Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Coetzee and Late Style: Exile within the Form

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Coetzee and Late Style: Exile within the Form

Article excerpt

Let us trace a theme, but more than a theme, an enactment, of exile as it has come to inform the recent work of J. M. Coetzee. Exile I mean not simply in the political sense-the final decision to "shake the dust of [South Africa] off [his] feet," to seek a place where it is not yet properly shameful to be alive, in Australia (1)--but more intrinsically than that, insofar as it affects the substance of his art, and the very frame of his writing body. This is the exile from one's body about which Paul Rayment thinks in Slow Man: "he is running down" (53-54), unstrung in Homeric language. So it is with the characters of Elizabeth Costello and JC, in their respective books, Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year persons taking regretful leave of their bodies. This late sequence is a literature of leave- taking, a trilogy of novels in flight from homeland, from the body, and from the very comforts of novelistic form. Novels against the novel. This is a kind of aesthetic exile that implies a deliberate self-distancing from the necessity of formal finishing, given that what had characterized Coetzee's art up to the Nobel ceremony was just this quality of laborious finishedness: "spare prose and a spare, thrifty world" (Coetzee, Doubling 20), chiseled gauntness without any trace of flaccidity or unassimilated matter.

Not so with this last trilogy, which suddenly, as with a weary shrug of the shoulders, shows all the seams and fissures, the failures of integration, which would hitherto have been smoothed over in a determinate movement of formal resolution. It is a literature touched by death, and intimately so. Its style is, to be clear, a "late style," as Adorno memorably described it apropos of Beethoven:

  The power of subjectivity in the late works of
  art is the irascible gesture with which it takes
  leave of the works themselves. It breaks their
  bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order,
  expressionless, to cast off the appearance of art.
  Of the works themselves it leaves only fragments
  behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher, only
  through the blank spaces from which it has disengaged
  itself. Touched by death, the hand of the master sets
  free the masses of material that he used to form; its
  tears and fissures, witnesses to the finite
  powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its
  final work. (566)

We read at the start of Elizabeth Costello, after a brief description of the eponymous character's attire and appearance: "the blue costume, the greasy hair, are details, signs of a moderate realism. Supply the particulars, allow the significations to emerge of themselves. A procedure pioneered by Daniel Defoe" (4). That is an irascible gesture. You cannot simply call it "metafiction" and leave it at that. Characteristic of the opening movements of this book, such discourse is more aggressively disenchanting and disappointing than that term allows. "There is a scene in the restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip" (7) we read.

  It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often,
  since storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into
  a dreamlike state in which the time and space of the real
  world fade away, superseded by the time and space of the
  fiction. Breaking into the dream draws attention to the
  constructedness of the story, and plays havoc with the realist
  illusion. However, unless certain scenes are skipped
  over we will be here all afternoon. (16)

This passage is doing something more interesting than pacing the track of postmodern metafiction; after all, as Coetzee has written, "Anti-illusionism-displaying the tricks you are using instead of hiding them-is a common ploy of postmodernism. But in the end there is only so much mileage to be got out of the ploy. Anti-illusionism is, I suspect, only a marking of time, a phase of recuperation, in the history of the novel. The question is, what's next? …

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