Academic journal article ARIEL

"A Face without Personality": Coetzee's Swiftian Narrators

Academic journal article ARIEL

"A Face without Personality": Coetzee's Swiftian Narrators

Article excerpt

Abstract: Much has been written about the complicated intertextual relationships between J. M. Coetzee's novels and previous works by writers such as Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Samuel Beckett, and, especially, Daniel Defoe. Relatively little has been written, in comparison, about any relationship between Coetzee and Defoe's great contemporary, Jonathan Swift. We claim no extensive structural relationship between Coetzee's novels and Swift's works--nothing like the formal interlace between Robinson Crusoe and Foe, for example. We do claim, however, a strong and explicitly signalled likeness of narrative stance, marked especially by the ironic distance between author and protagonist in Gulliver's Travels and Elizabeth Costello. We rehearse the extensive evidence of Coetzee's attention to Swift (both in novels and criticism) and suggest that there is a Swiftian dimension to Coetzee's oeuvre that is evident in several books, including Dusklands, Youth, Elizabeth Costello, and Diary of a Bad Year.

Keywords: Jonathan Swift, J. M. Coetzee, narrative voice, Gulliver's Travels, Elizabeth Costello I.

I. Coetzee and Swift

Linda Colley's Captives opens with two parables of British Empire from eighteenth-century literature that are relevant to J. M. Coetzee's postcolonial vision. In the first, "a man sets out on an eventful trading voyage, and is ultimately shipwrecked. He finds himself the lone survivor on a desert island, but despair soon gives way to resolution, Protestant faith, and busy ingenuity" (1). This is Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Coetzee has explicidy worried at that novel and its mythic baggage throughout his career, most obviously in Foe (1986). We contend that Coetzee's work also contains a more submerged but nonetheless extensive engagement with Colleys second parable, in which a man

sets sail from Bristol, centre of transatlantic commerce and slaving, bound for successive zones of European imperialism: Spanish America, the West Indies, coastal India. He never reaches them. Instead, his voyages are aborted, time and again, by events and beings beyond his control.... For this man, overseas venturing brings no conquests, or riches, or easy complacencies: only terror, vulnerability, and repeated captivities, and in the process an alteration of self and a telling of stories. (Colley 1--2)

This disenchanted parable of colonial endeavour is Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), and it provides Colley with an initial frame for an account of British captivity narratives between 1600--1850. For us it is a window into the condition of narrators and protagonists in Coetzee's texts who encounter the dark works of colonialism, particularly Elizabeth Costello.

Many critics have noted links between Coetzee and Defoe, as well as between Coetzee and authors such as Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Samuel Beckett. (1) On many occasions, Coetzee's works exist within their myths and forms, often explicitly in a critical manner. Foe is a postcolonial rewriting of Robinson Crusoe-, Life & Times of Michael K (1984) contains many implicit references to Kafka's work (even though Coetzee protested to an interviewer that he does not "believe that Kafka has an exclusive right to the letter K" [Morphet 457]); and The Master of Petersburg (1994) uses Dostoevsky as its main character. Swift's influence is less easily tracked through plots or characters and fewer critics have discussed it: a search of the MIA Bibliography yields only one article, by Richard A. Barney, and a chapter by Jonathan Lamb titled "Gulliver and the Lives of Animals." Both deal with links between Swift and the theme of animals in Coetzees Elizabeth Costello books. This essay gauges the "Swiftian" nature of the voices and thematic preoccupations of Elizabeth Costello (2003). We do not allege that the kind of connection Coetzee explicitly makes with Defoe, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Beckett is made with Swift in Eli2Mbeth Costello. …

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