Paul Rayment is on the threshold of a comfortable old age when a calamitous cycling accident results in the amputation of a leg. Humiliated, his body truncated, his life circumscribed, he turns away from his friends. He hires a nurse named Marijana, with whom he has a European childhood in common: hers in Croatia, his in France. Tactfully and efficiently she ministers to his needs. But his feelings for her, and for her handsome teenage son, are complicated by the sudden arrival on his doorstep of the celebrated Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello, who threatens to take over the direction of his life and the affairs of his heart. Unflinching in its vision of suffering and generous in its portrayal of the spirit of care, Slow Man is a masterful work of fiction by one of the world's greatest writers.
Now comes "Slow Man," visible Coetzee from the very first sentence - but this time I think I hear a banjo in the choir.
The slow man is Paul Rayment, 60 years old, a retired photographer and archivist, divorced and childless, living alone. The venue is Adelaide, Australia. He's out for a ride on his bicycle when he's struck by a car he doesn't see. "The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful, like a bolt of electricity, lifting him off the bicycle." He flies through the air, telling himself to relax, striking the pavement and commencing to skid. The skidding seems to go on forever, and when it's done he feels himself at peace, slack of body. He hears rather than feels his skull bounce on the pavement. He notices that the day is glorious: bright sun, benign temperature, a good time for a nap. When he awakens he finds his body no longer slack but thick, "ponderous." His first worry is his bicycle, since bicycles can be stolen; and then he faints. J. M. Coetzee's sentences are immaculate, and in a page and a half the scene, and some sense of what is to come, is set as firmly as a stake in the heart.
In an ambulance on the way to the hospital, Rayment is disoriented. What is happening to him? He hears voices and then, weirdly, the clack of a typewriter. This is his imagination at work, a message that seems to be written on the screen of his own inner eyelid. "E-R-T-Y, say the letters, then F-R-I-V-0-L, then a trembling, then E, then Q-W-E-R-T-Y, on and on." Gripped by panic, he is given a needle and awakens "in a cocoon of dead air." At the hospital, the news is not good. His knee is mangled and his leg must come off, though of course the surgeons will try to save as much of it as they can. If he were a younger man, they might attempt a reconstruction. But he is not a young man. He is 60, so what's the point?
The operation is successful, and Rayment must now endure the aftermath: the pain, the boredom, the washing, the catheter, the determined good cheer of the nurses, the surgeon's frank admiration of his own handiwork. This is not an admiration the patient can share; he did not give his consent. Before long a "difficult word" is added to his vocabulary: "prosthesis." With a prosthesis, he will be up and around in no time at all, perhaps even riding his bicycle again. He is told that wonderful progress has been made with prosthetic devices, really superb - and this news is unwelcome. Peevish, unsettled, appalled and in pain, Rayment wants no part of a prosthesis. Neither is he amused by his nurse's puzzlement - amazement, almost - at his family status. That is to say, he has no family. His parents are dead, his wife gone. He protests that he has friends, good close friends, but these do seem to be few in number. One comes to the hospital for a visit and later turns up at his apartment thinking about sex; and then she leaves and that is all we see of the friends.
Certainly Rayment will need rehabilitation, and that inspires yet another question. Would his insurance stretch to "frail care?" No, it would not. "Well then," the social worker says, "you'll have to budget for it, won't you?"
Rayment remains in the hospital for days, with plenty of time to reflect on the absence of his leg, and time also to search for the meaning of the imaginary typewriter and the truncated message. "Frivolous is not a bad word to sum him up, as he was before the event and may still be. If in the course of a lifetime he has done no significant harm, he has done no good either. He will leave no trace behind, not even an heir to carry on his name. Sliding through the world: that is how, in a bygone age, they used to designate lives like his: looking after his interests, quietly prospering, attracting no attention. If none is left who will pronounce judgment on such a life, if the Great Judge of All has given up judging and withdrawn to pare his nails, then he will pronounce it himself: A wasted chance." Rayment in a nutshell.
Home again at last, he engages a nurse skilled in "frail care." She is Marijana Jokic, a Croatian who learned her nursing skills in Germany. Rayment does not find her attractive, but she is very good with his leg stump, which he has taken to calling le jambon. Competence trumps beauty. Marijana is attentive when he wants her to be and absent when he wants to be alone. She does the shopping, the cooking, the washing, and when she smokes she is courteous enough to retreat to the balcony. But it is her care of le jambon and its "obscenely curtailed thigh muscles" that endears her to her patient, and soon enough Rayment has revised his estimate of her appearance: "more than not unattractive, she is on occasion a positively handsome woman, well built, sturdy, with nut-brown hair, dark eyes, a complexion olive rather than sallow; a woman who carries herself well, shoulders squared, breasts thrust forward. Prideful, he thinks."
So Paul Rayment, diminished in body, weak of spirit, disconsolate, worried by what he believes has been a wasted life, falls for his Croatian in a way that seems, in its opening moves, almost chaste. After all, she is a married woman. She has children. Rayment would not like to think of himself as a home-wrecker and so, after he is rebuffed, he conceives of unusual arrangements. The Jokic family could come live with him. He could live with them. He has money, anything is possible, including a kind of godfather status to Marijana's son, Drago.
But these events take place long after the advent of the ominous Elizabeth Costello, world-famous novelist and world-class pain in the neck - or if not world-class, at least seeded in the Southern Hemisphere. Still, she is not to be discounted: formidably intelligent, erudite and humorous. And so I am surely out of line when I think of her as a cross between Madame Blavatsky and Mrs. Portnoy. My sympathies lie with one-legged Paul.
Elizabeth Costello - she is the heroine of Coetzee's previous novel, "Elizabeth Costello," in which she seems to know everything about almost everything - has nominated herself to force Paul Rayment to take charge of his life, to act. She arrives at his apartment unbidden. They have never met. You came to me, she explains. "In certain respects I am not in command of what comes to me" - and this includes the very words Rayment used in describing his accident.
Elizabeth Costello is a great advice-giver: advice on conduct, children, language, apartment furnishings (Rayment's resembles "a Bavarian funeral parlor"), his relations with Marijana and the likely consequences if he declines to press the matter, and much else besides. Her justification for insinuating herself into Rayment's life: "I have been haunted by the idea of doing good." Rayment, for his part, thinks her a liar and fabulator and that she is in his life for one reason and one reason only. She wants him as a character for one of her wretched novels. But this seems not to be the case, and at last she lays her cards on the table:
"Do you think what I have said is the worst that can be said of you - that you are as slow as a tortoise and fastidious to a fault? There is much beyond that, believe me. What do we call it when someone knows the worst about us, the worst and most wounding, and does not come out with it but on the contrary suppresses it and continues to smile on us and make little jokes? We call it affection. Where else in the world, at this late stage, are you going to find affection, you ugly old man? Yes, I am familiar with that word too, ugly. We are both of us ugly, Paul, old and ugly. As much as ever would we like to hold in our arms the beauty of all the world. It never wanes in us, that yearning. But the beauty of the world does not want any of us. So we have to make do with less, a great deal less. In fact, we have to accept what is on offer or else go hungry. So when a kindly godmother offers to whisk us away from our dreary surroundings, from our hopeless, our pathetic, unrealizable dreams, we ought to think twice about spurning her."
Thus the ominous Elizabeth Costello's - I suppose the word would be "settlement." She gives Rayment 24 hours to decide whether to accept what's on offer.The answer is on the last page of the book.
I take this novel to be a scrutiny of disappointment and irresolution, a chicken-and-egg affair that does not yield satisfactory answers. Still, Coetzee's narrative is a bracing corrective to the blustering do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night. For Rayment, one chance after another has come and gone, some seized, most not. And when enough chances have come and gone, it can seem altogether wiser to maintain things as they are. Romantic leaps of faith are for the young. Rayment's heart is "in hiding." J. M. Coetzee has much to say about these matters and many others in "Slow Man" - beautifully composed, deeply thought, wonderfully written.
The book is superficially about a older man, Paul, who having been hit whilst cycling, has a leg amputated. During his recovery he develops a deep affection for (falls in love with?) his nurse.
It's at this point in the book that things take a turn for the weird with the abrupt arrival of Elizabeth Costello, a famed author. However it seems that EC has an unnatural insight into Paul's inner thoughts and experiences and indeed it seems that she's either gathering material on him for a new book, or that Paul may actually be in a book being written by her at this moment. However EC doesn't seem fully in control of the situation, as you might expect if this was the case.
I found the arrival of EC disorienting and unsettling. I was as confused about why she was there as Paul was. In fact this part of the book made me irritable, which is not an emotion I'm used to experiencing whilst reading!
I thought this was exploring the control that an author has over her characters, but also the control that the characters themselves exercise over the author, but then again I'm not so sure.
The tale wraps up some of the loose ends, but certainly not all of them.
I'm reliably informed that if I read Coetzee's 'Elizabeth Costello' her appearance in this book might make more sense. We shall see.
Overall, this book did keep me reading, and I enjoyed it despite what I've said.
Rayment is a bit of a turtle, ever cautious, and full of regret for not having had a son when he was younger. Growing old is painful both physically, as dramatically emphasized here in the loss of a limb, but also mentally – Rayment struggles to remain relevant, suffers humiliations, and realizes that he has lost his attractiveness to the opposite sex. Time has essentially passed him by, as it will pass all of us by.
With the appearance of Elizabeth Costello in Chapter 13, about one third of the way in, the book takes on a bit of mysterious tone. Who is this lady who seems to know so much of the amputee and his nurse, aside from an aging author who is suffering the effects of time herself? Why does she show up in Rayment’s life saying “you came to me”? Why is she homeless despite her success, and compelled to return to him?
I’ll give my opinion, but discontinue reading if you’re sensitive to a spoiler or want to form your own judgment first.
Put simply, I believe the other characters and the plot in the book are the inventions of author Elizabeth Costello. As Costello has invented Rayment’s amputation and wonders where to go with it, she also invents the tale of the immigrant Croatian family, the Jokic’s. She suffers writer’s block after conceiving the initial concept and cannot stop “visiting” these characters until they take action and the story is completed.
In a larger sense, the entire book could be considered the inner dialogue of Coetzee with himself. Coetzee the author is Costello; Coetzee the aging man is Rayment.
The book therefore takes on the tone of a dream within a dream. My initial reaction was one of disappointment for the character of Elizabeth Costello; I thought it was a bit obvious what was happening, and that her character did not add much to the story. I wondered if Coetzee had suffered writer’s block himself after conceiving the idea of Rayment and his bicycle accident, and then started injecting himself into the story in a character who several times prods Rayment along to take action. However as I reflect further, the idea grows on me.
Costello tells Rayment come with me, put aside your fears and enjoy life as best you can in your old age; forget these dreams of going backward, of getting a wife and a family after the fact, it’s not possible and a fool’s mission. Reconcile yourself to your age, come to terms with it, be at peace with the choices you’ve made.
What will Rayment do? I leave that to you to find out.
“Fate deals you a hand, and you play the hand you are dealt. You do not whine, you do not complain. That, he used to believe, was his philosophy. Why then can he not resist these plunges into darkness?
The answer is that he is running down. Never is he going to be his old self again. Never is he going to have his old resilience. Whatever inside him was given the task of mending the organism after it was so terribly assaulted, first on the road, then in the operating theatre, has grown too tired for the job, too over-burdened. And the same holds for the rest of the team, the heart, the lungs, the muscles, the brain. They did for him what they could as long as they could; now they want to rest.”
“Yet at the same moment memory throws up again the image of Marijana stretching to dust the top shelves, Marijana with her strong, shapely legs. If his love for Marijana is indeed pure, why did it wait to take up residence in his heart until the instant she flashed him her legs? Why does love, even such love as he claims to practice, need the spectacle of beauty to bring it to life?”
“Perfect: no other word will do. They arrive from the womb with everything new, everything in perfect order. Even in the ones who arrive damaged, with funny limbs or a brain that sends out sparks, each cell is as fresh, as clean, as new as on creation day. Each new birth a new miracle.”
On love, I truly believe this:
“Truth is not spoken in anger. Truth is spoken, if it ever comes to be spoken, in love. The gaze of love is not deluded. Love sees what is best in the beloved, even when what is best in the beloved finds it hard to emerge into the light.”
On old age:
“Everything in the world was, once upon a time, new. Even I was new. The hour I was born I was the latest, newest thing on the face of the earth. Then time got to work on me. As time will get to work on you. Time will eat you up, Drago. One day you will be sitting in your nice new house with your nice new wife, and your son will turn around to the pair of you and say, Why are you so old-fashioned? When that day arrives, I hope you will remember this conversation.”
“Except that soon enough regret will start creeping in. His days will be cast over with a grey monologue. By night he will wake with a start, gnashing his teeth and muttering to himself If only, if only! Memory will eat away at him like an acid, the memory of his pusillanimity. Ah, Marijana! he will grieve. If only I had not let my Marijana get away! A man of sorrow, a shadow of himself, that is what he will become. To his dying day.”
“Nothing dishonourable. What a funny old form of words! Are they not just a fig-leaf to cover something a great deal coarser, something unsayable: I haven’t been fucking your mother? If fucking is what it is all about, if fucking is what sends Miroslav Jokic into a jealous rage and brings his son to the edge of tears, why is he making speeches about honour? I haven’t been fucking your mother, I haven’t even solicited Marijana, if he does not aspire to fuck her, what in God’s name does he plan or aspire to do, in words that make sense to a youth born in the 1980’s?”
Marijana stops by daily to take care of all the things he can't do for himself. But as she works, he takes notice of her, finds out more about her family, her likes and dislikes, and finds himself quietly falling in love with her. But when he begins to waffle about telling her his feelings, a strange woman named Elizabeth Costello shows up announced on his doorstep. She tells him that she's a writer and that she's arrived to help Paul move things along. The problem is, he has no idea who she is or how she seems to know so much about his life and Marijana's. And try as he might to rid her from his life, she simply won't leave until he makes some kind of decision about his love for Marjiana.
Much of J.M. Coetzee's novel deals with growing older and with relationships. Does aging mean we are forced to rely on others to get by, to lose our sense of self? Paul, who was so accustomed to fending for himself, running errands on his own, biking all over Adelaide -- especially for a man of his age -- suddenly has his self-reliance taken away and struggles to deal with others meddling and poking around in his life. And as for love, does he really love Marijana? As Elizabeth points out, he hardly knows anything about her, about her family, where she came from, what kind of life she's lead. How can he base love on such little information?
The question that kept nagging at me, though, throughout the book focused on what is real. Elizabeth does seem to know quite a bit about Paul's life, and that of Marijana and her family, even the life of a woman he briefly met in an elevator at the hospital. Because of this and her ability to pop up when he needs to make a decision, Paul questions whether or not he's living his own life or is a character in one of her stories. Reading through, I questioned that myself and after finishing the book, I still can't give a definitive answer.
But that adds to the effectiveness of "Slow Man". Elizabeth's aim is to get Paul to make a decision, to take an active role in his life now that he's older and missing a leg, rather than standing by while everyone does everything for him. Whether or not he's a character in one of her books, he still must decide for himself.
As the reader meets the other characters (Marijana, Marianna, Drago, and the bold Elizabeth Costello) she is treated to a literary puzzle about love, loss and mortality. Coetzee engages the reader with sharp dialogue and an edgy wit. He plays with the meaning of words and names - which had me re-reading passages and marking pages for later contemplation.
Slow Man is a demanding novel despite it's brevity. At times it is difficult to know which character and whose story can be trusted.
I cannot say more about this novel without giving away important plot points - and so, I will simply recommend that readers read Coetzee's book for themselves.
If you enjoy deep character driven stories, you may be attracted to Slow Man. If you’re looking for action, forget it. If you just go with the story and accept it a face value, it will come across as a four star read. If you like reality clearly defined, even in the context of a novel, you will be lost and maybe give it two stars.
Sixty plus year old retired photographer Paul is divorced, and is not a man without needs, the need for love and sexual fulfilment. He falls for one of his nurses, Croatian born Marijana Kokic, a robust and capable woman who comes across, perhaps as much because English is not her first language, as a little abrupt, yet very thorough and caring. Paul also becomes involved with Marijana's entire family, and especially Mariajna's sixteen year old son Drago, handsome, confident, charming and polite.
The elderly novelist Elizabeth Costello makes a sudden appearance as if from nowhere and imposes herself upon Paul, and she then becomes a constant feature for the duration, acting it seems as Paul's conscience (for a short while one wonders if she is real or if she exists only in Paul's mind). What is her motive, she appears to be very knowledgeable about Paul and the Kokics, but is her interest purely altruistic? Paul's relationship with Elizabeth wavers from loathing to tolerance, and maybe more.
This is a most endearing story; it is easy to see how Paul becomes infatuated with Marijana, who is fazed by none of the very personal and intimate care she has to provide. Paul's relationship with young Drago is touching; he clearly cares very much for the boy and is prepared to demonstrate that in generous practical ways. This is an interesting and unpredictable story, with a gratifying surprise towards the end.
About a third of the way into this novel, the author introduces another character, Elizabeth. Her appearance is so unexpected, and so unlikely, that I started to wonder if I was reading science fiction. No lie. In the end, I suppose I'll settle for calling it magical realism, which is not my favorite genre (or style or whatever), and which definitely doesn't fit the first 100 pages, which deal with the immediate aftermath of the accident and amputation.
My skepticism aside, there are some extremely quotable bits, among them:
* He has -- what? A flat full of books and furniture. A collection of photographs, images of the dead, which after his own death will gather dust in the basement of a library along with other minor bequests more trouble to the cataloguers than they are worth.
* I can pass among Australians. I cannot pass among the French. That, as far as I am concerned, is all there is to it, to the national-identity business: where one passes and where one does not.
* Of course you may 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 neighbours.
* Become major, Paul. Live like a hero. This is what the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise what is life for?
P.S. I remembered why I added this to my queue... I liked Out Stealing Horses so much that I wanted to see what other books were shortlisted the same year it won the IMPAC award. So far, I think the judges made the right call.
The portrayal of Paul Rayment evokes poignancy and pathos and presents Coetzee as a writer of extraordinary senstivity and gift of vocabular. The characters are memorable and well formed. The interactions amongst them is quite interesting to read. The only trouble is that the story didin't seem to be heading for a resolution. And this is where the real talent of Coetzee surfaces. A the hands of a lesser writer,the story of Paul Rayment might have gotten shelved. But Coetzee introduces the Character of Elizabeth Costello,the "Writer". All her attempts to develop action in the story fall flat and ultimately Paul bids her goodbye as they fail to find a resolution to their story.
There are two strands woven together in the novel:the description of Pauls predicant and the trials and travails of the process of writing. Both strands are interesting in their own right but somehow do not merge together. Still I would recommend this book for the beauty of characterisation in the first strand and faintly amusing power struggle between the 'Writer" and her character. :)
Coetzee, an accomplished author relates the trials and tribulations of one Paul Rayment who loses his leg in a bicycle accident. Being an avid cyclist myself I can certainly relate to the trauma it would inflict psychologically. But the book's main theme seems to be about ageing and dependency. And how we all live our lives probably wondering in the end, did we do it right and what might we have missed or squandered?
I wasn't wild about this book. Coetzee was obviously trying to be very clever with the author character and her ability to mess with the narrative structure, but largely the characters were difficult to connect with, and the story seemed to go nowhere. I've no problem with a largely plotless book, but if I don't have plot I have to pull the characters into my heart and that just didn't happen here.
3 stars - clever: no doubt. Loveable: no.
In this new book, Coetzee offers a profound meditation on what makes us human, on what it means to grow older and reflect on how we have lived our lives. Like all great works of literature, Slow Man is a novel that asks questions but rarely provides answers; it is a portrait of a man in search of truth. Paul Rayment’s accident changes his perspective on life, and as a result, he begins to address the kinds of universal concerns that define us all: What does it mean to do good? What in our lives is ultimately meaningful? Is it more important for one to feel loved or cared for? How do we define the place that we call “home”? In his clear and uncompromising voice, Coetzee struggles with these issues, and the result is a deeply moving story about love and mortality that dazzles the reader on every page.
At this point, a little more than a third of the way through the novel, Elizabeth Costello rings his doorbell. Costello is a novelist; her name is familiar from earlier books by Coetzee, she is the author of a celebrated Joycean novel 'The House on Eccles Street', though she now seems older, more frail and more troubled than her predecessors. It is immediately apparent, in a paralleled fiction and metafiction, that Rayment is the protagonist in a novel that she is trying to write. (Costello introduces herself to Rayment with a reprise of the opening paragraph of Slow Man: the impact of the collision ‘like a bolt of electricity’ and Rayment’s injunction to himself as he flies through the air, ‘Relax’.) They become unwilling companions, bound together in a dialogue of mutual recrimination and disappointment. Costello wants Rayment to live his life as if he were a character in a novel. Their novel is not going well. Rayment responds that he is not interesting. He insists that he is not ‘novel material’ but human dross, ‘too pale, too cold, too frightened’. Or, even worse, that he is her puppet and it is beyond her declining powers as a novelist to make him interesting. There is a point at which he thinks that perhaps he is her punishment, ‘brought down to blight the last days of her life’, saddled with ‘a one-legged man who cannot make up his mind’. Blighted it seems, both of them.
To be fair, Costello does try to make something of this unpromising human material. She organises a sexual encounter for Rayment with a blind woman which leaves both of them baffled and disappointed. She proposes a companionate marriage for herself and Paul. She tells him to sell up and live together with her in Carlton, in Melbourne: ‘Give it a whirl’. Adelaide, she says, ‘is too much like a graveyard’. But Paul refuses life with Elizabeth, though not without a saving grace of tender formality, and there the novel ends.
As I look over 'Slow Man' again, wondering what to make of it, it occurs to me that it is a work of comedic schadenfreude. Readers with a taste for that sort of thing might take a perverse pleasure in the spectacle of Paul Rayment’s invariable bent in choosing to be dull and miserable. When Drago and his father build a splendid arm-propelled three-wheeler to replace his ruined bicycle he manages to express his gratitude for their generosity but knows in his heart that he will never take it on the road. It is another unwanted prosthesis and it will gather dust in storage. I remember a ludicrous cartoon figure in mid 20th century magazines called The Sad Sack, whose ineptitude and misfortunes gave his readers a weekly dose of schadenfreude. Rayment is a Sad Sack, whose misanthropy and abnegation provide, at best, a sour diet of entertainment.
The city of Adelaide, Coetzee’s adopted hometown, is blighted with the same dyspeptic vision. Elizabeth Costello describes it as a graveyard. Paul Rayment, contemplating the prospect of perambulating in Drago’s three wheeler, tells her that perhaps he ought instead to buy himself an antique bath chair. ‘Adelaide is just the place for a bath chair’.
Whatever his motives, his new, post-2002 work does not appear to live up to the work which formed the basis for his Nobel Prize. Replacing the commitment to South Africa's political struggle for animal activism in Elisabeth Costello seems a weak gesture, and Slow man is a bland, totally uninspiring story, far removed from his earlier triumphs.
The story is exceedingly simple, and one wonders why it was spun out to 260+ pages. There is nothing of particular interest, or endearing quality. In fact, much of it is very banal. Very disappointing.