Not I


Carrol Clarkson in Berfrois:

On 21 December, 2012, I had the privilege of introducing J.M. Coetzee to an expectant audience at the University of Cape Town; he was about to read from his new, as yet unpublished work, The Childhood of Jesus. The occasion marked Coetzee’s return to UCT in an official capacity for the first time since his leaving for Australia in 2002. But here was my dilemma: what would I call him? If mine was to be an “introduction” in the Oxford English Dictionary sense of “presentation of persons to each other, with communication of names”, how many different names there were by which various members of the audience knew our distinguished guest: “J.M. Coetzee”, author, Nobel Laureate, twice winner of the Booker Prize; “Coetzee”, the writer whose novels and critical essays constitute such a rich resource for students of literature; “John M. Coetzee”, the animal rights group patron; “Professor Coetzee”, a former staff member of the Department of English Language and Literature at UCT; and to many present on the evening of December the 21st, “John”—a colleague, a former fellow-student, a friend.

Further still, in more complicated ways, the person standing before us was also “known” to us through the “J.M. Coetzee” of John Kannemeyer’s biography, which had just been published; “known” to us through the “John” of Coetzee’s fictional autobiographies, Boyhood, Youth, andSummertime; through “J.C.” of Diary of a Bad Year (the protagonist shares the author’s initials, and, like him, has written a novel calledWaiting for the Barbarians and a collection of essays on censorship). The person before us was also “known” to us through Elizabeth Costello, who, it seems, is also the author of Slow Man.

In the novel that shares her name, Elizabeth Costello, the writer, stands before a gate and is expected to make a statement of her beliefs if she is to pass through. One of her responses subtends much of the discussion in this paper:

Her books certainly evince no faith in art. Now that it is over and done with, that life-time labour of writing, she is capable of casting a glance back over it that is cool enough, she believes, even cold enough, not to be deceived. Her books teach nothing, preach nothing; they merely spell out, as clearly as they can, how people lived in a certain time and place. More modestly put, they spell out how one person lived, one among billions: the person whom she, to herself, calls she, and whom others call Elizabeth Costello. If, in the end, she believes in her books themselves more than she believes in that person, it is belief only in the sense that a carpenter believes in a sturdy table or a cooper in a stout barrel. Her books are, she believes, better put together than she is. (Elizabeth Costello 207-8)

Novels, like those written by Elizabeth Costello or by J.M. Coetzee, may well “teach nothing, preach nothing” at the level of overt theme. But (as this paper suggests), an analysis of a formal literary device in narrative fiction may well be one way of thinking through questions more usually associated with moral philosophy.

More here.