The Ambivalence Artist

Ambivalenceartist 130 90David Marcus in Dissent:

J.M. COETZEE made an early career out of ambivalence. Restrained and impersonal, he mined the caverns of despair from the safe distance of allegory and literary appropriation. Life and Times of Michael K, his 1983 Booker Prize winner, tracked the itinerant life of a slow-witted gardener in the sparse prose of Kafka. Foe, a work of revisionist and feminist genius, challenged the rugged masculinity of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe by inhabiting the voice of an imagined female companion. Master of Petersburg occupied not only the melancholic timbre of a Dostoevsky novel—it was, after all, about the great master—but also the stilted Victorian English of a Constance Garnett translation.

Over the past decade, however, Coetzee has adopted an increasingly direct and confessional style. Once dedicated to ectomorphic reticence, he has now allowed himself the fattier tissues of biography. Beginning with his second Booker Prize winner, the 1997 Disgrace, he has spoken through a series of half-selves. Reclusive and dissatisfied, the protagonists of Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello, and Slow Man laid bare the moral and psychological crises of a midlife colonial: shame and guilt foremost, but also the persistent anxieties of physical and sexual decline.

At first glance, Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee’s most recent entry, seems to follow this “late” tendency toward novelized autobiography. A book of journal entries, it maps the tortuous cartography of Coetzeean doubt through a near biographical stand-in: the eponymous John C, author of Waiting for the Barbarians and recent émigré from South Africa to Australia (a migration Coetzee himself made in 2002).