The Writing of Life - J. M. Coetzee

IT WAS A LITTLE OVER A YEAR AGO that I made my first visit to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Taking advantage of the winter break from teaching, and desperately needing an excuse to get out of town, I descended upon one of the finest collections of literary manuscripts in the country, if not the world. I didn’t realize it then, but I was both fleeing my life and trying to save it at the same time, doing the one thing I’ve ever done well: reading. I was seeking out the traces of a writer in whose words I had found solace once before. Secretly, subconsciously, I must have been hoping that a dose of literary therapy would work its magic on me once again.

“So you’re here to work on the David Foster Wallace Papers?” the cheerful receptionist asked. Admittedly, I wore the well-worn boots and shapeless sweater, not to mention the glasses and the beard, of a grad student who has spent more time with Infinite Jest than with actual human beings in the world. I couldn’t help but smirk at the assumption.

“No,” I replied. “I’m here to look at the Coetzee collection.” I could see her recalibrating her initial assessment of me. “Oh,” she said. “There are a few others here working on him as well.” And with that, I was ushered into the inner sanctum of the reading room.

There were at least five of us exploring the vast archive of Coetzee’s papers now held by the Ransom Center, making up roughly half of the reading room’s residents that week. A couple others were communing with the spirit of Foster Wallace, while one fellow consulted old detective novels and still another lady examined what appeared to be architectural or landscape designs of some kind. Some of these researchers had traveled great distances to Austin — from the United Kingdom, from Australia. I thought I heard somebody say that they drove up from Houston, surely the most treacherous journey of all. (I made that trip only once myself, to see Elliott Smith way back when.)

Fifty years earlier, J. M. Coetzee had journeyed to Austin from faraway South Africa, by way of England, where he was working temporarily as a computer programmer after having written an MA thesis on Ford Madox Ford, which he submitted to the University of Cape Town in 1963. Coetzee arrived at the University of Texas in the fall of 1965 to pursue a PhD in linguistics and literature. What would eventually become the Ransom Center was less than a decade old then, but it was already gobbling up manuscripts and artifacts of immense cultural value at an astounding pace. The works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett were early prizes, and at one point Martin Heidegger’s original draft of Sein und Zeit was about to join them, in a deal almost brokered by Hannah Arendt. At the Ransom Center today you can peruse collections stretching from Jorge Luis Borges to Gloria Swanson, or from Doris Lessing to Don DeLillo. There’s older stuff, too: Chaucer, Shakespeare, a Gutenberg Bible. Coetzee’s archive, needless to say, is in very good company.

As I familiarized myself with Coetzee’s clear and careful penmanship, poring over draft after handwritten draft, I couldn’t help but imagine him doing something similar decades earlier, as he deciphered Beckett’s scrawl. His dissertation was on Beckett, and he utilized the collection of his manuscripts obtained by the Ransom Center. But, having read J. C. Kannemeyer’s exhaustive biography J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, I knew that the author I was chasing did more in Austin than sit around and read Beckett. I knew, for instance, that he was also collecting materials — both in the library and well beyond it — that would eventually find their way into his first work of fiction, Dusklands, which appeared in 1974, some three years after Coetzee’s involuntary return to South Africa.

Perhaps because its primary themes are still so relevant today, Dusklands remains a dazzling work of fiction. It explores legacies of imperialism, madness, racism, and military brutality via two separate but necessarily entwined stories. Coetzee started drafting the second story, “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” first, in Buffalo, where he had landed his first academic appointment at the State University of New York. It passes itself off as a historical palimpsest. It contains the violent and racist first-person account of an early 18th-century Dutch colonist in the Cape, one Jacobus Coetzee, which has been “edited” by an S. J. Coetzee, who also provides a brief afterword. The “translator” of these texts, who also appends a brief preface to the work, is listed as J. M. Coetzee. But nothing is what it seems. Jacobus Coetzee was in fact a real historical personage, whose travel accounts J. M. Coetzee had read while studying in Austin (and to whom he was in fact distantly related), but the central “Narrative” in Dusklands is a work of fiction, not historical fact. The same goes for the editor’s afterword and the translator’s preface. The same goes, in fact, for the editor and the translator themselves. The J. M. Coetzee who was the “translator” of “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee” both was and was not the J. M. Coetzee whose name could be found on the cover of Dusklands.

Just who, exactly, was this J. M. Coetzee, and from where did he come? Was he owning up to his Afrikaner heritage in Dusklands or distancing himself from it? What some might see as postmodern play, as a kind of formalist gamesmanship underscoring the so-called “death of the author” — something akin to Borges’s classic short story “Borges and I” or even the lesser incarnations of it today in the seemingly confessional writings of a Ben Lerner or a Sheila Heti — was in fact just the opposite. It was what Coetzee scholar David Attwell, in his marvelous new book J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-Face with Time, calls “a huge existential enterprise, grounded in fictionalized autobiography.”

In an oft-cited remark — from an earlier interview with Attwell, actually — Coetzee once declared that “all autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography,” which seems to complicate, not dismiss, the whole idea of authorship, including the very ideas of authorial intent and responsibility. When Eugene Dawn, a technocratic cog in the vast American military-industrial complex who narrates the other story in Dusklands, “The Vietnam Project,” expresses “hopes of finding out whose fault I am,” we might be forgiven for thinking that he, Dawn, who cracks under the pressure of writing a dissertation-like report on wartime propaganda tactics, has more than a little bit of J. M. Coetzee in him — or at least as much as his “manager,” an “ordinary man” he loathes by the name of Coetzee.

Navigating one’s way through this authorial hall of mirrors is difficult. Even with the cardinal points of biography, autobiography, writing, and storytelling in view, it is easy to get lost in the unchartered territory between the life and the fictionalization of that life in the literary work. I suppose it is reassuring to know that, most of the time, Coetzee himself didn’t necessarily know where the one began and the other ended. Among the priceless treasures in the neatly organized boxes of his papers at the Ransom Center are little notebooks in which he recorded, rather regularly, his reflections on the creative process: a stray observation here, a fully formed self-critique there, as if he were subjecting his own writing to an internalized academic analysis. Often, he had no idea where a story was taking him until he actually got there, and the notebooks record his frustrations with false starts and imaginative dead ends along the way. But surely Coetzee’s routine of daily writing took him through familiar territory. Now that we have access to some of his papers, and now that biographical accounts are starting to give us a glimpse of his existence beyond the page, we can see how Coetzee’s life provided the seeds — if not the fully formed forest — for almost all of his fictional output.

There are at least two ways to survey this terrain, and, conveniently enough, Kannemeyer’s and Attwell’s books represent them. The subtle difference in their titles reflects what is in fact a rather wide divergence in their respective approaches. Kannemeyer’s massive tome promises “a life in writing,” whereas Attwell’s more nimble study investigates “the life of writing.” The former focuses on the biography and autobiography, and uses the writing and storytelling to illuminate them, whereas the latter looks first at the writing and the storytelling, and utilizes the biography and the autobiography to unlock their secrets. Kannemeyer, in other words, uses the fiction to get at the life, but Attwell uses the life to get at the fiction. If one boils the fiction down to its biographical components, then the other tracks the transformation of the flesh-and-blood life into the fictional worlds of the novels. Both approaches produce fascinating results, but Attwell’s captures more of the magic that is the creative process — a magic that still seemed to cling to the various notebooks, drafts, and clippings I felt and held, gingerly and maybe too reverently, in Austin.

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