J.M. Coetzee’s Therapy Session


Ratik Asokan in The New Republic:

In 2008, a British clinical psychologist, Arabella Kurtz, invited Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee to participate in a public discussion about literature and psychoanalysis. The notoriously publicity-averse Coetzee, who hardly ever gives interviews, predictably refused. “I suspect I am not the right person for the job,” he wrote to her. “I am not a fluent speaker and don't easily see the point of questions. I am also dubious of the worth of opinions that are expressed by my public persona.” His past interviewers, to whom Coetzee inevitably gives a difficult time, would likely agree. Yet Coetzee overcame his reservations and eventually agreed to exchange letters with Kurtz, producing a five-year correspondence that has now been published in book form as The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.

For any admirer of Coetzee, the collection is a rare opportunity to understand the mind of a writer who almost never speaks at length in his own voice. For many years, when called up to deliver lectures, he would instead read out a story about a writer invited to deliver a lecture. (Some of these stories made their way into his 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello.) Indeed, for a while, it seemed that fiction was the only medium through which Coetzee would engage with the world. Made-up characters narrate sections of his autobiography. Even his Nobel Lecture took the the form of a story, a cryptic one that.

“What relationship do I have with my life history,” Coetzee asks in his first letter. “Am I its conscious author, or should I think of myself as simply a voice uttering with as little interference as possible a stream of words welling up from my interior?” As its subtitle suggests, The Good Story is interested in the relationship between storytelling and truth, a subject that is as relevant to Kurtz’s profession as it is to Coetzee’s. We tell ourselves a narrative about our life, and this account is always subjective. When patients visit therapists with the hope of feeling better, they are, in a sense, searching for a story that casts their lives in a kinder light.

Kurtz had reached out to Coetzee because of his fiction’s unconventional depiction of interiority, his particular focus on the inner mind and its thought processes. His novels operate in those deep, Dostoyevskian realms of introspection from where people seldom emerge enthused about life. He asks questions about existence that people don’t ask, and should not ask, if they want to simply live a comfortable life. His books are not therapeutic; they are written to discomfit.

More here.