Saturday, 28 September 2013

A Perfectly Viable Story, of a Minor Kind

A Review of J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year

Coetzee is one of those excellent novelists of whom I have not read nearly enough. I bought Diary of a Bad Year as a present for myself after my undergraduate degree and hadn't gotten around to it until now. I'm glad I finally did read it, though I think I'm better equipped to read it now rather than after my undergrad.

If unconventional novels aren't your cup of tea, then you might not enjoy Diary quite so much as I did. It has three sections that run parallel to one another: the base of the book is a set of essays, called Strong Opinions, by the protagonist, an elderly author and professor who may or may not be a fictionalized version of Coetzee himself; the next section is a set of reflections by the protagonist on his relationship with his typist, Anya, a shockingly attractive Filipina woman who lives in his apartment complex; the third section is Anya's account of the essays, her relationship with the author, who she calls Senior C, and her live-in partner Alan, a ruthless businessman. The trick is that each page is literally divided between these three sections; the essays run along the top, the author's reflections run along the middle, and Anya's reflections run along the bottom.

Plot is minimal. Anya and Senior C gradually figure out their working relationship, but still fail to understand one another; Alan becomes jealous of the time Anya spends with Senior C; it slowly becomes clear that Alan has hatched some kind of scheme regarding Senior C. That's about all that happens. The main interest in the novel (for me) comes from two things.

First, I enjoyed the essays themselves--mainly political, occasionally aesthetic or mathematico-philosophical--and the place they held in the novel. At first, anyway, they are clever and acute (if sometimes tremendously wrong) but still seem a bit oblivious; since the reader also encounters Anya's commentary on the essays, there's something undefended, exposed, unawares about them. Toward the end of the novel, the character of the essays change; they become more reflective, less bold, more...human, perhaps? Perhaps I enjoyed them because I am (or at any rate was) an academic; even in their error, I feel a sort of affinity with their project, and I enjoyed seeing them soften, seeing them shaped by the characters' lives, seeing their concerns shape the characters' lives.

Second, I enjoyed the degree to which the characters failed to understand one another. All three principle characters had different ideas about what their relationships with one another were; all three characters also failed to understand the other characters ideas. This was ultimately enjoyable, but at times horribly frustrating, because as much as Senior C might be wrong about some things (he is usually wrong when he talks about mathematics), Alan's critiques of Senior C's essays are even worse; he badly misunderstands philosophy, making category errors all of the place. To an extent, this is an academic's nightmare and dream: the reader proves the necessity of the academic's work by failing to understand these ideas, but at the same time and by the same token proves the futility of the academic's work, as well. The character who, by the end, became perhaps Senior C's best reader, to my surprise and joy, was Anya, the pragmatic under-educated typist who proved to be smarter than she seemed (or, very possibly, became smarter in her time with Senior C).
And it's unclear whether Anya or Alan understood Senior C's personal motives at all; Alan seemed to think that there was a love-triangle going on, which is possible but so incredibly boring, while Anya thought that there was something sexual but much more innocent going on, which is also possible, but we don't get many clues from Senior C regarding his attitude toward Anya by the end of the novel.

I don't want to say much more because I'm afraid of spoiling--this isn't a novel that can easily be spoiled, since none of its effects rely much on surprise, but there are a few things which maybe ought to be discovered alone. However, I'll note that there some ideas in his essays that might stand to be discussed, and I may do that on this blog. He certainly has produced some interesting ideas. In the meantime, I'll drop two quotations from the essays for your consideration:
So Nietzsche's dictum needs to be amended: While it may be so that only the higher animals are capable of boredom, man proves himself highest of all by domesticating boredom, giving it a home.
These are pages I have read innumerable times before, yet instead of becoming inured to their force I find myself more and more vulnerable before them.
Alas, I don't think Diary of a Bad Year will be quite pass that last test.

EDIT: I should note that the title of this post is a quotation from the novel, describing a story Senior C contemplates writing but ultimately doesn't write.

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