Thursday, April 14, 2016

J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with TimeJ. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with Time by David Attwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Coetzee famously says, 'all writing is autobiography' and 'all autobiography is storytelling'."

I got hooked on John Maxwell Coetzee about three years ago when my wife's book club was reading Disgrace. I was completely stunned by the power of the novel and by the unbelievably precise prose. Disgrace is certainly is among the very few best books I have ever read. Since then, my count of Coetzee's books has reached 18, including his non-fiction works of literary criticism; all my 18 reviews are posted here on Goodreads and they are all high-rated, with two other masterpieces warranting full five stars: Waiting for the Barbarians and Boyhood .

No wonder that I have been extremely interested in David Attwell's J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing. Face-to-Face with Time (2015). The author - who worked under J.M. Coetzee's guidance as a Master's student at the University of Cape Town and then collaborated with him on a book titled Doubling the Point - states that the goal of his study is "to read Coetzee's life and work together". His research method has been based on looking not "at the finished works, but at the authorship that underlies them: its creative processes and sources [...]". Mr. Attwell spent many weeks reading Coetzee's manuscripts and notebooks and was thus able to discover "the remarkable ways in which [the authorship] transforms [the] often quite ordinary materials into unforgettable fiction."

Being just a casual reader I am not in the slightest qualified to discuss the literary creative process and will just mention a few of the main topics of the book. The epigraph quote from Attwell indicates a strong focus on the autobiographical component of virtually all of Coetzee's fiction work. Coetzee's struggles with the issues of realism of fiction are the other principal theme of the study. Mr. Attwell quotes Coetzee who feels "bound to produce" realism "if the book is to be written", but with each next novel seems to spend less and less time on providing sufficient layers of realism to ground his fiction in.

Yet another principal topic is the metafictional aspect of Coetzee's work, and particularly the question of whether and "why the novel should be self-conscious." The author reports Coetzee's endorsement of Robert Alter's thought-provoking answer "that the self-conscious novel is aware of impermanence and death in a way that realism cannot be." Mr. Attwell also discusses some critics' (particularly South African ones) attacks on "detachment from the immediacies of South Africa" that they perceive in many Coetzee's novels.

While Attwell's book is a must-read for literary critics and literature students as well as for all people, who - like this reviewer - are obsessed with Coetzee's writing the casual reader may find the study too specialized. Also, Mr. Attwell's writing is not as superbly lucid as Coetzee's, whose prose - even in the most intense philosophical fragments - is crystalline clear, something that might be attributed to his degree in mathematics and practice as a computer programmer.

Although I have read the book with extreme interest - in two consecutive late-night sittings - I am not sure whether it has changed or even deepened my view of Coetzee's work in any appreciable way. As an ordinary reader I am not sure I want to know about the evolution of a literary work of art before the author decides on the final version. The books, the finished "products", speak to me much stronger than the analyses of the creative processes that underlie them.

Thank you, Ewa for buying me this book!

Three and a half stars.

View all my reviews

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