A member on this list is completing a book on Gurnah. I have been privileged to read three of his draft chapters.
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"gurnah is worth reading. but he certainly did not mark the world of african literature as did ngugi."
Agreed. Many of these awards are political and shouldn't be taken seriously.
This is not to dismiss Gurnah's literary might, however.
All sources of validation have to be taken seriously as they have serious consequences. Rather, perhaps, we can argue that:
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It’s unlikely that last year the prize went to Abdul Razak Gurnah of Swahili Tanzania and that in the following year the prize will go to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o of Kikuyu Kenya - and maybe the year after that the prize which is worth approximately $1,135,384 in hard cash ( a great incentive for poverty-stricken authors ) will go to another one of Yoruba Nigeria heritage, and in 2024, if this whole world is still spinning round and hasn't been blown to smithereens, the prize will go to another English-speaking & writing nation such as Fanti Ghana - in sum total four African countries, one after the other - just to highlight the dominance of the old colonial language that has so colonised the writers’ brains and polluted their minds.
The French would be the first to protest if that were to happen. They would vehemently denounce The Swedish Academy as a wanton bunch of Anglophilic lackeys. The French, probably followed by the Germans, or the Germans first, followed by the French, the Spanish, the most numerically Chinese, the Portuguese - and then we would have the Muslim world sphere led by the most eloquent Arabs, the Turks and the Persians, of course, claiming that they excel all others. Of course, the French and Germans would not protest if the Nobel Prize in Literature went to them for four consecutive years running...
About the chronic Anglophilia, I was wondering, what would be the point, what would he be trying to prove, and why else would a Yoruba laureate above all want to be appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford? Because there are no suitably qualified English laureates to man such a position?
Sabr! We don’t have to wait that long to know who is going to bag it this time round.The most prestigious literary prize, The Nobel Prize in Literature 2022 will be announced on Thursday 6 October, 13:00 ( Stockholm, Sweden time)
AN ALPHABET OF TREES
Autobiography – The uses of impersonality
Her books teach nothing, preach nothing; they merely spell out, as clearly as they can, how people lived in a certain time and place . . . they spell out how one person lived, one among billions: the person whom she, to herself, calls she, and whom others call Elizabeth Costello.1
IF WE THINK of Coetzee as a cerebral writer, a weaver of clever palimpsests, then the ordinariness of his fictions’ beginnings will come as a surprise. Typically, the novels begin personally and circumstantially, before being worked into fiction. The Coetzee who emerges from his papers turns out to be a little more like the rest of us: more human or, at least, less Olympian, though only up to a point, because the question remains: if he started here, how on earth did he get there?
My subtitle, Face to Face with Time, is taken from a draft of Life & Times of Michael K, the novel for which Coetzee won his first Booker Prize in 1983.2 The relevant passage sees K escaping from his captors by retreating into the Swartberg mountain range where he muses,
I have retreated and retreated and retreated, till I am on the highest mountaintop and there is nowhere more to go save up into the heavens. Now I am face to face at last with time: everything else is behind me, only the huge block of the day is before me everyday when I wake, and will not go away. Now there is nothing for me to do but live, through time, like an ant boring its way through a rock.3
There is much here that is suggestive of Coetzee’s authorship: the inwardness and isolation of the voice; the sense of being embattled; the desire for meaning, even when it is thwarted. The ant boring its way through rock is a good metaphor for all of Coetzee’s writing.
‘Face to face with time’ conveys the way Coetzee puts fiction between himself and history, between himself and his mortality. It does this in highly self-conscious ways, with the result that Coetzee criticism is filled with commentary on the novels’ metafictional qualities – the writing about writing. The most trenchant of the purposes of Coetzee’s metafiction, however, is that it is the means whereby he challenges himself with sharply existential questions, such as, Is there room for me, and my history, in this book? If not, what am I doing? The book must in some sense answer to the mystery of its author’s being. Coetzee’s writing is a huge existential enterprise, grounded in fictionalized autobiography. In this enterprise the texts marked as autobiography are continuous with those marked as fiction – only the degree of fictionalization varies.
Each text in the trilogy of Coetzee’s autobiographies, Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009), is subtitled Scenes from Provincial Life. The omnibus edition containing all three of these texts has this as its main title. It goes a long way towards explaining the existential emphasis.
Writing about C.P. Cavafy, the Greek poet from Alexandria who is one of the many poets Coetzee has followed, Orhan Pamuk remarks, ‘For those who lead a provincial life, life and happiness are always to be found elsewhere, in another city, in another country’ – a place ‘perpetually out of reach’.4 In Coetzee, the condition Pamuk describes involves perpetual anxiety, too, the source of which would be related to the fact that for the thirty years that Coetzee lived and wrote in Cape Town, he did so without being comfortably settled. He was forced to return to South Africa from self-imposed exile in 1971 and never fully got over it until he left for Australia in 2002. The result, which is equally an expression of Coetzee’s temperament, was a fear of living inauthentically, a brutal honesty about facing up to the conditions of one’s existence.
The other side to this story is an equally strong desire for self-masking. Coetzee is always deliberately present and not present in his work. The desire for self-actualization is a function of needing to bear witness to one’s existence in a situation in which one is in danger of culturally disappearing; but the culture in whose terms one wants to be recognized also regards such acts of self-testimony as crude, gauche. The solution is to vacillate: knowing that one can’t simply return, and embrace with conviction the fate of being provincial (as Cavafy did, in living out most of his life in Alexandria), one has to remind the dominant culture that its representations are representations. Self-consciousness about language is often related to the problem of not-belonging.
Two of Coetzee’s most powerful forebears are T.S. Eliot and Roland Barthes. These mentors arrived in Coetzee’s developing artistic universe at different times, though at the right time in each case, and in the right order. The cumulative effect was to confirm, and provide a language for, Coetzee’s preference for impersonality. But the important point is that, for all three, impersonality is not what it seems. It is not a simple repudiation of self in the name of art; on the contrary, it involves an instantiation of self, followed by an erasure that leaves traces of the self behind.
It is important to grasp this if we are to follow the creative paths left by such writers in their papers. Despite all the taboos, we continue to read biographically, not in order to limit the truth of the work to its biographical sources, but in order to understand how the self is written into the work and then written out, leaving its imprint as a shadowy presence. As Pamuk puts it beautifully in the same essay on Cavafy: ‘Great poets can tell their own stories without once saying “I”, and in doing so, lend their voice to all of humanity.’5
To continue with Coetzee’s autobiographical writing: in June 1993, with seven of his novels behind him, Coetzee returned to the manuscripts of Boyhood, which he had started writing in 1987 and then suspended. Why he stopped would probably have had to do with other projects that were in play at the time, Age of Iron and Doubling the Point. It is also clear from the early manuscripts that he had not yet resolved the formal questions he was wrestling with.
Looking back on the years of his childhood spent in rural Worcester that he was about to describe, he wrote in his notebook: ‘Deformation. My life as deformed, year after year, by South Africa. Emblem: the deformed trees on the golf links in Simonstown.’6 He was referring to the pines on the Simonstown golf course in Cape Town. These are alien trees that have been exposed to the south-easterly wind blowing perpetually from the southern Atlantic Ocean. Planted to mark the fairways and give shade, they have assumed contorted shapes, as if in mockery of the club’s wistful founders. Simonstown’s pines are certainly gloomy emblems to choose for the effects of place and history on one’s character, but in the writing of his memoirs Coetzee would find affirmation, too, in being a child of South Africa.
The context was a private argument that he was conducting with Barthes, and in his notebook he wonders how he will navigate around Barthes’s influence. In his autobiography, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, Coetzee says, Barthes is a father figure who not only wrote the kind of autobiography he, Coetzee, now wishes to write, but who also stands in his way. Worse, Coetzee worries that Barthes would have ‘no interest in recognizing a rude colonial offspring’. Despite the misgivings, Coetzee feels that he has a trump card to play over Barthes: ‘something different and welcome’ – ‘a solidity to my concerns, a world-relevance’.7 The Simonstown trees, symbols of malformation though they are, are also emblems of distinction, of a feeling for history in extremis, of a life arguably less sheltered than Barthes’s was from the prevailing winds of the modern world-system.
‘Emblem: the deformed trees on the golf links in Simonstown.’
Barthes, too, used images of trees to mark his autobiographical passage. The first part of Roland Barthes includes photographs of his childhood printed alongside reflective and self-quizzical captions. Then, as the text takes over from the photographs, in a section headed ‘Towards Writing’, Barthes includes a photograph of palm trees and a poem by Heinrich Heine. In the poem, the speaker is standing near a hemlock tree in a frozen northern climate, but daydreams about ‘a palm tree/ That far in an eastern land/ Languishes lonely and silent/ Upon the parching sand’.8
Barthes is implying that as his writing takes over from the photographs – a new beginning marked by the inclusion of Heine’s poem – the self is more obviously refashioned and transformed: it becomes the product of a desire that flows with the energies of the writing. Barthes glosses the poem as follows: ‘According to the Greeks, trees are alphabets. Of all the tree letters, the palm is loveliest. And of writing, profuse and distinct as the burst of its fronds, it possesses the major effect: falling back.’ The falling back of the palm frond is Barthes’s way of drawing attention to writing’s ability to unfold luxuriously, and also to double back and reflect upon itself.
All of this would have been agreeable to Coetzee. Like Barthes, he would believe that what is written as autobiography is only the ‘figurations of the body’s prehistory – of that body making its way toward the labor and the pleasure of writing’. The period covered by the narrative of autobiography, Barthes continues, ‘ends with the subject’s youth: the only [auto]biography is of an unproductive life’.9 This would accord with Coetzee’s choosing to end his autobiographical trilogy just at the moment when he begins to publish his fiction: the last of the trilogy, Summertime, is organized around the publication of Dusklands (1974). Thereafter, Coetzee’s autobiography is the fiction itself.
Famously, in ‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes wrote of literature’s ability to invent a ‘special voice’ that consists of ‘several indiscernible voices’, voices to which ‘we cannot assign a specific origin’. The voice of the words on a literary page is ‘the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes’.10 Barthes’s example is Balzac, but he writes about Mallarmé in the same vein. He might also have been writing about Flaubert, who with more than a hint of intellectual bullying chided his lover, Louise Colet, on her enthusiasm for L’Éducation sentimentale by saying, ‘What I’d like to do is a book about nothing, a book with no external attachment, one which would hold together by the internal strength of its style, as the earth floats in the air unsupported.’11 What in Flaubert is a style so distinctive that it floats free of all attachments becomes in Barthes a play of ‘indiscernible voices’ to which we cannot assign an origin.
What looks like a mid-twentieth-century anti-bourgeois polemic in Barthes’s ‘The Death of the Author’ was therefore already a late-nineteenth-century anti-bourgeois manifesto in Flaubert, who in the same letter to Louise Colet writes, ‘There are no beautiful or sordid subjects and one could almost establish it as an axiom that, from the point of view of pure Art, there is no such thing as a subject, style being solely itself an absolute way of seeing things.’12 Art for art’s sake was Flaubert’s solution to an embarrassing problem: the perfection of style provided the licence that he needed to work with a subject, adultery, which he had already judged to be sordid and mundane.
Barthes’s polemic was in a longstanding tradition of French modernism. Aimed at the idea of dismantling the author as a cultural institution, his essay should not be confused with what he had to say about the psychic and existential demands of authorship itself. In The Preparation of the Novel, the posthumously edited collection of notes for seminars he gave at the Collège de France, he says that writing is a compulsion – the result of an interruption in the normal course of a life. To illustrate the point he quotes the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno: ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’ (‘In the middle of the journey of our life’).13
A bereavement would do the trick, as it did for Proust, who lost his mother, and for whom writing then became a matter of the ‘use of Time before death’ (Barthes’s emphasis). The monument to Proust’s desire to write was, precisely, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).14 In Barthes’s own case, he recalls exactly the date on which he decided to begin writing: 15 April 1978, in Casablanca. (It is surely his resolve, unfulfilled, to write fiction, since he had written so much else by then.) For Coetzee, the critical date came on 1 January 1970. In Coetzee, bereavements would also play their part. Once the novel is under way, continues Barthes, then its own priorities soon take over. He writes, ‘In reality, it’s not memory that creates [the novel] but its deformation’ (his emphasis).15 The triggers for Coetzee are similar to those described by Barthes. In his notes for The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee writes, ‘A story is like a road. What do we hope to find at the end of the road? Oneself. One’s death.’16
In one of the interviews in Doubling the Point, Coetzee famously says, ‘all writing is autobiography’ and ‘all autobiography is storytelling’.17 These aphorisms are now much quoted as general truths. While critics have applied them in discussions of Boyhood, Youth and Summertime, with their third-person treatments of the autobiographical persona, they have not been much discussed in relation to Coetzee’s fiction.
Coetzee himself tells us in these aphorisms that the self is always present, but as narrative rather than as raw truth. If we are to understand the equation created here between what is revealed and what is hidden – that is, if we are to understand Coetzee’s creative processes – first we need to see the self inside the fiction, and then we need to see how, in telling the story, Coetzee reaches for the aesthetic and achieves something larger and more representative.
A law of diminishing returns is also operative here, of course: the more rigorous and resourceful the ars poetica, the more elusive the self is likely to prove. The difficulty in our generally failing to grasp this has been Coetzee’s famed impersonality, which is a distinguishing feature of his authorial signature. He disappears behind those masks. Many readers feel rightly that the disappearances are a game, that he is deliberately both there and not there at the same time. The several ‘Coetzees’ of Dusklands, the ‘JC’ and ‘Señor C’ of Diary of a Bad Year, ‘John’ of the autobiographies, ‘John’ in the stories in Elizabeth Costello, are all, in some measure, Coetzee himself, but because they appear in fictional or partly fictionalized works, we are inclined to distrust them as tokens of identity.
Even the authorial name, formalized and depersonalized by the initials ‘J.M.’ in place of ‘John’, makes us think twice about ascribing the same signature to the living author. His Nobel Lecture, ‘He and His Man’, which is based on Robinson Crusoe, addresses this question in terms of an allegory of the relationships between authors and their creations.
As a younger man Coetzee had cultivated this self-masking through an affinity with his modernist forebears, although he has always insisted that there is more to impersonality than it seems. He said of Eliot, ‘for a poet who had such success, in his heyday, in importing the yardstick of impersonality into criticism, Eliot’s poetry is astonishingly personal, not to say autobiographical’.18
Eliot’s most famous statement on the subject is this: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’ The less frequently quoted corollary, in the same essay, is just as important: ‘But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.’19 When these two statements are put together, this is what they add up to: in Eliot’s own words, ‘What happens [to the poet] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’20
This was congenial to Coetzee. In a lecture given in 1974 at the University of Cape Town, he quotes one of Eliot’s letters to the effect that ‘the creation of a work of art is a painful and unpleasant business; it is a sacrifice of the man to the work, it is a kind of death’.21
Impersonality is not an a priori quality inherent in a work of art, nor is it simply a function of the aesthetic. It is an achievement, an effect of labour in which the self is partially but not wholly buried beneath the superstructure. It is an effect that was sought after and prized in modernism of an erudite kind, with Coetzee’s forebears T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound leading the way.
Coetzee was drawn initially to Eliot’s version of impersonality not only because it suited his personality, but also for cultural reasons. Later, his training in linguistics enabled him to bring a certain academic detachment to his search for an entrée into fiction. From the linguistics of the period when he was a graduate student, the late 1960s, when American structuralism was giving way to transformational grammar, he derived the broad idea that we have limited power over the cultural systems we inhabit, that language speaks through us. That view was reinforced in the 1970s and 1980s by the post-structuralism of Barthes and of Jacques Derrida and others whom Coetzee followed, and with whom he was often in ideological sympathy.
A passage in the drafts of Youth is especially revealing because it points to ways in which Coetzee’s adoption of impersonality contributed to his deliberations when weighing up a vocation in poetry as against the novel.
There are certain dicta in T.S. Eliot that he clings to because they are all there is to prove that he is still a poet. Poetry is an extinction of personality. Only people who . . . [sic]. He has a horror of spilling emotion on to the page. Once it has begun to spill he will not know how to contain it. It will be like cutting an artery and watching his lifeblood pulse out on to the floor.
Yet the driplets of feeling that emerge are so weak, so colourless, that he knows he will never find his salvation in the medium. He will have to turn to prose. He has never written prose, but he sees it as a more tranquil medium, each page a virtual lake on whose surface he can tack about unhurried, finding his way, where there will be space, lots of space, but no storms, no high waves.22
Like Eliot, Coetzee finds impersonality convenient, but the difference is that while Coetzee inherits it from Eliot like furniture from an ancestral home, he has too much appreciation for the volatility of psychology, and the sheer capriciousness of language, to take it too seriously. It is, in part, a game. He is also, like Eliot, just as interested in irony, and irony’s ability to pull the rug from under one’s feet, although even this is a position in which he does not invest too deeply.
I suspect that Coetzee would prefer to think of himself as a writer of dark, ironic comedy, rather than, say, as a diagnostician of the postcolonial condition. His comedy can, at times, be very dark indeed, unbearably so. The reason for this has everything to do with the quality that he once thought gave him the edge over Barthes: the history that he has lived through, the history that has marked him – the ‘world-relevance’. Those trees on the golf course in Simonstown.