Sunday, December 23, 2007

Eros teases old age

J.M. Coetzee does not like to rest on his laurels. Having won the Booker Prize twice (the only other writer to have done so is Peter Carey) and awarded the Nobel in 2003, he has established his mastery at writing small, crisp novels which, while being simply written, give the reader rewarding peeks into their writer's sensibility.

He takes this device to its logical conclusion in Diary of a Bad Year. This book is about C, a middle-age author living in a nondescript apartment building in Sydney, Australia. An immigrant from South Africa, C is the writer of a novel called Waiting for the Barbarians. If this doesn't ring a bell, there is also the Nobel certificate hanging on the wall.

Yes, Coetzee has done something remarkable here. While there are clues that the narrator is not himself (C isn't childless, unlike Coetzee), it is impossible not to read this book as a late-life lamentation of the contrast of the academic life with the pull of Eros, a theme Coetzee has repeatedly broached in his work.

In the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace, David Lurie, a middle-age professor, falls for a young female student and the scandal this excites is enough to ensure his termination. The play of power that follows this event provides Disgrace its narrative strength, and Coetzee has always been interested in the male-female dynamic.

C has been asked to compile his thoughts on the pressing problems of the day, a project commissioned by a German publishing house in which six world-renowned authors are participating. C's views run on the top of the pages, and make interesting, if sometimes labored, reading. Writing on al-Qaida, C says:

"If there were indeed a devilish organization with agents all over the world, bent on demoralizing Western populations and destroying Western civilizations, it would surely by now have poisoned water supplies all over the place, or shot down commercial aircraft, or spread noxious germs -- acts of terrorism that are easy enough to bring off."

This is laughable, of course. The fact that crimes that require great logistical backup can today be thought of as doable is, if nothing else, a testimony of the power al-Qaida weaves on the popular imagination. There are several such jottings, but they rarely go beyond being bons mots.

What gets the novel going, however, is the fictive plot of C's infatuation with Anya, who lives in the same apartment building as he. As C watches her for the first time in the laundry room, "an ache, a metaphysical ache, crept over me that I did nothing to stem." C's desperation to get Anya close to him by offering her the job of typist has resonance with Coetzee's typically dark evocation of desire.

And thus, we have the story of this "relationship," told from C's perspective, running on the bottom half of the page. As a storytelling device, it's fairly engaging, unless Coetzee decides to crowd the page with a third band, one that speaks in Anya's voice.

Anya is a headstrong young woman who shares her apartment with her boyfriend, Alan. Well aware of the power she wields on C, she is not averse to exploiting it: "As I pass him, carrying the laundry basket, I make sure I waggle my behind, my delicious behind, sheathed in tight denim. If I were a man, I would not be able to keep my eyes off me. Alan says there are as many bums in the world as there are faces."

What is rather fascinating about the idea of three strands running on one page is that it allows us to appreciate Coetzee's genius better. On the top is a truly academic enterprise, lofty in its studied concern. At the center is the lonely rambling of a writer who is losing his gifts. And at the bottom, the rushed monologue of youth, gravid with its concomitant impertinence.

It must therefore be asked: What is Coetzee's metier? Why does he write? The disaffected nature of his prose gives us clues to a will for silence, a preponderant instinct for quietude. Yet, Diary of a Bad Year is a loud book, filled with both verve for life and the enervating prospect of death. It's one of his more approachable reads, and it is a mark of Coetzee's talent that he is able to enmesh the philistine with the profound with such enviable ease.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times, along with another, of Andrew Lycett's biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. Besides, my favorite read of 2007 is included in a compilation here. Just scroll down.

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