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Old 7th May 2005, 22:04   #1
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Default J.M. Coetzee

I was stunned by the quality of this the 1983 Booker winner from the South African Nobel Prize winner. The first of two bookers for this author it’s a deeply moving and thought provoking novel set in war torn South Africa during the 70's. Apartheid features large and the crumbling civil infrastructure give this novel a strange almost surreal feel. Michael K is described as "slow", born with a hair lip he lives life on the very fringes of the segregated society that excludes all Black and coloured people anyway. Poor Michael has a very different grasp on life compared to those around him and ekes out a life as a council gardener until his mother - a domestic servant - becomes seriously ill. Michael decides to leave the city and take his mother back to her country village. But the war has bought curfews and an even more restrictive and paranoid government. All that Michael wants is to be left alone, to re find his roots and return to the land.

It isn't hard to be deeply moved by Michael's adventures, his limited grasp on the world around him. Yet he manages to transcend the war and the civil problems around him to try and re find his place in his own country. He describes himself as a gardener but he is more than that, he has a feeling for the land and the weather. It's beautifully written and wonderfully descriptive. The pointlessness of the apartheid system and of the war is ably brought to the narrative by the author through the gentle Michael K - its both gentle and hard hitting at the same time. It has hope with in it though; there is a real inner peace in Michael, a fathomless pit of calm untroubled by bullying Soldiers and Police and uncaring officials. It's hard to describe how this quite simple story affects one as a reader - thought provoking doesn't do it justice. It surprising how many good novels has South Africa as a backdrop either during apartheid or in the post apartheid era, this doesn't disappoint its quite quite excellent.
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Old 28th May 2006, 17:36   #2
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Default Re: Life & Times of Michael K - JM Coetzee

I completely agree with this assessment. "Life and Times of Michael K" is a staggering achievement and, in my opinion, one of the very finest Booker Prize winners.

Kafka is an important influence on Coetzee, and the Austrian master's imprints are all over this novel (the protagonist's initial last name, "K", should be the first indication). But it never seems derivative or gimmicky. It's a very powerful meditation on oppression and resistance.

On a side note, I recently finished Coetzee's other Booker winner, "Disgrace", and found it a striking work. It's an altogether more polished novel, I'd say. Philosophical, erudite and perfectly constructed, it's a hard book to find fault with. But compared with "Life and Times of Michael K", I consider it a colder book, more detached, stripped-down and uncompromising. It's probably a masterpiece, but it's an exceedingly chilly masterpiece.

Regardless, Coetzee is well worth being acquainted with. Many have made the case for him perhaps being the world's greatest living author, and if that's a bit of a stretch, I'd be hard pressed to find a writer as cerebral and demanding as he is. He's immensely knowledgable about literature, philosophy, theory and history -- and it shows -- but, remarkably, he never gets ostentatious or inaccessible about it.

His recent novels, "Slow Man" and "Elizabeth Costello", indicate a bit of a downward slide (at least in terms of critical response). But his earlier novel, "Waiting for the Barbarians", is highly regarded, so I think I'll read that next.
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Old 28th May 2006, 19:37   #3
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Default Re: Life & Times of Michael K - JM Coetzee

Coincidence time: I picked up Life & Times of Michael K in WHSmith for £2.99 last week but only read the first few pages before deciding not to bother with it for now - a bit too gloomy, it seemed, for my present mood. I'd wanted to read it after having read Disgrace and enjoying (or 'enjoying') that, and was keen to see the other novel that he had won the Booker with. No doubt I'll get around to it soon. In the meantime I was surprised to see from the printing history that, although it was first published in the UK in 1983, it was originally published in South Africa in 1974. This surprised me because I supposed there must be some rule in the Booker Prize about a book being first published in the year of the award - but presumably not; perhaps it just has to have its first UK publication in the award year.
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Old 29th May 2006, 11:53   #4
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Default Re: Life & Times of Michael K - JM Coetzee

Originally Posted by John Self
a bit too gloomy, it seemed, for my present mood.
I suppose this is for another thread really, but this made me wonder: Do folks tend toward the opposite of their mood, e.g. reading something jolly or escapist when feeling fragile; and reading doom & gloom only when feeling sufficiently robust not to be 'brought down'? Or does reading something potentially depressing when feeling low help, by reminding us that we are not alone? And if we're feeling good, does it affirm our optimism to read something upbeat?
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Old 29th May 2006, 12:44   #5
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Default Re: Life & Times of Michael K - JM Coetzee

That's a fascinating set of questions, ono, but y'know, I don't think anything I read ever affects my mood one way or another. Having a keen interest in the whole writing business, so much of the time I'm reading I'm a step removed, studying how the writer is delivering his/her goods, and only poorly written stuff, or that which is in a style not to my liking will annoy, in which case I abandon it. No matter how depressing the subject matter, like John, I derive pure joy from reading it, if it's beautifully expressed and skillfully handled. And while it sounds hopelessly smug, and nauseatingly Pollyanna-ish, I don't get down or feel fragile these days, largely thanks to having adopted a sort of 'oh fuck it, life's too short' mentality - helped hugely by getting a decent physical workout in, most days. Physical exercise is better than Prozac any day, and a great mood enhancer. I also think age helps you ride the stormy passages of life a little better: after experiencing some of life's more major shipwrecks (!) you come to realise that if you and yours have health and enough money in the bank to keep body and soul together, then happiness is yours for the taking.

Add: I really out to add a rider to all that, however. Reading non-fiction that involves great suffering of man or beast is something that distresses me horribly. There are many times I've chosen not to read on with stuff like that, because I don't want to feel miserable over something I can do little about or, more shamingly, am too lazy to get involved with.

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Old 20th Sep 2007, 18:51   #6
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Default Re: JM Coetzee

When in the space of four years, you’ve become the first writer to win the Booker Prize twice (1999) and won the Nobel Prize for Literature (2003), where do you go from there? Judging by J.M. Coetzee’s example - and I imagine we’ll wait some time for another one - you quietly give up on fiction without telling anyone. After all, in the words of Bobby Charlton in 1966, what is there to win now?

His first novel since the Booker-winning Disgrace contained essays in a fictional surround: Elizabeth Costello even used some ‘lectures’ Coetzee had previously published. Now he goes further with Diary of a Bad Year, where the vast majority of the text is in the form of essays written by a South African novelist with the initials JC…

Many of the early essays, on subjects like the birth of the state, anarchy, and terrorism, are rigorous and interesting, but also lucid and accessible.

Every account of the origins of the state starts from the premise that “we” - not we the readers but some generic we so wide as to exclude no one - participate in its coming into being. But the fact is that the only “we” we know - ourselves and the people close to us - are born into the state; and our forebears too were born into the state as far back as we can trace. The state is always there before we are.
If the essays have an overall theme it is of power and powerlessness: citizens subject to politicians; animals subject to humans. But Coetzee spreads his net wider as the book goes on and veers into topics such as music and narrative fiction; it’s when he goes further, into numbers and probability, that the strain begins to show, and some of the final pieces (”On ageing,” “On children”) hardly do their subjects justice at only a few lines long.

Meanwhile each page is divided in three. The essay takes up the first part, then we have the narrative of the ‘author,’ JC, describing his growing infatuation with a beautiful young girl called Anya who lives in his block of flats. He employs her as his secretary for the essays, to try to get closer to her. His accounts are frank if not always edifying:

A week passed before I saw her again - in a well-designed apartment block like this, tracking one’s neighbours is not easy - and then only fleetingly as she passed through the front door in a pair of white slacks that showed off a derriere so near to perfect as to be angelic. God, grant me one wish before I die, I whispered; but then was overtaken with shame at the specificity of the wish, and withdrew it.
The third section of each page describes Anya’s thoughts, and her conversations with her ruthless financier partner, Alan, who becomes suspicious of JC’s interest in Anya and plans a curious revenge.

The fictional narrative of JC and Anya takes up perhaps a quarter of the word-count of the book. The story is well told but not enthralling, and when the character JC mentions at one point that at his age, “sketching stories seems to have become a substitute for writing them,” we know what he means.

And be warned if, like me, you still haven’t got around to watching that DVD of The Seven Samurai that you’ve had for years. Coetzee gives away the entire plot on page 6.

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Old 18th Oct 2007, 19:39   #7
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Default Re: J.M. Coetzee

Some time ago, five years or more, I read Waiting for the Barbarians. I had quite forgotten who was the author, though I was fairly sure it was Coetzee. Thank goodness for Look Inside! I recognised the first lines immediately.

It was a chilling and pessimistic book, set in no country in particular at no time in particular, but the area is far off the beaten track, and backward. It is next to a desert, or rather a stark wilderness. The local magistrate is visited by a Colonel from the hub of the Empire, who proceeds to civilise the "barbarians" of the district by capturing and torturing them. The whole book speaks of hardship and misery, made worse by the cruel colonel, but alleviated by the more tender heart of the magistrate, who pays for his humanity in suffering.

A cruel, pitiless tale, told with great skill and descriptive ability. I barely remember the details of the story, but the landscape, the magistrate and the colonel will be with me in perpetuity.
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Old 4th Jan 2008, 20:13   #8
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Default Re: J.M. Coetzee

This is interesting, from The Guardian's book blog:

JM Coetzee has had a bad year. The book that made his name, Disgrace, has seen him - rather belatedly, since it was published in 1999 - branded a racist. Disillusioned with the country of his birth, he emigrated from South Africa to Australia. Conveniently, his latest book, Diary of a Bad Year, follows the story of Senor C, who happens to be a writer who moves from South Africa to Australia under a cloud of racism.

You can see the problem here. There is a deliberate blurring of the line between fiction and autobiography in some of Coetzee's writing, with the result that readers have been encouraged to draw parallels between David Lurie, the main protagonist of Disgrace, and Coetzee himself. Writing for the pan-African journal Chimurenga, Gerturde B Makhaya points out how flawed this reading is: "He does not preach, he is not obvious, unlike most South African artists of his time he is not political and this may be a source of misreadings, overreadings and misunderstandings. As a white writer who has written a novel through the eyes of a racist white male, he occupies a difficult position."

The whole affair is reminiscent of the Morrissey debate that was played out in these online pages, and even Radio 1's "faggotgate". Should works of art written "in character" be subject to the same levels of censure as they would be if they were uttered by, say, a faded comedian on a reality TV show?

Is JM Coetzee racist? I seriously doubt it. He strikes me as an accomplished, thoughtful writer - a South African laureate and Booker Prize winner no less - who has grown up in a racist society and is unafraid to confront the issues that raises.
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Old 4th Jan 2008, 21:51   #9
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Default Re: J.M. Coetzee

How sad. Of course he's not racist... well, not based on a piece of fiction he's not anyway. This is an example of intolerance which seems to be becoming more and more pervasive. It think it's a sad state of affairs when works of fiction are looked upon in that way and the authors labeled such.
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Old 24th Jun 2008, 12:58   #10
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Default Re: J.M. Coetzee

Sam Jordison just wrote a reappraisal of Disgrace as part of The Guardian's 'Best of the Booker' build-up:

His view is that the novel is didactic, more of a thesis than a narrative, humourless, boring and completely unchallenging.

It's been a few years since I read the book, but his analysis doesn't fit with what I remember of it. I recall a well-drawn picture of a man cursed with too much pride and an author drawing a parallel between him and satan, against a completely unsentimental depiction of post-apartheid South Africa. Rather than being a thesis, or a rigid metaphorical plot, I thought it gave a personal reality to a complex situation.

What do you all think? Is it a moral lesson or a masterpiece?
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