What is love? It’s a question we’ve struggled with since Eve, Adam, the asp and the apple. It has inspired a billion songs. The one that comes to mind as I think of J. M. Coetzee’s The Pole and Other Stories is the 1939 jazz standard “Comes Love (Nothing Can Be Done)”: “Don’t try hiding cause there isn’t any use / You’ll start sliding when your heart turns on the juice”.
The titular Pole of Coetzee’s novella-length opening story is a Polish classical music pianist known for his austere renderings of his 19th-century compatriot Frédéric Chopin. He is 72, tall, has a “striking mane of silver hair” and looks like the Swedish actor Max von Sydow. He’s an “oddity on the concert scene”, a “controversial interpreter” of Chopin’s music.
And yet, despite his reputed “aridity” of temperament and his “not at all Romantic” renditions of the Romantic period composer, his heart turns on the juice. It happens when he is asked to perform in Barcelona by a local group that stages monthly events in the city’s Gothic Quarter. He is welcomed by a member of the group, Beatriz, who is “tall and graceful” and nearing 50. She is married to a banker and they have two adult sons.
After the concert, for which he receives “polite but not enthusiastic” applause, she and two other group members take him to dinner. Afterwards, she escorts him to his hotel. On arrival, he takes her hand and says, “Good night, gracious lady.” He thanks her for her “profound questions” and adds, “I will not forget.” Then he heads to his room. Beatriz inspects her hand after “its brief rest under that giant paw”. It “seems smaller than usual. But unharmed.” A week later, he posts her a CD of his recordings of Chopin’s Nocturnes, with a note: “To the angel who watched over me in Barcelona.”
What follows is one of the most fascinating love stories I have read. It is not told in the first person but Beatriz – the link to Dante’s Beatrice and the torment of unrequited love is deliberate – can be seen, with Coetzee’s characteristic remove, as the narrator.
Her “heart’s verdict” on meeting the Pole with a name “no one even tries to pronounce” – Witold Walczykiewicz – is “What a poseur! What an old clown!” He “looks like a man with messy divorces behind him, and ex-wives grinding their teeth, wishing him ill”. She imagines sharing a bed “with that huge bony frame” and “shivers with distaste”.
Yet she does imagine it. And so that night in Barcelona is not the first and only time they will meet. What happens between them is for the reader to find out. It is unconventional and extraordinary. The titular Pole, like Beatriz/Beatrice, is intentional. “Between a man and a woman,” Beatriz thinks, “between the two poles, electricity either crackles or does not crackle.”
It’s also, I think, about the poles of love. How we feel, express and receive love in different ways, and how what we think of as love alters over time, for better or worse. In this sense it shares common ground with Alex Miller’s poignant 2022 novel A Brief Affair. Like that novel, “The Pole” and the four stories that follow, each centred on Coetzee’s Coetzee-like writer Elizabeth Costello, ponder what mark we leave on the world on departing it. Perhaps it’s no surprise Coetzee and Miller are in their 80s.
Beatriz thinks – regardless of whether she has been a good or bad mother – that while her sons are alive she will “enjoy a flickering kind of life”. After that, she will be “tossed into a dusty archive”. Elizabeth Costello, who started life in Coetzee’s 2003 novel of the same name, has similar thoughts but acts on them differently, as her two adult children, John and Helen, find out.
The four Elizabeth Costello stories – “As a Woman Grows Older”, “The Old Woman and the Cats”, “The Glass Abattoir” and “Hope” – centre on the ageing Australian novelist approaching the end of her life. “It is perfectly normal,” she tells her son, “to have accesses of dread as one grows older.”
As the titles suggest, they also touch on Coetzee’s longstanding interest in animals facing, as his authorial doppelganger puts it, “our murderous gang”. There is a moment – seen through the eyes of a day-old chick on a factory farm – that I wish I had not read but am glad I did.
South Africa-born Coetzee received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, the year after he moved to Australia and settled in Adelaide. The Pole and Other Stories has all of his trademarks: the elegant, profound prose, the bone-dry humour, the desire to ask questions without expecting – or delivering – an answer. It’s hard to know with such a reclusive writer, but I think it’s one of his more personal books. It’s Elizabeth Costello’s son, John, who shares the author’s name, who tells us, “Every word she writes is the trace of something going on inside her.”
Great writers open doors. This book opened a few for this reader, including one to Chopin. It opened more personal ones, too, as I suspect it will do for reader after reader.
Text Publishing, 272pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "The Pole and Other Stories".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription