On J. M. Coetzee
Of all the titles in Black Inc’s Writers on Writers series, Ceridwen Dovey’s essay on J. M. Coetzee arrives with the most intellectual excitement, as well as the greatest anticipatory unease. This is because Coetzee – two-time winner of the Booker Prize, recipient of the Nobel, the most august literary figure to hold an Australian passport since the death of Patrick White – is also notoriously cool, aloof and reticent about the meaning and nature of his work. How to connect with such a man?
Ceridwen Dovey, novelist and fellow South African, understands this difficulty better than most. She places the senior writer’s austere aesthetic front and centre in her book. Cleverly, she then uses the great gulf that exists between her and him to generate a real frisson. She opens the piece with a description of her infant self being breastfed by a mother who was simultaneously absorbed in the pages of an early novel by Coetzee.
The image is arresting because of the stark disjunction between the soft maternal love offered to Dovey and the hard cerebral effort Coetzee demands. What Dovey proceeds to do, however, is to make certain startling claims about the novelist that upend our settled notions of the man and work. That reading him, for instance, holds a quasi-erotic charge for her. This is not a sexual admission; she means that there is a special quality of reading bliss that comes from encountering an aesthetically rigorous and intellectually bracing writer such as Coetzee.
Dovey also highlights the excellence with which Coetzee draws his female characters. She alerts us to the submerged political urgency he brings to bear upon narratives that seem very far from the more earnest, engaged social realism of his contemporaries and predecessors in South Africa. And she wonders at the skill with which he has used older stories in such a way as to make them stand in judgement on the present. His, she argues, is an ethically inflected postmodernism.
All of this Dovey reads through the prism of her mother, Teresa, a scholar who wrote one of the first academic monographs on Coetzee’s work and a woman whose identification with Coetzee and his work was so strong that it gave shape to Teresa’s emerging identity. Both mother and daughter have much to thank Coetzee for. Should he read this lucid and reverent essay, John Coetzee will have grounds to feel gratitude, too. AF
Black Inc, 96pp, $17.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Ceridwen Dovey, On J. M. Coetzee ". Subscribe here.