- Diary of a Bad Year
- Viking Adult, 240 pp.
A Master of Counterpoint
In a culture which foregrounds youth and reduces creative endeavour to the crude mechanics of marketing and commodification, it is refreshing that there is still some room for the likes of J.M. Coetzee. Unlike the publications of footballers, cosmetically enhanced models, reality TV show winners and ex-politicians that line British supermarket shelves, which have helped to make books something you pick up with a pint of milk and a bag of potatoes, Coetzee has a respect for the written word which is now seen as naïve and quaint. He is, and this is, of course, one of the cardinal sins of modern life, serious. In the English speaking world it is a terrible crime to ignore the demands of merriment. How dare Coetzee not approach each and every aspect of life with an endless superficial frivolity. How dare he attempt to do anything other than provide a momentary diversion from the real business of the manufacture of money. How dare he construct work with moral, aesthetic and political ambition.
The delight of reading Coetzee, and yes, for all his unfashionable solemnity it is a delight, lies in his sublime way with beautifully modulated form. His novels are constructed with a mathematical precision. Coetzee has shown himself to be a master of counterpoint. Bach would be proud. Coetzee has the eye of a scientist, the heart of a mathematician and the soul of a composer. His cold restraint, often criticized, is the source of his tremendous power as a novelist. His themes—displacement, power, the value of literature, the fictive possibilities of personal history—are worked and reworked into novels which shine hard like diamonds, unbreakable.
Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee’s first novel since he became an Australian citizen in 2006, is a companion to Elizabeth Costello, published in 2003, and Slow Man, published in 2005. Each of these novels is concerned, at its centre, with authorship, with the flawed nature of realism and the illusory nature of writing. This book is many things, a formal experiment, a considered engagement with the contradictions and attenuated certainties of the modern world, and a portrait of the shifting sexual power between an elderly man and a young woman. Diary of a Bad Year is a novel in conversation with its constituent parts; it contains its own criticism of itself; its own internal dialogue; its own antithesis.
JC is a renowned seventy-two-year-old Australian writer living alone in an apartment block. He is writing a series of short essays, on terrorism, on Guantanamo Bay, on Intelligent Design, on Al Qaeda, for a book entitled Strong Opinions, which is to be published in Germany and France. JC suggests that the state is ‘a gang of bandits.’ If democracy and the rule of law have been treated with such contempt by the very people who profess to be their standard bearers he asks, then in what way to do they actually have any meaning? The essays are fuelled by wit and controlled indignation; they are the careful response of an exasperated, insulted intelligence.
When JC meets a Filipino-Australian woman called Anya in the laundry room of his apartment block, he reflects upon how it ‘creaks getting a conversation going.’ The rest of the novel might be seen as an attempt to undermine those creaks. Anya, forty years JC’s junior, agrees to type up the writer’s manuscript. Alan, her partner, an out of shape investment consultant who is very pleased to be a part of the unforgiving rhythms of the neo-liberal present, does not take too kindly to the idea of his girlfriend spending so much time with a withered throwback to the delirious fantasies of the 1960s. And so he decides that he will get something out of this relationship. After all, he only understands the world through financial gain and competition. Everything else is hopeless fancy.
Coetzee plays with our perceptions of his characters, subverting our immediate suspicion that Anya is a two-dimensional fantasy by making the very point himself. As JC’s authority is undermined and his humanity revealed, so too is Anya shown to be more than the vain superficial presence she appears to be at the beginning. Alan, seen only through the perspective of the other characters, is left as a noise off, an irritant, wholly without compassion.
Coetzee divides much of the novel into three sections: the essays at the top of each page; JC’s wistful perspective on his relationship with Anya in the middle; and Anya’s more skeptical view of events at the bottom. This subtle and intricate form allows for the harmonious and the discordant, for coincidence and incongruity. Sentences are interrupted, thoughts left hanging. This means there are some moments of wonderful bathos – such as when a discussion of human reason is interrupted by a conversation about shoe shopping.
The final third of the novel is increasingly melancholic. JC’s opinions, this time not for publication, become what Anya calls ‘soft’: that is, personal and reflective. The writer comes to measure the shape of his own life and achievements. His health is fading, and contemplation of his mortality becomes his dominant thought. At this point, Diary of a Bad Year begins to read like JC’s valediction, with his words torn from the depths of a soul unaccustomed to the emotive public screams of contemporary life.
It is inevitable that the reader will want to see the John Coetzee in JC. To my mind, this is an irrelevance. Coetzee’s interest is in deception and disguise, not the bared and bleeding wounds of the confessional.