"J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a bad year is about loneliness, friendship and the possibility of love. It takes the reader from Australian democracy to Guantanamo Bay, from the meaning of dishonour to the creative truth of dreams. Written in a wholly innovative form for three simultaneous voices; enthralling, unexpected and deeply moving; Diary of a bad year may be the most original work of fiction to appear this year." -- Publisher.
But that is not my principal objection to this book. Its crucial problem, to my mind, is the quality of the disquisitions that the narrator permits himself. As the other reviews point out, the narrator goes on at length about his opinions. In the logic of the novel, those opinions are being prepared for publication, so that is their immediate excuse for being in the novel. And Coetzee himself criticizes his own opinions, both in the voice of the principal female character and in the voice of that character's partner. At one point, he even uses his own voice -- the voice of the person who writes the opinions -- to criticize the opinions. But none of those criticisms is enough.
The problem with many of the opinions is not that they are harsh and inhuman (as the female character says), or that they are ineffective (as the male character says). It is that they are ill-informed and ill-argued. Coetzee is just not as interesting a thinker as, say, Musil, or Rochefoucauld, or Chamfort, or Lichtenberg, or Badelaire, or Brecht, or Broch, or any number of others. His opinions, mostly, are not interesting. And they are frequently ill-informed. Coetzee needs to read more about numbers and statistics (one of his topics), and more about theories of capitalism and democracy. He comes across as the kind of person who writes in to a newspaper of magazine, and doesn't know the subject as well as he should. I am not criticizing his ideas because they are radical: I am criticizing them because they are not radical enough. In "Disgrace," he had one absolutely stunning idea -- that animals could be as important as people, or more important. Here there are few such interesting ideas.
For me this is exemplified by a passage on page 203, where the narrator, in the course of writing one of his "opinions," one titled "On having thoughts," says: "But do I really qualify as a thinker at all, someone who has what can properly be called thoughts, about politics or about anything else?" And he answers: "I have never been easy with abstractions or good at abstract thought." Let me suggest that Coetzee is fooling himself here. The shortcomings of his "opinions" are not related to a skill at abstract thinking: that's a red herring. His "opinions" are limited by what he knows, and by a lack of original thinking. "Elizabeth Costello" was translarently a mouthpiece for Coetzee's opinions, and it was the kind of book that someone who is not feted, who is not a Nobel laureate, would not have been allowed to write; his editor would have stopped him, and said something like this:
"Coetzee, you need to realize that your characters' opinions need to be allowed to become truly monomaniacal, really nuts, dangerously obsessive, intentionally boring -- otherwise they will appear to be what they really are, the very serious opinions of the author, whose only thought is to broadcast them to the world. It is your lack of understanding of the uninteresting nature of those opinions -- bolstered, I know, by the many people who continuously take them seriously, and praise you for them -- that makes them intractable as materials for a fully imagined fictional setting. A reader knows that they are not under your control: you think of them too highly, too primly, to seriously. Let them risk dying a natural death: put them at the mercy of the fiction, not the other way around."
I do not know if I will read another Coetzee novel.
Although the essays are interesting & scathing critiques of the west, literature and the establishment, among others, the real story lies in the tension between the young couple and the self aware author. Interesting relationship story.
We may not want aging writers to turn their attention to their own decline, physical as well as artistic - but how can we expect anything less? Why should it surprise us that this becomes a primary concern? Coetzee is no different than say, Roth, in this respect. Sure, he goes about it in quite his own unique way, but still…
It’s clear that J. M.Coetzee has - not only with Slow Man, but now with Diary of a Bad Year - addressed the question of his future as a novelist on a number of levels.
In 13.On the writing life (as Senor C), he quotes the critics
At heart he is not a novelist after all…but a pedant who dabbles in fiction. And I have reached a stage in my life when I begin to wonder whether they are not right - whether, all the time I thought I was going about in disguise, I was in fact naked.
Senor C marvels at the “flight of the soul” that marks the best of a writer like Gabriel Garcia Marquez - and admits to himself that he was never that kind of writer anyway.
I was never much good at evocation of the real, and have even less stomach for the task now. The truth is, I have never taken much pleasure in the visible world, don’t feel with much conviction the urge to recreate it in words.
An astonishing admission for a writer. But take this quote out of context and say it belonged to one of the premier writers of the 20th Century. You may very well guess his name was J. M. Coetzee. JMC’s writing has always tended toward the minimalist. Now even more so.
Growing detachment from the world is of course the experience of many writers as they grow older, grow cooler or colder. The texture of their prose becomes thinner, their treatment of character and action more schematic. The syndrome is usually ascribed to a waning of creative power; it is no doubt connected with the attenuation of physical powers, above all the power of desire. Yet from the inside the same development may bear a quite different interpolation: as a liberation, a clearing of the mind to take on more important tasks.
Left unsaid, is that this “attenuation of…the power of desire” is accompanied in the later fiction by the very personification of that desire. Sort of as as reminder…or a muse.
So, Anya, in the end, has aided Senor C in his work, has been more than a mere typist, more than editor - she’s been his muse - hearkening all the way back to Foe.
But maybe, in another life, if our ages were more compatible, you and I could set up house together and I could be your inspiration. Your resident inspiration. How would you like that? You could sit at your desk and write and I could take care of the rest.
I can’t help but wonder if we’ve not but seen another transition in JMC’s artistic arc. If the little typist hasn’t convinced him to write more of his ’soft opinions’ in the future.
Perhaps not quite making the impact of Elizabeth Costello, it is nevertheless arguably the most striking Booker eligible novel published this year.
So why...? Suspect in truth one knows the answer!
Each page is divided into three sections and the story is told from the perspective of each character. I started by reading each page from top to bottom then switched to reading the opinion or essay piece of each chapter, then flipping back to catch up on the typist and writer's relationship, and then flipping back yet again to read about the relationship between the typist and her lover idiot. Sounds tedious and frustrating, but it's really not. The sections are generally only 2 to 3 pages long. The connections of the three separate narratives are sometimes subtle, follow slightly different time lines, and weave together beautifully to create a new way of telling a story.
What I found interesting is how the old writer's opinions were slowly influenced by the opinions of the young typist. The interactions between these two became an enriching influence to each live. The Australian 'Warren Buffet' wannabe remained a loser throughout the book.
Thanks to the final opinion, I now feel compelled to read Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and soon.
My first impression was that it was “literary snobbery” i.e. if you don’t ‘get-it’ then you are intellectually deficient. The format of the book written in three views initially was very difficult particularly as they did not conclude at the same place in time. However with a bit of practice it actually worked. After all different individuals have different perspectives and sense of beginning and ending of life’s “moments” so what initially was frustrating became novel which in term became relevant.
The title is what initially induced me to pick it up however I didn’t feel it reflected the book’s content. After my initial trepidation, with persistence I actually enjoyed the book although I wouldn’t cite it as a “great read”.
Diary of a Bad Year is part non-fiction, part fiction, and like many of Coetzee’s works, part memoir. (There is, incidentally, no way he’s never slept with one of his students.) The narrator, referred to as “Senor C,” is a South African emigrant to Australia, an acclaimed novelist and academic, who once wrote a book called Waiting for the Barbarians, but who is also much older than the real Coetzee, and who doesn’t appear to have won the Nobel Prize. Senor C has been commissioned by a German publisher to contribute a series of “strong opinions” on various social and political topics, and these short essays make up the first part of the book. If these essays were all that Diary of a Bad Year contained it would be a failure, because they are stiff and authoritarian and lecturing. (They were mostly in line with my own views, but that doesn’t matter.)
But the essays are cut off halfway down the page, replaced with a string of text detailing this fictional Coetzee’s life, and how he employs Anya, his sexy young Filipina neighbour, to type for him. Essays on the outrage of Guantanamo Bay and the poor state of universities and anti-democratic secrecy laws are thus complemented by the lecherous narrative of an old man who, while being intelligent and measured and thoughtful, is nonetheless driven by his dick. And soon a third ribbon of text joins the story – the thoughts and opinions of Anya, who is smarter than she first appears.
Coetzee uses the viewpoints of his fictionalised self, and of Anya, and even of Anya’s boyfriend Alan (who is not given a thread, but has many lines of loudmouth dialogue in her section) to criticise and cast doubt on the strong opinions of the book’s essays. This is a relief, because without them they would possess an insufferable surety, and proper novelist should never really be sure of anything.
The essays often correspond subtly to the theme du jour of the lower stories; at least half the time they correspond so subtly that I couldn’t finger the connections, though I have no doubt they were there; Coetzee is smarter than me, after all. The story at the bottom adds up to a reasonable novelette, and while it lacks the power and potency of a longer work, it was certainly worthwhile.
This isn’t one of Coetzee’s stronger works – it certainly doesn’t compare to Disgrace – but you wouldn’t really expect it to. It’s a neat little post-modern experiment (containing, ironically, a strong criticism of post-modernism) which is quick and concise. It’s not the first book of Coetzee’s you’d want to read, but it is worth reading.
His personal notes on society give a small insight in what Coetzee thinks of democracy, war, left or right politics, religion and other themes. A bit weird and not always very consistent, which is a surprise for me.
Not sure as well that the "neighbour" stories are fiction which then again is nice as a setup.
Coetzee zet je aanvankelijk op het verkeerde been met een reeks korte essays over allerhande kwesties, in het begin vaak internationale politiek en mensenrechten. Uiteraard hebben we al vlug de indruk dat hier de auteur zelf spreekt, vermomd achter het wel heel doorzichtige alter ego ‘JC’, een Zuid-Afrikaanse schrijver op leeftijd, wat ziekelijk en vereenzaamd, sinds een tijd levend in Australië, en al even gedesillusioneerd in de politiek die dat land voert op internationaal gebied (mee met de VS Irak bezettend, de mensenrechten aan banden leggend via antiterreurwetten en even hard voor vluchtelingen als Zuid-Afrika voor zwarten was onder het apartheidsregime). Met andere woorden: hier is de stem aan het woord van wat we voor de gemakkelijkheid maar de linksgerichte redelijkheid zullen noemen, zelf houdt JC het op anarchisme.
Al onmiddellijk voegt Coetzee daar een tweede en later ook een derde ‘melodie-lijn’ aan toe, ook letterlijk zichtbaar met een in drieën ingedeelde bladspiegel. De tweede melodie/laag lijkt heel wat trivialer en gaat over de omgang van de oudere auteur met een Filippijnse schone die hij inhuurt om een manuscript uit te tikken; aanvankelijk draait deze verhaallijn vooral om de nogal zielige obsessie van de oudere man (door haar Senor C genoemd) voor de charmes van zijn secretaresse. In de derde verhaal-/melodielijn horen we de stem van de Filippijnse zelf, en blijkt die aanvankelijk bewust gebruik te maken van haar charmes. Maar op een bepaald punt draait haar focus naar wat de oude man schrijft, brengt ze onder woorden wat dat met haar doet (ze vindt het eigenlijk allemaal nogal betweterig) en ontwikkelt ze geleidelijk sympathie voor de zielige oude man. Ze brengt hem er zelfs toe de invalshoek van zijn schrijfsels meer introspectief te maken en meer over het leven en literatuur te schrijven. Dat leidt tot een breuk met haar vriend, een intelligente maar ronduit onbehouwen Australiër die de auteur in een dronken bui kleineert, met argumenten waar ook wel een grond van waarheid in zit.
De drie melodieën leveren samen een heel complex, rijk boek op dat je voortdurend vanuit verschillende invalshoeken kan benaderen. Intrigerend, maar toch niet helemaal geslaagd. Naar mijn aanvoelen had Coetzee vooral de tweede verhaallijn beter moeten stofferen en uitwerken, want nu komt de platonische toenadering tussen de Filippijnse en Senor C eigenlijk niet helemaal tot zijn recht. Het zijn de korte, droge essays (‘meningen’) die de hoofdtoon blijven aangeven, ten koste van de echte verhaallijn. En dat is spijtig.