Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

How to "Rise above Mere Nationality": Coetzee's Novels Youth and Slow Man in the World Republic of Letters

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

How to "Rise above Mere Nationality": Coetzee's Novels Youth and Slow Man in the World Republic of Letters

Article excerpt

J. M. Coetzee's work presents critical reflections on literature that circulate beyond their culture of origin. Roughly coinciding with the publication of Coetzee's novel Youth in 2001, Goethe's concept of Weltliteratur, introduced in 1827 (Eckermann 198), reentered the literary scene, demanding new approaches and definitions for the circulation of literature in a global sphere. (1) In this article, I read Youth and Slow Man, published in 2005, as works engaged in a dialogue with literary criticism of world literature. This dialogue highlights Coetzee's reflections on national identity within the novels. Moreover, it reflects back on literary theory, and contributes to our understanding of certain Eurocentric tendencies within these recent theoretical developments.

Of the many critics who have commented on the relationship between Coetzee's literature and his politics, one of the more intriguing is Sarah Brouillette. In her study Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace, she appropriates Pierre Bourdieu's insight that all authors produce literature that integrates and responds to their experiences of being authors in a market, in order specifically to explore the dynamics between the postcolonial author and the literary field. The author's life and "each moment in an author's marketing" (2) become key constraints and become part of what she--following Gerard Genette--calls "the paratext" for the subsequent reception of the author's works. She argues that, for the postcolonial author, the author's anxiety towards the market appears in the form of an uneasy relation, with the diverse audiences of her works, as well as in the multiple ways the politics of her country, pinned by her nationality or ethnicity, will be interpreted by her readers. Brouillette's conflation of "the postcolonial author" (8-9) with "the internationally distributed and widely read non-Western author" (112- 43) is not unproblematic. But if we leave that aside and redefine her concept accordingly, her theorizations do pinpoint a variety of the anxiety towards the market, or the idea of the market, which she is right to associate with Coetzee.

Brouillette curiously leaves out Boyhood, Youth and Slow Man from her investigation of Coetzee's post-apartheid work. In the following I will present a reading of Youth that sheds light upon the strategies at work in the novel Slow Man, as there are relations between these novels that have so far largely been ignored. A probable reason for this is that the protagonists in each have been introduced in other, earlier, novels. Youth is the sequel to the memoir-novel Boyhood (1997), while the re-emergence of the character Elizabeth Costello in Slow Man activates a strong inter-textual relationship first and foremost with Elizabeth Costello. But both Youth and Slow Man explore the themes of migration, transnationalism, and authorship and challenge the notion of the national as a fixed and valuable category. Acknowledging the connections between the works makes us aware of a development in Coetzee's fiction of the twenty-first century in which the author's work seems insistent on constructing a literary world peculiar to the name J. M. Coetzee. The many intertextual traces of Coetzee's earlier novels in his more recent ones, create, I suggest, a paratext for his readers to judge his work by, to rival the paratext of nationality--South Africanness--which has until this moment been the most influential way of reading and evaluating Coetzee's novels.

The epigraph of Youth marks it as a novel concerned with world literature. A quote of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe introduces the novel in one of Coetzee's rare epigraphs, emphasizing the importance of traveling to reading: "Wer den Dichter will verstehen/Muss in Dichters Lande gehen" (Who wants to understand the poet/must go to the poet's land).This quote is from Goethe's opening of Noten und Abhandlungen zti Besseren Verstandnis zu West-Ostlichen Divan, 1819 (219). …

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