in with him (a residency he accepts for a while, with surprisingly little complaint) is to push (“Push!”) him away from self-eating introspection toward action. She wants to make this a “real story,” not the pointless, meandering anecdote it threatens to become. She has not chosen Paul. Rather, he “came to [her],” and now she must follow his narrative to its end, an end she hopes to make suitably dramatic. “Live like a hero,” she urges. “That is what the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise what is life for?” Plainly some allegory of authorship is at work here (along with subsidiary parables of national identity, mortality, and integrity of being).
Paul, however, is stubbornly disinclined to be pushed. He recognizes his love as probably impossible, that he is not a desirable figure (indeed, Coetzee, who is sixty-five, seems to regard the age of sixty as the threshold to advanced decrepitude), but either can’t or is unwilling to alter the pace of his spasmodic and self-defeating courtship: lengthy brooding interspersed with sudden and unstrategic declarations. He sees that his pursuit of Marijana would, if successful, rupture a happy family, but consoles himself with the thought that a greater, unspecified happiness for everyone would eventually emerge.
The description of the accident and its immediate aftermath is a triumph of Coetzee’s unadorned emphases, subdued rhythmic variation, careful word weighing, and selective attentiveness to the physical world. A parenthetical description such as this, from the first page (“he hears rather than feels the impact of his skull on the bitumen, distant, wooden, like a mallet blow”) is an attractive example of both exact observation and skillful departure from an ordinary vocabulary. The word “bitumen” is one that well might occur to the somewhat pedantic Rayment, whose mind has become detached from time following the blow and is itself given to weighing verbal alternatives. (Immediately after the impact, as, in mid-arc, he plans his landing: “The unusual word limber or limbre is on the horizon, too.”)
Contrast this to the words of Elizabeth Costello. Though she tells us late in the book that she has deliberately kept her remarks to Paul light—“Not a curse, not a cross word, lots of jokes instead, and a leavening of Irish blarney”—what we actually hear from her (and we hear a lot from her) alternates among the clichéd (“Some people say that love makes us youthful again. Makes the heart beat faster. Makes the juices run. Puts a lilt in our voice and a spring in our walk”), the archly literary (“Struck by a lightning bolt of passion! And for an exotic maiden too! Material for a book in itself! How magnificent! How extravagant!”), and the astonishingly cruel (“Of course you can love whom you choose. But maybe from now on you should keep your love to yourself, as one keeps a head cold to oneself, or an attack of herpes, out of consideration for one’s neighbors”).
Are we to take Elizabeth’s belief that her remarks are funny (which is shared to some extent by Paul, who speaks of her “sharpening her wits on him”) at face value? Signs point to yes, because her comments have the form of wit without actually being witty.2 Actually, one suspects that Slow Man may be Coetzee’s curdled comedy. Neither Paul nor Elizabeth fail to discern the joke barely concealed in Marijana’s last name, and early on Elizabeth chides him to “put away that sad face. Losing a leg is not a tragedy. On the contrary, losing a leg is comic. Losing any part of the body that sticks out is comic. Otherwise we would not have so many jokes on the subject.” But although Paul’s romantic vision of an unlikely reconciliation in which all parties find their wishes fulfilled forms the basis of classical comedy, neither he nor perhaps Coetzee can find it in themselves to believe in comedy’s generous culminations. Paul is offered the materials—not quite for the scene he desires, but for a comparable one, in which he would have some place as a distant friend of the Jokíc family, and even his bicycle is restored as a low-slung model capable of operation by a unidexter. But Paul sees the role set out for him in narrower terms: local eccentric, a “figure of fun”; his pride allows no wider conception.
Elizabeth offers him another, more surprising resolution. She suggests that the two of them live together in a “companionate marriage,” one built not on passion but on loving care. It would be a union of agape rather than eros—Elizabeth’s mansion, like God’s, “has many rooms,” she tells us. It is surely one of the least inviting romantic overtures in all of literature—partly because Paul finds her physically repulsive, but mainly due to its conclusion. Having told Paul that so far she’s gone easy on him, what with her jokes and “blarney,” she levels a threat: if he fails to accept her offer she will really let loose and tell him exactly what sorry stuff he’s made of. “I will give you a day, Paul, twenty-four hours, to rethink. If you refuse, if you insist on holding to your present dilatory course, then I shall show you what I am capable of, I will show you how I can spit.”
A domestic life initiated under the auspice of Elizabeth’s savage spit seems an unpromising basis for loving union—wouldn’t that threat hang forever overhead? Unsurprisingly, the prospect fails to lure Paul. It could not have been otherwise. The use of Elizabeth, with her chronic ailments, as, in part, an author surrogate frequently threatens to topple into something uncomfortably like self-pity in Elizabeth Costello, but never, to my mind, quite falls over. The same can’t be said of Slow Man. Elizabeth’s decay becomes cloying: she is forever retreating from arguments with another attack of her “illness.” When Paul throws her out of his apartment midway through the book, she’s strangely driven to sleep under park benches, or so she claims, though she is not destitute and Paul offers to arrange travel back to her home. The Coetzee of Youth experiences himself as basically unlovable, and Elizabeth tells us that “somehow, in ways so obscure, so labyrinthine that the mind balks at exploring them, the need to be loved and the storytelling… are connected.” Is that what this book is about? A need for love the author tries, and naturally fails, to satisfy through his own creations?
On that metalevel, Slow Man is heartbreaking, but here as in no other of Coetzee’s novels, that level floats distinct from the rest of his narrative architecture. A book which seems to will itself toward comedy but always undercuts its efforts might be fascinating if there were a real struggle involved—that is, if Coetzee had any gift for humor. On suffering, survival, age, and isolation—matters of essence which cause many contemporary writers to run purple or retreat in irony—Coetzee’s touch is quick and sure, neither light nor heavy but understated with a precise gravity. Compared with this, it is of little importance that he dances in lead boots.
More than that of any contemporary writer I can think of, Coetzee’s body of work breathes necessity. As the citizen of a country which is itself devolving into ugly allegory, I might selfishly wish that he had devoted his energies to the moral morass in which we Americans find ourselves; the sickening knowledge that, to the extent to which we reflexively refer to “our” foreign policy and “we” against the rest of the world, we are complicit in torture. No one is better suited to address our daily reality: the steady corruption of civic values that makes us gradually accustomed to atrocity; the way our tragedy has been fixed on a single, deceptive meaning, which excuses any crime; the anticipation of monstrousness that breeds monstrousness. But Coetzee wrote that book in 1980 with Waiting for the Barbarians, and there’s no novel more pertinent to modern America. In the meantime, as the title of his 1999 collection of essays is perhaps meant to advise us, he has launched for yet stranger shores. I think he will find them. Even if he doesn’t, he has given us a collection of books that might help to remind us of something we should never have forgotten: that we are burning.