Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Slow Man and the Real: A Lesson in Reading and Writing

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Slow Man and the Real: A Lesson in Reading and Writing

Article excerpt


This article addresses the problems of reading Slow Man (Coetzee 2005) through tracking its engagement with various levels of the real as well as its representation of the complex relationship between author, narrator and character. The real difficulty that besets the writer trying to produce a story from an inchoate idea is explored through the concept of substitution, one of the hermeneutic keys that structure the novel. Thus I examine the continuous slippage between the "real" and representation. The novel's turning of itself inside out is read, like Rachel Whiteread's sculpture, "House", as an absence-as-presence that also points to its overt engagement with photography.


Hierdie artikel spreek die probleme aan wat Slow Man (Coetzee 2005) die leser bled deur sy verbintenis met verskillende vlakke van die werklike en deur die voorstelling van die ingewikkelde verband tussen outeur, verteller en karakter na te spoor. Die eintlike probleem waarmee die skrywer te doene kry wat 'n storie uit 'n onontwikkelde idee wil skep, word ondersoek deur middel van die begrip van plaasvervanging, een van die hermeneutiese sleutels wat die roman struktureer. Dus ondersoek ek die voortdurende glyding tussen die "werklike" en voorstelling. Die binnestebuite draaiing van die roman word soos die beeldhouer Rachel Whiteread se "House" gelees as 'n afwesigheid-as-aanwesigheid wat ook sy openlike engagement met fotografie aandui.


In Coetzee's "As a Woman Grows Older" (2004) Elizabeth Costello questions the point of her life's work as a writer. Her daughter, Helen, argues that it is of value "not because what you write contains lessons but because it is a lesson" (Coetzee 2004: 6)--a pronouncement that I take to assert the heuristic value of reading. Slow Man, a novel that makes extraordinary demands on the reader, would seem to offer such a lesson. The text abounds with references to lessons, in which lessons are ostentatiously delivered by characters, present themselves in the unfolding of events, or are disparaged as in Paul Rayment's dismissal: "[O]ne can torture a lesson out of the most haphazard sequence of events" (Coetzee 2005: 198). (1) This essay, in its attempt to engage with the problem of reading Slow Man, suggests that the novel's insistent cross-mixing of reference and phenomenalism is a heuristic device for alerting the reader to the complex relations between author, narrator, and character. It is as a lesson in reading, which is to say rereading, that Slow Man demands the reader's active tracking of the relationship between representation and the real, or rather, levels of the real, and offers insights into the business of writing.

I start with a moment in the text where the character, Paul Rayment, reads the author-character Costello's notebook and finds in it references to his own thoughts. Thus it would seem that he is not an autonomous subject but rather the product of her imagination. For Paul

   the mind threatens to buckle.... Is this what it is like to be
   translated to what at present he can only call the other side?....
   There is a second world that exists side by side with the first,
   unsuspected. One chugs along in the first for a certain length of
   time; then the angel of death arrives ... one tumbles down a dark
   hole. Then, hey presto, one emerges into a second world identical
   with the first, where time resumes and the action proceeds--flying
   through the air like a cat....

  (p. 122)

Paul's experience mirrors that of reading the novel. If the story of a man, who comes through an accident with an amputated leg chugs along according to our expectations of verisimilitude, the entry of Costello would disrupt mimesis, and in its intimations of other levels of reality disorientate the reader. The italics of "identical with the first" not only alert us to the typography, the material aspect of writing, but also to Paul's sensation of "flying through the air like a cat" as a repetition, a representation from the opening paragraph of the novel which we earlier read as a real event of an accident, or rather, the representation of a real event. …

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