The primary joy of reading J. M. Coetzee is his appeal to the subvocaliser within me. To subvocalise is to read by saying it aloud in your head, and I invariably do it in voices. One joy of Coetzee is how effectively he varies his narrator’s voice. The other, principal, joy is the use of a voice which is used by a lot of younger writers, but which I feel only he has mastered completely; I mean a slow voice, where the speaker is dragging out his words without actually drawling, not because of the accent but because of the meticulous way he thinks. This voice has a sort of coldness coupled with clinicality. I’m in no way saying he originated it; I can find an example from around the time he was born: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot. A lot of Eliot’s poetry has this voice, but this one is my favourite. When I first read his Waiting for the Barbarians in June ’08, this voice touched a deep, deep chord with me. I widely tout this book as the book which catapulted me into the world of serious literature. True, I had been heading there for a while, but this was the last straw.
One of the ideas behind Coetzee’s 2007 book Diary of a Bad Year is an examination of this voice when the writer’s powers are declining. It has, as a story, the writer Juan C. who wants to write a contribution to a German book called Strong Opinions. He sees a young, ethereal beauty Anya and asks her to be his typist; his motor control is going, and all he can do is scribble and speak into a dictaphone. She’s living with an older man called Alan, who acts as a foil to JC.
JC, like Coetzee, was born and brought up in South Africa and has just recently moved into Australia. He, in fact, has also written a book called Waiting for the Barbarians. So, the question arises: is JC in fact JMC? I don’t think so, principally because Coetzee’s powers are not failing. That, however, is nothing more than a brilliant dodge; it ignores the real question of whether the opinions are Coetzee’s. Again, I think no, and it’s due to the last essay in the book, coupled with the fact that Coetzee is a significantly more intelligent essayist than JC.
Each page of the book is divided into three parts. The top is JC’s contribution to the book, the middle is JC’s narration of his relationship with Anya, and the bottom (which first appears only at page twenty-five) is Anya’s narration of her relationships with JC and Alan, not to mention Alan’s relationship with JC. This results in us reading first a bit of an essay, then a bit of JC’s narration, then a bit of Anya’s, then some more of that essay, and so on. Coetzee, of course, often takes the opportunity to break a bit in the page mid-sentence. This structure plays with us in mysterious, as well as not so mysterious, ways, but to mention a couple of them, I will have to describe the characters for a bit.
JC is an old novelist who used to think of himself as a novelist who taught to fill his pockets, but is now thought of as “a pedant who dabbled in writing novels”. Through the course of the book, it becomes clearer and clearer that this one’s more of a poet than an essayist. His first few essays – which are so short that they rarely, if ever, have proper conclusions – make plausible points, but don’t argue them out too well. He just states them as fact. Of course, this is a problem later when he’s just plain wrong. When his essays really shine is when they speak of literature. And then there are times when he completely takes of the mask of the essay:
Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo! A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and the desperate. Around them, guards in olive green uniforms prance with demonic energy and glee, cattle prods and billy-clubs at the ready. They touch the prisoners with the prods and the prisoners leap; they wrestle prisoners to the ground and shove the clubs up their anuses and the prisoners go into spasms. In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs.
One day it will be done, though not by me. It may even be a hit in London and Berlin and New York. It will have absolutely no effect on the people it targets, who could not care what ballet audiences think of them.
And there are times when his poetry comes through in his essays, despite his efforts to suppress them, like the title, which actually makes some sort of sense in context. But, down below, in his diary, we see the cracks showing in his writing. At one point,
Are you new? I said, meaning was she knew to Sydenham Towers, though other meanings were possible too, Are you new on this earth? for example.
The real Coetzee often takes a question and does this sort of thing to it, but nitpicking of this scale is nothing more than a parody, or – since JC’s powers are failing – a tragedy. The first time I read this sentence, in November last year (this is the second time I’m reading this book), I thought JC was surely an overgrown kid. Later, the idea that he’s just a poet becomes stronger, when in the ‘Second Diary’ (Coetzee’s book is divided into ‘Strong Opinions’, 12 September 2005 to 31 May 2006 and ‘Second Diary’, undated), after he’s done with his strong opinions, he starts writing what Anya calls his ‘soft opinions’, where we see a sharp increase in plain quality, not to mention his near-absence in the middle bit which is now filled with things Anya are saying to him or just plain nothing; I think the idea here is that as long as he was writing his pure essays, we need his real voice, but later we don’t, because its already there above.
Anya is a beautiful Filipina, whose first appearance elicits this response in JC’s diary (note the substandard writing):
Startling because the last thing I was expecting was such an apparition; also because the red shift she wore was so startling in its brevity.
Surprisingly, she’s actually pretty intelligent, though not concerned enough to be an ‘intellectual’. I’m surprised because if you’re writing about the relationship between an intellectual and a commoner, it’s rather common to make the commoner a stubborn, though streetwise, ox. Notice, for example, the insight and sensitivity to the sound of words in her description of her relationship with JC:
At first I was supposed to be his segretaria, his secret aria, his scary fairy, in fact not even that, just his typist, his tipitista, his clackadackia.
Later, we will see bits from her that sound like they’ve come from JC (this last quote, unlike the ones I’m referring to, is rather female in its composition). She is, all in all, a rather well-rounded character. So well-rounded, in fact, that I think it’s a plausible interpretation that the book is about her.
Alan, as I’ve already said, is a foil to JC, and, like the best foils, is actually very similar in a fundamental way to him; JC is a socialistic anarchistic dreamer whereas he is a yuppie realist, but each is about as stubborn as the other. Anya is stuck in between these two. Both these characters are equally caricatured, and Anya is the well-rounded middle ground.
I realise I promised a mention of a couple of tricks the structure plays with us, but it turns out I ended up mentioning them above, like the last couple of sentences in my description of JC. Well, let me tell you that in the Second Diary, when I said that the middle part is taken up by Anya talking to JC, there’s a memorable sequence where the page is actually JC’s essay | Anya | Alan. On the whole, however, this structure has an effect of rushing the proceedings along. We read faster because we have two threads hanging at any one point in time.
I personally think Diary of a Bad Year is Coetzee’s most interesting book of the ones that I’ve read (in the order of my reading, Waiting for the Barbarians, Dusklands, Diary of a Bad Year, Life & Times of Michael K, Disgrace, In the Heart of the Country), but not his best. Well, just not his most effective; there’s always the question of how effective Coetzee wants it to be. After all, in keeping with the fact that the essays have barely any conclusion, JC doesn’t sign off so much as is cut-off. Anya does sign off. Anya has the time to finish with the book, but old JC doesn’t: it’s like life. And, after all, how effective is life as a book?