J. M. Coetzee. I am in awe of his work, even though its textures, angles and palettes are so different from my own creative matrix. In a very readable New Yorker review by James Wood of Coetzee’s new book Diary of a Bad Year, I found a few passages that are just too good to keep to myself.
Coetzee is interested in how we profess ideas, both in life and in novels. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually stable, the oaken pile of principle driven reassuringly deep into the ground. All the Presidential-campaign cant about “values” testifies to this; to flip-flop is to flop. But what if our ideas are, rather, as Virginia Woolf imagined consciousness: a constant flicker of different and self-cancelling perceptions, entertained for a moment and then exchanged for other ones?
My point of view exactly. I have never understood the high value placed on unrelenting (and unenlightening) consistency.
Unlike the philosopher, the novelist may take an idea beyond its rational terminus, to the point where the tracks start breaking up. One name of this tendency is the religious, the realm where faith replaces wisdom.
In the last entry of this novel [Diary of a Bad Year], “On Dostoevsky,” Senor C writes:
“I read again last night the fifth chapter of the second part of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, the chapter in which Ivan hands back his ticket of admission to the universe God has created, and found myself sobbing uncontrollably.”
It is not the force of Ivan’s reasoning, he says, that carries him along but “the accents of the anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world.” We can hear the same note of personal anguish in Coetzee’s fiction, even as that fiction insists that it is offering not a confession but only the staging of a confession. His books make all the right postmodern noises, but their energy lies in their besotted relationship to an older, Dostoyevskian tradition, in which we feel the desperate impress of the confessing author, however recessed and veiled.
Coetzee is SO Dostoyevskian, something I had not named until Wood stated it so clearly. And such a rarity for a writer at this point in our history.