Christian Lorentzen in Vulture:
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.