The Case of Coetzee: South African Literary Criticism, 1990 to Today

By Chapman, Michael | Journal of Literary Studies, June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Case of Coetzee: South African Literary Criticism, 1990 to Today


Chapman, Michael, Journal of Literary Studies


I spent much of the 1990s writing up the book Southern African Literatures (2003: 1996). As a result, I lost touch with the state of our criticism as reflected in academic journals pertinent to the field. Several months ago I began a systematic reading of relevant journal articles published after 1990 (the year symbolising the end of apartheid) up to 2007. My observations follow. But first, why the title "The Case of Coetzee"?

Well, Coetzee in the last decade and a half has attracted from critics more attention by far than any other author from this country, attention that predates his receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. One might say that such attention permits us to regard Coetzee as a leitmotif in the field of South African literary criticism. Just as a leitmotif in a literary work suggests patterns of significance, the case of Coetzee suggests patterns of significance in the literary-critical domain.

Coetzee's output escapes any overarching interpretative grid. His critical commentary is suggestive, not prescriptive; his novels are characterised by ambiguity and elusiveness. As he said in his oft-cited paper, "The Novel Today" (1988: 2-5), his novels seek not to "supplement", but to "rival" history. Philosophical concepts lend depth to his fictional landscapes; and his novelistic forms, in various mutations, challenge conventional expectations of realist or, indeed, symbolist genres. He says that he is written by his writing: it is an exploratory process which begins without his quite knowing where it is leading him and ends, he hopes, in new forms of telling, in new forms of experiential insight. Whereas, he says, he lacks the commitment to an art of criticism (that is, to writing creative criticism), novel writing grants him a "creative irresponsibility" (1992: 246). Yet his book, Elizabeth Costello (2003), is a creative intermeshing of fiction and disquisition (he himself calls the pieces "lessons"); and his latest book, Diary of a Bad Year (2007), interleaves public and personal voices in--to give the term its original meaning--a novel form.

Coetzee's challenges, among others, are the challenges of the postgraduate seminar and the academic conference: his works provoke interpretations that never exceed the object of the interpretation, and many Coetzee papers in journals have returned vitality to what remains a valuable approach to the literary text: that of intelligent and sensitive close reading. We have papers that ponder the intertext Foe/Crusoe, or ponder the relevance of classical allusion in South Africa's age of iron. Disgrace (1999), in particular, has undergone critical excavation. Does Coetzee share in Lurie's misogyny and lurking racism? Is this simply a book about an embittered white male--there is symbiosis between the author and his character, Lurie--in the time, to quote Lurie/Coetzee, of "the great rationalization" (1999: 3)? Should the rape of Lucy be read literally or symbolically? What do we make of Lurie's ministering to dogs when his "not quite" raping of the coloured student Melanie produces neither remorse nor contrition, but a melodramatic posturing? What purchase has the Byron/Wordsworth subtext on the harsh, nonliterary, mainly mimetically depicted, reality of post-apartheid South Africa? And so on, and on.

In the seminar room it was once Jane Austen--how does the device of free, indirect speech permit, almost simultaneously, emotional colouring and ironic observation?--or Joseph Conrad: how far is Marlow his author's mouthpiece? Now it is Coetzee's rich, ambiguous, ambivalent, even ideologically suspect, novels that may return literary study from the issue-driven critique of theory back to the intricacies of the text. (See, as examples, Cornwell 2003; Beard 2007.)

This, however, is not the whole story. There is another persistent strand in Coetzee criticism that brings to bear on his texts the concepts of continental philosophy, the purpose being twofold: to prise the texts from a too-localised context of reception thus shifting the emphasis from Coetzee as South African writer to Coetzee as world writer; second, and related to the aforegoing, to defend Coetzee against would-be antagonists who have attacked the author's political commitments. …

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