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Coetzee’s Dialogues: Who says who we are?

Throughout his career, J. M. Coetzee has been centrally preoccupied with how to tell the truth of an individual life, most of all, how to find the appropriate narrator and fictional genre. Many of his 15 novels disclose first person narrators in a confessional mode, and so it is not altogether surprising that his latest book is a dialogue with a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, in which they explore together notions of self-hood, repression, disclosure and the nature of communication. It is as if Coetzee has spent a lifetime attempting to answer Samuel Beckett’s question: “Who is this saying it’s me?”

As Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz’s Exchanges on Truth, Fiction, and Psychotherapy becomes an extended written conversation, The Good Story follows many boundary lines between self and other, truth and fiction, memory, confession, and self-construction. Kurtz is a sympathetic and perceptive reader of fiction; Coetzee has no professional knowledge of psychotherapy, but from inside their separate ways of thinking, they work to create a dialogue about these general concerns.

Close to the mid-point in his career, Coetzee wrote: “Truth is related to silence, to reflection, to the practice of writing. Speech is not a fount of truth but a pale and provisional version of writing.” “Speech” seems to mean conversation, interviews, journalistic writing and, presumably, letters. It was at this time that he made clear that he would no longer give interviews to journalists. The key words are “silence” and “truth,” and the figure of Beckett surely lies behind this statement.

John Maxwell Coetzee, photo by Mariusz Kubik. CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

In spite of this, he did enter into a series of conversations with David Attwell, and those conversations are a precursor to The Good Story. The dialogue with Attwell extended over a few years and was eventually published as Doubling the Point. Something of this dialogue genre entered later novels such as “Elizabeth Costello” and “Diary of a Bad Year.”

Atwell, author of the very fine recent study of Coetzee’s manuscripts, and Arabella Kurtz appear to be kindred spirits with whom he can release himself from the controlling voice of the fiction-writer and allow another to colour his thinking and his articulation. Another such kindred spirit is the American novelist Paul Auster with whom he had an extended epistolary conversation between 2008 and 2011, and their letters were published as Here and Now in 2013, although they do not speak of the novels they are writing or their literary careers.

The dialogue books reveal another dimension of Coetzee, his need to create a mutual space in which experience and varieties of truth may be examined in an atmosphere of respect and sympathy. The title Here and Now is the first hint of the intentions of Coetzee and Auster in publishing this record of a late-life friendship. The confessional genre of the personal letter appears to be the implicit, framing context of this writing, and if friendship is the biographical thread, then the letters may follow its meandering, spontaneous, circumstantial course. Emotionally engaged and warm, the often long letters create a quiet, un-dramatized space, and one has a sense that in a fundamental way they are a comment on the era of the selfie and the kinds of self-expression the camera cultivates.

There is no editorial presence in these “Letters.” It seems to mock posthumous editions of letters of great writers, with contexts provided by a knowledgeable editor, and published by a university press – there is no context here, no preface, introduction, or editorial paraphernalia, and the book appeared from the mainstream commercial publishers of Coetzee and Auster’s fiction. We are not told if this is a complete set of the letters sent during this period. We do not know if they are presented complete, or if they have been rewritten for publication. Nor, crucially, are we told if Auster and Coetzee intended from the beginning that the letters would be published, so that in some sense they may not have been writing to each other but to us readers, that they are a kind of epistolary novel grounded in daily experience.

Who can say who J.M. Coetzee is? Certainly Attwell tells us much in J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, more than anyone else has, about the solitary writer, but from the first novel, Dusklands, Coetzee has made clear in his subversion of narrators and narrative voices that the reader must enter into a dialogue with the “author,” and that it is in this dialogue that J. M. Coetzee invites the reader to recognize how difficult it is to tell anyone’s story.

Close to the end of The Good Story, he speaks of “living reading”: “It involves finding one’s way into the voice that speaks from the page, the voice of the Other, and inhabiting that voice, so that you speak to yourself (your self) from outside yourself.” He refers to this process as “a dialogue of sorts,” and, clearly, in his own roles as reader and writer, it is in this dialogue that an answer may be found to who Coetzee is.

Featured image credit: “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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