Thursday, October 02, 2003

I'm ashamed to admit that I've never actually read any of Coetzee's books; Robin (who's much better read in contemporary fiction than I am) keeps scaring me off them by telling me how harrowing they are. I have seen him a couple times around Stanford, though, where he's been a visiting professor.

I heard him read from Youth last year. He has a remarkable voice: small, precise, dry, literally chilling to listen to; if any living writer embodies the Yeatsian dictum to "cast a cold eye" it's him. Youth is ostensibly memoir but told in the third person; musings that would seem self-indulgent, as when the young Coetzee wonders about his future as a writer and about the quality of his work, are regarded with such detachment--and at times, with such withering contempt--that the effect is quite the opposite: no one could be harder on Coetzee than Coetzee. The action, at least in the section he read to us from, was utterly dull, recounting Coetzee's work as a computer analyst at a British military base: little there but the routines of work, awkward meals with the one acquaintance he seems to make, the loneliness of his room. It was a memoir actually driven by self-hatred; the drama lay not in the events but in the sometimes palapable disgust of the backwards glance.

Coetzee seems to be one of those people who is truly a misanthrope by temperment rather than from embittered experience. By all accounts he was unfailingly polite when forced into conversation, but preferred to remain in his office with the door closed, and would rarely give more than one-sentence answers to questions breathlessly posed by students or fans.

No comments: