Breaking the Fourth Wall

Reviewed by Louis Begley
Sunday, January 6, 2008


By J.M. Coetzee

Viking. 231 pp. $24.95

J.M. Coetzee is a great novelist, perhaps the greatest writing today, and has garnered just about every important prize awarded for fiction written in English, including the Nobel Prize for Literature. By common consent his most powerful work is Disgrace, published in 1999, in form an old fashioned realistic novel that one can readily imagine having been written by Dostoevsky, Coetzee's acknowledged master, if the terrifying event at the center of its plot -- the gang rape of a young lesbian in the South African bush -- were transposed to Russia during one of its periods of violence and chaos. Coetzee's previous novels, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Age of Iron (1990) and The Master of Petersburg (1994) among them, are likewise in the realist tradition. They are stories plausible enough for the reader to accept them as true. To quote the protagonist of Coetzee's new novel, Diary of a Bad Year, such stories "tell themselves, they don't get told." The author doesn't intrude in the space between the version of reality he has created and the reader, or otherwise take the risk of breaking the spell he has cast.

Since Disgrace, however, Coetzee has been engaged in a fascinating effort to bend the realist novel into a new medium. Diary of a Bad Year is the most recent example of that enterprise; the mesmerizing and beautiful novel Elizabeth Costello (2003) was the first. In the latter work Coetzee introduced an alter ego, a famous female writer, born in 1928, and the author of nine novels, a volume of poems, a book on birds and a body of journalism -- an oeuvre closely corresponding to Coetzee's. We see her deliver seven lectures. Among them: one on the novel, two on animal rights (these were in fact given by Coetzee at Princeton) and one on Eros as it affects men and gods. The last chapter is a retelling of the parable of the Law in Kafka's Trial.

Elizabeth Costello came back on stage, as though to take a bow, in an exquisite chapter-length sequel to the novel that appeared in 2005 in the New York Review of Books, and again, much more substantially, in the novel Slow Man, also published that year. There Costello literally moves in with the protagonist, a 60-something man by the name of Rayment, living alone in Adelaide, Australia. Rayment had never met Costello before, and she is not a welcome or easy guest. But she is obsessed with him, and the difficulty she faces is that he won't cooperate. He refuses to undertake anything that makes the protagonist of a novel photogenic, such as making love to the three women who are in all likelihood available or, for that matter, Costello herself. Slow Man-- with its slow protagonist -- can be seen as a novelist's interaction with the characters of a novel that is still a work in progress and may not turn out as had been intended.

The obduracy of invented characters can be very real. The novelist comes across them somewhere in the zone of imagination and, because of a mysterious affinity, invites them to come aboard. They do -- and misbehave. Coetzee's surrogate in Diary of a Bad Year is JC (two of Coetzee's initials), another very distinguished novelist but this time originally South African, laden with honors, born in 1934 (Coetzee was born in 1940), and now living in Sydney (Coetzee, like Rayment, lives in Adelaide). Asked why he isn't writing a novel instead of the string of little essays to be published in Germany as "Strong Opinions," JC answers, "I don't have the endurance any more. To write a novel you have to be like Atlas, holding up the whole world on your shoulders and supporting it there for months and years while its affairs work themselves out. It is too much for me as I am today."

JC and Coetzee may be protesting too much. Diary of a Bad Year is an ingenious work that rivets the reader's attention, and it cannot have been easy to write. The top third of each page is occupied by the essays that JC is writing for a German publisher.

The middle third of the page tells the story of JC's relationship with Anya, a Philippine-Australian beauty he meets in his building's basement laundry room. In the manner of old men who have loved women, he feels an immediate flash of desire, but, cagy and reasonable, he resists temptation. Instead of making a pass or venturing a proposition, he engages her to type the essays he dictates into a recording machine. Her secretarial skills aren't much, but she becomes his Segretaria, his Secret Aria, an echo of Humbert Humbert's string of endearing names for Lolita. When they discuss his work, she bosses him around, adding to his infatuation.

On the bottom third of each page appears a running commentary by Anya on JC and on her own live-in affair with Alan, and also Alan's comments to Anya on JC. Alan is an Australian yob who has worked his way to being a financial consultant; in his case that may mean he is a crook. He has planted spyware on the hard drive of JC's computer, which reports on everything JC confides to his computer, especially his finances. Alan's Thatcherite lucubrations are a counterpoint for JC's sometimes quirky and more often predictable worldview: JC distrusts democracy and deplores the decline of Australian political life, loathes George W. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, feels shame descending upon him when he thinks of Guantanamo and Americans' use of torture. Alan, we soon learn, has concocted a larcenous scheme designed to get his hands on JC's money. Anya's response is somber and unequivocal: She will stand by her JC. More than that, she will be there to hold his hand and give him a kiss when the end comes, "just to remind him of what he is leaving behind."

So it turns out in the end that Coetzee has written a sometimes sentimental love story that plays out nicely to the legato accompaniment of his pronouncements, political and cultural, some of which hit the bull's eye while some come to the verge of pomposity. I said "his pronouncements," but of course they are JC's essays, which is a reminder that not everything in Coetzee's novel is as it seems. Except this: Lovely Anya has her heart in the right place, and JC is lucky enough to understand that. Is the experimental form the story took a success? I was amused and at the same time hoped that the marvelously inventive Mr. Coetzee will move beyond it. *

Louis Begley is the author of eight novels, the most recent of which is "Matters of Honor."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company