Is Apathy the Key to J.M. Coetzee Novels?

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In 1974, J.M. Coetzee applied to South Africa’s Ministry of the Interior to become an official state censor of literature. A few months later, he was informed that his application had been turned down. Coetzee had returned to South Africa in 1971 after a stint studying and teaching in America, unable to renew his visa after being arrested at a faculty protest at SUNY Buffalo against police presence on campus, a conviction later overturned. He joined the University of Cape Town as a professor, and in 1972 filed a report to his department head on books that were banned by the state but which he regarded as crucial to his research and teaching. The list of authors is long: William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Pablo Neruda, even Nikolai Gogol, among many others.“[You] may be interested to look over the following condensation of how our censors have impoverished our lives,” he wrote to his boss. What then was he up to a couple years later, already the author of the novel Dusklands, in trying to join the apparatus of repression?

The South African scholar David Attwell tells this story in J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face With Time, an engrossing 2015 study of the author’s manuscripts, now held at the University of Texas at Austin. Attwell quotes Coetzee telling a friend that he was merely calling the authorities’ bluff. Coetzee had been working on a manuscript, later abandoned, narrated by a censor, and Attwell concludes that Coetzee’s “odd flirtation” with becoming a censor was a way of “arranging life to imitate art.” In the drafts, Attwell sees Coetzee pondering what sort of writer he wants to be. It’s a mental exercise that’s illuminating in its strange premises. “Fiction, being a serious affair,” Coetzee writes, “cannot accept pre-requisites like (1) a desire to write, (2) something to write about, (3) something to say. There must be a place for a fiction of apathy toward the task of writing, toward the subject, toward the means.”

It’s an astonishing idea — apathy as a source of, not an obstacle to, seriousness. We know writers who write in quest of ecstasy, out of mimetic fidelity to ordinary life, out of a quasi-therapeutic impulse, out of personal or political rage (D.H. Lawrence, Philip Roth), out of narcissism, or even out of hostility to the task (Thomas Bernhard). But apathy? Surely it’s an anti-novelistic quality, but it rings true to Coetzee’s work and the cold, cerebral, disinterested character of many of his heroes: an apathy of self-protection. It cuts against our traditional ideas of inspiration, all the way back to the supernatural notion of the muse possessing and speaking through the poet. Then again, what if in this equation the poet was an apathetic partner? To remove the supernatural element, what if we conceive of the author as the apathetic servant of a story and its characters? For that matter, why should the characters necessarily be passionate players themselves? After all, they’re in a story they never asked to be part of.

Attwell quotes Coetzee eliminating strategies for writing that wouldn’t work: “(1) Fiction without a subject. (2) Fiction whose sole subject is apathy toward the subject. (3) Fiction whose subject is solely an occasion for apathy toward it. (4) The possibility of rewriting another novel (Le Rouge et le noir?) or of making that rewriting into the subject of your own writing.” Yet as Attwell points out, Coetzee would make use of the fourth strategy throughout his career, in novels like Foe (which rewrites Robinson Crusoe) and The Master of Petersburg (Dostoevsky’s The Possessed).

Four decades later, Coetzee is himself an author of Olympian distinction, the 2003 Nobel laureate and twice winner of the Booker Prize. Attwell attests from his reading of the manuscripts that Coetzee’s books tend to have personal beginnings and evolve toward greater levels of fictionality. So it’s likely that his move to Australia — where he emigrated from South Africa in 2002 — informs his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus, and now its sequel, The Schooldays of Jesus. These books follow set of refugees, settling in a strange land. They are austere narratives, elemental in their treatment of daily life, with the barest tissue of realistic detail. There is action — murder, theft, escape from authorities — but the bulk of these books is taken up by discussions of the nature of appetite, work, family bonds, sexual desire, etc. Many scenes have the qualities of miniature Socratic dialogues. Their pleasures are pure, as Coetzee has cleared away modern prejudices and stripped his characters’ philosophical conversations to a skeletal core. Wrapping these dialogues in the skin of plots with a few absurd swerves, some of them too preposterous for a B-movie script, may all be part of what one character calls “a deep joke.”

Part of that joke is the peculiar land where the refugees have arrived. The price of arrival is forgetting: The refugees all have amnesia. They can’t remember the land they came from or the lives they lived there. At a processing camp they’ve been assigned new names and given a crash course in Spanish, the language of their new home. (We aren’t told what language they spoke before, and a song said to be in English is delivered in German.) In Childhood they settle in a city called Novilla (the name suggests novelty, novels themselves, and “nowhere” in the manner of the Greek roots of “utopia”). It’s worth pointing out that despite a huge influx of refugees, it seems to be a place without racism, ethnic tension, or much petty crime. In fact, there’s full employment, government housing, and ample relocation benefits. A somewhat spotty bureaucracy keeps things running, and there are here and there some odd, arbitrary rules: no children allowed in some buildings, curfews, etc. Friendly bosses scoff at the idea of replacing stevedores unloading ships with cranes. There are cars and telephones but no computers — we seem to be in a dreamlike version of the middle of the 20th century. Blandness is the flavor of this country, as we can tell from its cuisine: bread and butter and milk, soup, crackers, and bean paste — the tastiest thing on offer is a cucumber sandwich, and alcohol is scarce though not contraband. Erotic longings persist mostly as the “shadows of memories” of sex. It’s a benevolent realm of diminished fulfillment, and it appears to have nothing in common with the apartheid South Africa of the 1970s where Coetzee began his career. There are no censors to speak of, but the newspapers are full of anodyne stories. The only book anyone reads is an illustrated children’s edition of Don Quixote.

Both novels are narrated in the third person and follow the thoughts of Simon, a man “no longer young” who has taken responsibility for a 5-year-old orphan named David. Simon sees it as his task to find David a mother, and he convinces Ines, an attractive and aristocratic-seeming young woman he sees one day playing tennis, to take on the role. The ease with which she accepts motherhood of a stranger is one of the book’s weird swerves, but also testament to the boy’s charismatic power. He’s a chess prodigy, he’s headstrong, and everyone can sense that he’s special, and that, as he says, he’s been given the wrong name. David is surely at some deep or deep-joke level the Jesus of the title. He proves too much for his teachers, and Simon and Ines pull him out of school, putting themselves on the wrong side of the otherwise well-meaning authorities. Childhood ends with their escape by car from Novilla.

Schooldays picks up here, with the trio’s arrival in the provincial city of Estrella. The novel’s action centers on David’s enrollment as a boarder in the Academy of Dance and the murder of his teacher, Ana Magdelena, by Dmitri, the janitor of the museum that houses the school. The novel’s intellectual poles are passion and rationality. Ana Magdalena and her husband Juan Sebastian’s mystical instructions in music and dance — which involve a form of numerology, channeling numbers from the heavens — are the idealized form of passion, and David, now age 6, becomes her brightest student. He’s also charmed by Dmitri, who shows David and the other students pornography and will tell anyone who listens of his obsession with Ana Magdelena. Was his crime a rape-murder or a crime of passion committed by Dmitri against his secret lover?

Within the novel’s spartan narrative framework — few novels are so bereft of scenery — both Ana Magdelena and Dmitri jump off the page when they enter a scene. In the novel’s strangest turn, Simon finds teachers and students at a nude beach and contemplates her marvelous figure: She is a “dangerous” woman, and he judges himself a lesser being unworthy of desiring her himself. Dmitri, meanwhile, delivers speeches to Simon on the power of passion, taunting the older man that though he’s an undeniably decent and honest man, he’s dried up and walking through life as a ghost. This is a subtle but major shift between Childhood and Schooldays: Simon earlier talked of his hunger for beefsteaks dripping with juice and maintained enough of a libido to apply to a members-only bordello; now he seems bereft of any interest in life beyond looking after the mostly absent David. He’s become a victim of self-apathy, living in a tiny studio and taking a job distributing an advertising circular door to door, completely uninterested in his own life.

Simon’s growing apathy and sense of his own uselessness turns out to be a source of the novel’s power. It makes him a neutral interlocutor in the dialogic framework, and a perfect foil for the volatile elements in play. It also puts him in search of meaning in what remains of his own life and leaves him feeling tortured about the boy’s future, since he can sense that David’s nature is different from his own. Simon senses that the dances David is learning aren’t the claptrap he at first takes them to be. That they may have more force and truth than the “solving for x” Ines wants the boy to learn from a conventional tutor. Between the two extremes — Dmitri’s crime and Simon’s barren existence — there must be some elusive middle way.

When Dmitri is put on trial, the courts allow him every opportunity to mitigate his sentence (the state in Schooldays is again strangely benevolent). Finally, he is sentenced to the city hospital’s mental ward, from which he easily and repeatedly escapes, to further taunt Simon: “Can you understand what it was like to be with a woman, to be with her in the fullest of senses, I put it delicately, when you forget where you are and time is suspended, that sort of being-with, when you are in her and she is in you — to be with her like that and yet be aware in a corner of your mind that there is something wrong about all of it, not morally wrong, I have never had much truck with morality, have always been the independent type, morally independent, but wrong in a cosmological sense, as if the planets in the heavens above our heads, were misaligned, were saying to us No no no? Do you understand. No, of course you don’t, and who can blame you.”

His rants, deranged and criminal as they are, still prick something in Simon’s mind, leaving him ever less certain of his place in the world and the right way to guide David through it. Of course, nothing is resolved in Coetzee’s Jesus novels; we emerge as from a Platonic dialogue, a novel of Dostoevsky, or Don Quixote — the texts Coetzee is rewriting — with more questions than we entered with, suspicious of our passions and unsure of the protections of apathy. But there’s a stark beauty to these novels of ideas and the haunting images that infuse them: a young boy pondering a bird with a broken wing, a beautiful woman turned blue by death, an old man trying to dance.

*A version of this article appears in the February 20, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Is Apathy the Key to J.M. Coetzee?