A Door Remains a Door

Artwork by June Glasson

It is important, as the Dutch Slavicist, Karel van het Reve once said, not to forget that books, plays and poems are written to be read by an audience without explanation. A certain skepticism with regard to secondary literature is justified, even more so because such secondary literature is often addressed to us in such sorry prose. In reaction to J. M. Coetzee's essay on evil, an essay later included in Elizabeth Costello, Mario Vargas Llosa writes: "Disgrace is also so hair-raising because the novel is a shocking, dramatic portrayal of the social conflicts and psychological traumas that have faced South Africa since the introduction of democracy and the abolition of apartheid." If even Vargas Llosa seeks refuge in such pretentious clichés, clichés which one has come across in one form or another so often that one no longer even feels like checking whether they contain any veracity, then there is due reason for despair. If I were to replace Disgrace with The Rights of Desire by André Brink, the statement cited above would remain equally valid, or equally invalid. The statement, "The Tears of the Acacias by W.F. Hermans is also so hair-raising because the novel is a shocking, dramatic portrayal of the social conflicts and psychological traumas that have faced the Netherlands since the liberation and the reinstatement of democracy" would also meet with nods of agreement from a broad public.

In this essay, therefore, I will do my best to make at least one statement about Coetzee and his work that is not equally applicable to ten thousand other writers and their books.

A banquet speech upon the presentation of the Nobel Prize, I take it, usually consists of pleasant and polite platitudes. In his extremely brief banquet speech, however, Coetzee makes two striking statements. Those statements are made by Coetzee himself, not by his character Elizabeth Costello. We are freed from any discussion about what statements by characters in his novels say about the ideas of the author himself, or about the authority which the reader must attribute to the narrator. We are freed, for the moment, of that horrible, ever-recurring question: does he really mean this?

After four years in office, an elected official may be held accountable for those sincere or insincere promises made in the past. That this rarely happens in actual practice is because the interpretation of promises allows for many routes of escape.

But how can a novelist mean something, even when he embarks upon an essay? Must we go looking outside the text for evidence of his sincerity or insincerity? If the text is convincing enough, he probably means it. Perhaps that is what Elizabeth Costello means as well when, in her lecture, "At the Gate", she tells the board of examiners: "I am a writer, a trader in fictions. I maintain beliefs only provisionally..."

Provisionally, therefore—for as long as fiction demands that of her. After that, another fiction comes along which demands another, perhaps diametrically opposed belief on her part. One might call her a cynic, although she emphatically states that she is not. At least, she is cynical about herself, but not as regards other people and humanity. With this comment she places herself outside humanity.

The way a castaway on his desert island must regularly believe that he has been placed outside humanity. I have a tendency to call Costello cynical, in the sense that her view that belief is only provisionally possible means that there is no absolute foundation for any value whatsoever. With the aid of reason and logic she would be able to turn any value around and mold it to her advantage.

When Harry Lime, in The Third Man, points down from the gigantic Ferris wheel in Vienna at the little dots moving around and says to his friend: "The dead are happier dead. They don't miss much here...", he is also provisionally believing in something.

So what is it that keeps Costello from becoming a Harry Lime—other than the fact that she is too old and too feeble, and not particularly interested in material gain? The foundation for the provisional belief that the dead are better off is neither more nor less absolute than the foundation for the provisional belief that we are not to kill. Why doesn't Costello kill someone, even if only to find out how it feels?

A possible answer is found in Coetzee's novel Foe. The castaway Susan Barton thinks about Friday, the helper, whose tongue was cut out because he was a cannibal or a slave, and who is therefore unable to speak. Barton comes to the conclusion that the tongue belongs to the world of play; the heart to the world of earnest. For: we do not die when the knife cuts through our tongue, but we do when that same knife pierces our heart. The world of play is a necessary one, for without it we would remain a desert island. Coetzee, by the way, allows for the possibility that we remain uninhabited even with the world of play. "He is proving something: that each man is an island; that you don't need parents."

Costello's next thought segues into this idea of Susan Barton's, a thought which returns in a number of variations in Coetzee's novels: "For that is all it means to be alive: to be able to die."

What does that mean, to be able to die? As long as you are able to die, you are not dead—in fact, that is all we can say about it with certainty. A rather unfriendly interpretation of Costello's thought might read: being alive means being alive.

That, however, is probably not what she means, for she is not that sloppy a thinker. Apparently there are people who are unable to die, or who at least need help in doing so.

For the gods (see Costello's lecture on Eros) the world of play knows no boundaries. To them, everything is play. For the mortal, the world of play is circumscribed by death, and also by the dead. A circumscription that has its advantages. "In the sexual ecstasy of the mortals [the gods detect] the frisson of death." The gods do not know ecstasy, because they do not know death, or know it only by word of mouth. Because death, in the final account, has nothing to do with them; just as the earthworm, in the long run, has nothing to do with us.

Being able to die, being alive in other words, means (for a mortal) remaining within the world of play. Harry Lime leaves that world, which is what makes him an intriguing character; he wants to go back, which forces him to act as though killing, too, can be play.

No, we have not arrived at a value with an absolute foundation in a roundabout way. The fact that a fish can live in the water and a human cannot is not a value. That a human is better off leaving the sea in timely fashion is a practical consideration.

Costello's decision not to kill, therefore, is a practical consideration. She does not want to leave the world of play in order to be able to die. She suspends her disbelief in certain matters—she defers it, so as not to become a desert island. Because there are some experiments for which mortals simply do not have the time. The gods have not been allotted a set quantity of time; the sentence handed down to them, one can also say, is eternal—effectively removing the frisson from their play, but giving them plenty of room for whatever experimentation they fancy. I would like to posit at this point that the world of play, despite the connotations that word may have, is not without obligations. To support this claim, I once again give the floor to Susan Barton: "And I use a similitude: I say that the desire for answering speech is like the desire for the embrace of, the embrace by, another being."

Here she places the human voice, the world of the tongue and of play, on an equal footing with that of Eros. Even pornography cannot divest sexuality of its meaning. Even in simulated ecstasy one recognizes the frisson of death. If, for that reason alone, the brothel will never become a supermarket. In an ounce of foil-wrapped ground beef one recognizes, at best, a meal that will be badly prepared anon.

Especially when it disguises itself as, and mingles with the essay, people have the tendency to read the novel as a pamphlet, to deny it the privileges of the world of play. They are wont to read it as a call to action, particularly when those readers are serious people, or hope at least, to be seen as such. Perhaps that is why we are so obsessed by the question of whether, and to what extent the writer really means it. Whether his characters' ideas coincide with those of their author. Or not quite.

We are, it seems, wary of becoming Don Quixote. Poor readers!: they thought they had been handed a manifesto—an operating manual for life, a sandbag to turn back the deluge of evil; but in fact it was nothing but a courtly romance. That anxiety—the fear of being taken for a ride—forms the foundation for the reader's obsessive query: does he mean this? is this for real? But it would be an injustice to the courtly romances (and at the same time do them too much justice) to hold them accountable for the adventures of Don Quixote.

Again and again novels are expected to do things for which they were not made; things they cannot, and should not aspire to do. To instruct; to straightforwardly combat evil in its myriad forms. To put it simply—to take the reader by the hand and whisper in his ear, "This is how you must live." The novel and its author do well to shun such parochial duties. Which is not to say that the author, in his free time, may not express himself on matters newsworthy and less newsworthy. Of course every novel, including the pulp novel—above all, the pulp novel—contains ideas about good and evil. Even the novelist who trots out a completely amoral character, and tries to achieve a certain effect by doing so, can only do that if he assumes that the reader embraces certain, generally accepted ideas about good and evil. Without morality, or even a morality considered particularly reprehensible by today's standards, no novel can exist. But morality is not what the novel is peddling, nor what makes it unique.

Yet the urge to see the novel as a moral authority, as a lamp unto our feet, creeps into criticism again and again. This tendency, I suspect, is rooted in the desire to distinguish the novel from pulp, from soap opera; from pure entertainment. Apparently, it is so difficult to put one's finger on what it is that distinguishes the literary novel from the bodice-ripper that one takes refuge in morality. This book is of a higher order than that one because consuming it is good for you. Read on. It will make of you a better person. From an essay by Robert Boyers, also in reaction to Coetzee's lecture on evil: "Even if his [Coetzee's] fiction often centers around characters caught in self-loathing and resigned to irrelevance, he consistently succeeds in putting them to the test, in demanding that they choose seriously or admit their fundamental not-choosing."

Such sentences are disheartening, particularly when one is fond of Coetzee's work. You feel the author's disapproval of all those characters of Coetzee's who are not just caught in self-loathing, but who resign themselves to irrelevance to boot; yet he tolerates them because Coetzee at least puts his characters to a solid test. Like a strict but just God. Note, if you will, the use of the word 'seriously' to modify the word 'choose', by which the schoolteacher betrays himself. Now we're going to choose seriously, children. That dozens—nay hundreds—of other characters in other novels are also caught in self-loathing and are resigned to irrelevance, that is something we shall cover with the cloak of discretion. In a review of Elizabeth Costello, the Dutch critic Arnold Heumakers suggests that Coetzee wrote this book because he was fed up with the platitude that literature is there to pose questions. Coetzee, he suggests, was in pursuit of answers.

The absurdity of the claim that we need literature in order to pose questions is clear enough, but to say that Elizabeth Costello provides answers, or that Coetzee would have wanted it to do so, is downright absurd. In his original lecture on evil, to give a little example, Coetzee has Costello think that Himmler was a man devoid of fantasy. A mere subordinate clause, and nothing more than that. But one which has been raising questions in my mind for some time now. How can Costello be so sure about Himmler? Would Himmler have held a different position in the Third Reich if he had been possessed of a bit of fantasy? Or would he only have been more pleasant to deal with on a daily basis? Was he actually unpleasant to deal with on a daily basis? Is fantasy a guarantee for empathy? Empathy, however, like disbelief, can be suspended for a time; a murderer need declare his empathy null and void for only one second, and perhaps even less than that.

To return to the veracity of a text, to what the author means and how we can ascertain that: an author may hold a passionate, moving and controversial plea for vegetarianism and, at the same time, nibble greedily on a lamb chop three times a week. That should do nothing to detract from the value or conviction of his plea. In general, one can say: the more reality we need in order to be impressed by a text, the less powerful the text itself. We need not imagine Coetzee eating salted beans, sitting at a wooden table with a roll of paper towels at hand to wipe his lips, in order to appreciate his The Lives of Animals, a novella in which Elizabeth Costello makes some rather compelling statements concerning the meat-processing industry.

In an interview with David Atwell, Coetzee said: "As all of us know, you write because you do not know what you want to say." Coetzee acts as though he is stating the overly obvious, but many would be shocked by his statement. Simon Vestdijk's widow, for example, is convinced that the true novelist first summarizes all the chapters of his novel in a little notebook, and then, and only then, starts writing his book. When it comes to this, many teachers of creative writing would probably sympathize with Simon Vestdijk's widow. Coetzee goes on by saying: "Writing reveals what you wanted to say. In fact, sometimes it constructs what you want or wanted to say."

In this latter case, one definitely cannot speak of writing with forethought. Although, it would be taking things too far to claim that the writer's subconscious is all that speaks to the reader. Coetzee's acute observation makes clear how senseless it is to try to discover the author's motives outside the text; how futile it is to reduce the text to something which the text itself is not. What was it you were actually trying to say? Was it something about the state of South Africa after apartheid? And, is that why you now live in Australia?

In dissertations one often reads about Coetzee's severity, the word 'Protestant' is one I have seen and heard mentioned; here and there he is accused of a certain lack of humor, only then to be accused of remaining silent on the subject of apartheid a few paragraphs later. Particularly striking in this is the severity of the approach taken by these dissertationists; the profoundly Calvinist view of life with which they attack his oeuvre.

As though only that view of life could do justice to Coetzee's own life and work. The tendency is to make him a bit too much of a modern Desert Father, turning his back on earthly matters in favor of the higher, the good and the beautiful; too intelligent to be understood by us completely, but delivering oracular utterances which we may, if we can, slowly unravel like rebuses.

In a fine essay about Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera wrote about the dangers of canonizing the author for the author's work, and how such canonization always results in the reduction of an oeuvre to a message fit for famous quotes calendars. "For Kafka did not suffer for us! He enjoyed himself for us!" Kundera writes.

I should like to claim that something similar applies to Coetzee. Someone is bound to have noticed that it is mischievous and indicative of a certain playfulness on the part of a writer, that when asked to deliver the prestigious Tanner lectures at Princeton University, he shows up with a story about an authoress, Elizabeth Costello—a slightly embittered, old nag (if the truth be known)—who comes to deliver a lecture at a prestigious university. About Raskolnikov's precise motives for attacking an old woman with an axe one can ramble on for hours, as long as one is possessed of a smidgen of fantasy. But concerning the motives of Elizabeth Costello we are expected to ask no questions whatsoever because she is seen as Coetzee's marionette; as an idea. She makes a few, fairly unsubtle remarks about realism and we immediately deny her the illusion of that realism. It could be that she is driven by virulence, or that she, like a modern-day Don Quixote, has gone off her rocker after reading the wrong books. Well, maybe the wrong books; books, in any event. In his banquet speech, Coetzee poses the rhetorical question: "And for whom, anyway, do we do the things that lead to Nobel Prizes if not for our mothers?"

First person plural. Coetzee speaks not only for himself, but also on behalf of all potential Nobel Prize winners and also-rans. I have absolutely no desire to speak out against this claim. Of course he is right, yet it remains a rather remarkable statement, particularly for a banquet speech. The Nobel Prize as Wiedergutmachung. A few seconds later he wonders aloud: "Why must our mothers be ninety-nine and long in the grave before we can come running home with the prize that will make up for all the trouble we have been to them?"

Could it be that Coetzee truly believes that the Nobel Prize makes up for everything? And though it is true that we have caused our mothers trouble, what about the things they have done to us? Elizabeth Costello's son mostly remembers the sorrow she has caused him.

The mother brings forth the son, she feeds him, keeps him alive; she teaches him to see the world through her eyes. She has more responsibilities towards the child than the child does towards her. Later, the son begins to bring forth things as well. He brings forth a mother who expects something from him, a mother who must be compensated for the trouble he has been to her, and only the Nobel Prize is compensation enough. The son is the character who has freed himself of the author, or who lives in the illusion of having freed himself. Yet that liberation, or the illusion of it, is a wound that does not heal, that may not heal; for only thanks to that wound can he continually convince himself of his self-liberation. The price of that freedom is a debt that cannot be repaid. A Nobel Prize is, in fact, only a down payment, something of which mothers say: "Has it taken you this long? Well it was about time. They probably couldn't find a better South African. And why just one prize? You studied mathematics, didn't you? Don't they hand out Nobel Prizes for that anymore?"

In an essay about Gerrit Achterberg's "Ballad of the Gasfitter," which he translated into English, Coetzee writes: "All versions of I are fictions of the I. The primal I is not recoverable." That is not a completely new observation, but he poses it in a pleasantly clear and concise fashion.

The I of the banquet speech is a different I from that of Elizabeth Costello. In the world of the novel, the truth that sticks to the facts does not always summon up the greatest possible trueness; perhaps that applies to the world of the banquet speech as well.

The question Coetzee's Nobel speech, "He and His Man," raises is: who is this man of his—the man of Robin, a castaway, who has been rescued and lives a reclusive life in Bristol? A writer. And who is this writer's man, who sends him reports concerning birds and execution devices? Isn't this man of his Robin himself?

Coetzee writes (and please note the irony): "It seemed to him, coming from his island, where until Friday arrived he lived a silent life, that there was too much speech in the world." But however much speech there may be, after his wife's death Robin still cannot get by without the human voice, without the world of play—even if it means that he must invent that voice, construct it. Coetzee speaks of the poetics behind "Ballad of the Gasfitter" as the poetics of failure. And he describes Achterberg as a poet who is forced to say the same thing over and over again because he has nothing to say. But to that, Coetzee adds: "Nothing is the constant source from which everything wells." I see in Coetzee's oeuvre—Coetzee has said that all reading is translating—a paean to frivolity. If Susan Barton compares the answering voice to an embrace; if Costello claims to deal in fiction and therefore to believe in things only provisionally; if David Lurie's affair with a female student makes him appeal to "the god who makes even the small birds quiver"; if Robin claims that all of married life was nothing but a bitter disappointment, then Coetzee is defending frivolity. If the primal I is not recoverable, the only tenable position is a frivolous one; a tentative one. Referring to nothing as the constant source from which everything wells is a frivolity that only an outsider, a stranger, can permit himself. Coetzee's books show that frivolity need not end in noncommitment or indifference. The outsider—and Coetzee prefers to write about outsiders, people who see themselves as islands—is himself a frivolity. He participates through observation, and that allows him to see what could better remain unseen. Just as Gerrit Achterberg's gasfitter never finds the 'You' of his life, yet notes: "A door remains a door." The poetics of failure is a frivolous poetics.

Coetzee examines the boundaries of frivolity, and takes it seriously at last. The world of play is always frivolous in part. Coetzee shows us that it can be ominous as well—unpleasant at times and often uncomfortable, but necessary. A dangerous business, because it threatens everyone, and everything that can be unmasked by frivolity.

In his "Ballad of the Gasfitter," Achterberg writes:

Indeed I can quite freely step insideas (at your service) gasfitter by trade. That glorious, ambiguous phrase, "quite freely," followed by an "at your service". Let Coetzee step inside you as well, quite freely and at your service. Gasfitter, by trade.

translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett