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Learning to Read with Coetzee

By Christian Edwards

The Death of Jesus

J M Coetzee, Harvill Secker, 2020

J M Coetzee rarely gives people what they want. When asked to deliver lectures, he reads out fictions about writers invited to deliver lectures. When asked to collect his 1983 and 1999 Booker Prizes, both times he declined. When asked to deliver his 2003 Nobel Lecture, he instead read out a piece about Robinson Crusoe’s dislike of society (‘Too much speech in the world’). When his editor requested a title for the first work in his latest trilogy, Coetzee asked if he could bend the rules. ‘I had hoped that the book would appear with a blank cover and a blank title page, so that only after the last page had been read would the reader meet the title, namely The Childhood of Jesus. But in the publishing industry as it is at present, that is not allowed.’

But that was not Coetzee’s only request. With The Death of Jesus, the final instalment of the trilogy, he persuaded his publisher to do two things not often allowed in the publishing industry. First, in no apparent rush to make his work accessible to English-speaking readers, he wanted to first publish the novel in Spanish. (La muerte de Jésus was published in May 2019; The Death of Jesus was not published in the UK until January 2020.) Second, to tell the reader the ending before they have even opened the book. If Coetzee’s title was not sufficiently suggestive, the blurb dispels any doubt: ‘David arrived, the world changed, David departed, and the world has gone back to being as it was before.’

The back cover paraphrases the last 30 pages of the novel, and reveals its main event: David, an orphan adopted by Simón in a strange new world, dies. How are we to read a novel that disarms plot in this way? And what are we to make of Coetzee’s favouring of Spanish over English? In a 2015 book called The Good Story, a series of exchanges between Coetzee and the psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz, Coetzee stated that his fictions ‘don’t have much respect for reality’. The Jesus trilogy would seem a case in point.

In The Childhood of Jesus, Simón and David arrive in the fictional Novilla after a sea-crossing during which they have shed their earlier identities and had their memories erased. On the boat, David lost the letter carrying the names of his parents from his past life; Simón assumes the role of father. He starts trying to find David a mother, knowing he will recognise her when he sees her. They find Inés playing tennis. Simón, without reason, knows she is David’s mother. They become a family and try to educate David. In this new world, people speak Spanish, not English. Simón and David have a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish (who knows how?) but must learn the language properly. David learns by reading the children’s annotated version of Don Quixote, learning by whole words, not individual letters. His mind works differently to other children’s. Counting is difficult; he fears he may ‘fall down the gaps between the numbers’. He has, to Simón and Inés, the potential to be exceptional. He feels things that others do not.

In The Schooldays of Jesus, David enrols at the Academy of Dance, where they teach counting differently. ‘Dancing,’ explains David, ‘is the same as counting.’ The philosophy the Academy teaches is one Simón cannot understand. What does it mean to ‘dance a number’? David is frustrated with Simón and instead befriends Dmitri, a cleaner at the Academy. Simón distrusts him, and with good reason: halfway through the novel Dmitri is imprisoned for the rape and murder of Señora Ana Magdalena, a tutor at the Academy. David sees the body and has new questions to ask.

In The Death of Jesus, David is now 10, seeking independence from Simón and Inés. They are not his ‘real’ parents, just as David is not his ‘real’ name. He wants to be with the other orphans at Dr Fabricante’s orphanage, where he can play football. But after he leaves, his health rapidly deteriorates. His legs stop working; inexplicable spasms leave him bedbound. David is taken to hospital, where he is cared for by Dr Ribiero and a rehabilitated Dmitri, who cleans the ward. As his illness worsens, David tells stories about Don Quixote to the other orphans, who gather round his bedside like disciples. He speaks of having a ‘message’. Dmitri lingers around his bedside, trying to hear ‘the fiery word that will reveal why we are here’. But the word never comes. David only asks questions: ‘Why am I here?’ His death comes 70 pages from the end of the novel (a long time for Coetzee, who rarely deals in prose fiction over 200 pages). Simón and Inés are left to wonder, agonisingly, what David’s message was, what their boy really ‘meant’.

The Death of Jesus delivers everything that readers have come to expect from Coetzee: the tautness of language; the suspicion of rationality; the tug of the philosophical. In terms of detail to support David’s characterisation, Coetzee gives us little but the alternation between ‘The boy nods’, and ‘The boy nods vigorously.’ He makes the translator’s job easy: his language never tries to dazzle. He focalises his sustained use of the third-person present around Simón as he grapples with the rules of Novilla, which are totally alien to him. Just as Simón struggles with the irrational world around him, we, too, feel our rationality challenged. Simón feels shut out from David’s mental life and remains largely untouched by the mystical:

Unable to see his own soul, he has not questioned what people tell him about it: that it is a dry soul, deficient in passion. His own, obscure intuition – that, far from lacking in passion, his soul aches with longing for it knows not what – he treats sceptically as just the kind of story that someone with a dry, rational, deficient soul will tell himself to maintain his self-respect.

We hear his doubt, his nagging scepticism, and share it. We are in a world that makes little sense, and doesn’t even try to.

This tension—between a world that does not make sense and a rationalist mind that wants it to—pushes the conflict explored in Coetzee’s other works, like Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello, to its limits. Coetzee distrusts human rationality. He is fascinated by the moments when our reason baulks and understanding, like grace, comes to us instinctively. In the novel, these moments are almost like religious conversion, as when Simón sees David dance: ‘From some buried memory the words pillar of grace emerge, surprising him […] As if the earth has lost its downward power, the boy seems to shed all bodily weight, to become pure light’. Though the ‘logic’ of the dance still ‘eludes’ him, Simón begins to understand, not through inductive reasoning, but through something closer to a religious experience.

In a trilogy saturated with philosophy, in which characters discuss ‘the chairness of chairs’ and unknowingly voice excerpts from Wittgenstein, Coetzee nevertheless shows us where philosophy fails. When David asks Simón what philosophy is, Simón responds: ‘Philosophy tells us when there is nothing more to say. Philosophy tells us when to sit with our minds still and our mouths shut. No more questions, no more answers’. Philosophy, for Coetzee, is about solving problems. Literature is about staging them. We saw this in Disgrace, the first sentence of which reads: ‘For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.’ It emerges that David Lurie, the university professor fired for his affair with a student, has not solved the problem of sex, and that part of his struggle is that he views sex as a problem to be solved. By the end of the novel, Lurie still has unsolved conflicts, but learns to live with them: ‘One gets used to things getting harder; one ceases to be surprised that what used to be as hard as hard can be grows harder yet.’ Scepticism is at the heart of Coetzee’s fiction: we must always be suspicious and never allow ourselves to think that we know the answer. And so the Jesus novels are flooded with unanswerable questions. How did they get to Novilla? Is this world the afterlife? If it is, will there be more lives after this one? Was David truly special? Did he really have a ‘message’?

But these unanswered questions are driving readers away from Coetzee and most reviewers mad. Peter Kemp in The Timesepitomised what has, for some years, been Coetzee’s mainstream reception in the English-speaking world, when he stated that the novel was yet more ‘blind-alley allusiveness’ and ‘messianic mumbo-jumbo’ from the ‘high priest of obfuscation’. For The Guardian’s Alex Preston, the novel is little more than ‘an allegory [which] never hits home’. For Preston, it was the final straw: ‘I’ve given up trying to force meaning into these novels’.

We should pause here and give this response, so often voiced against Coetzee, the attention it deserves. The feeling among many English-speaking readers today is that Coetzee’s novels are deliberately obscure. Preston wants to find the meaning; when he fails, he becomes disenchanted and ‘gives up’. We have seen this before, not just with readers of Coetzee, but readers in Coetzee, too. In Coetzee’s 1983 novel Life & Times of Michael K, set in the middle of a fictional South African war, when the titular character goes on a fast for no apparent reason, he fascinates those around him, especially the camp doctor. Like Preston, the doctor is guilty of reading Michael K with the same desire for meaning. He ties himself in knots and says things such as: ‘Michaels means something, and the meaning he has is not private to me.’ He says to Michael K: ‘I began to understand the truth of you, unknown to your conscious self.’ But the doctor’s attempts to understand Michael K fail: ‘Whenever I tried to pin you down, you slipped away.’

The camp doctor is, put simply, a bad reader; he tries to force meaning into Michael K when Michael K doesn’t want to mean anything. Reviewers, like so many readers, are making the same mistake with the Jesus novels. The Death of Jesus is about a boy who may or may not have a ‘message’. Simón and others suspect that he does. But we can never know. We never hear David’s message and never find out what David ‘meant’. But that is, I think, the point. Much of the Jesus trilogy feels directed against readings like Preston’s. Simón wants to know the ‘meaning’ of David’s dance, to which his music teacher Arroyo responds: ‘Maybe it is not in the power of dance to deliver messages. Maybe dance and messages belong to different realms’.

The same can be true of literature and messages. Simón, like the doctor, wants the answers to everything but this does him little good. Arroyo tells him at the end of Schooldays: ‘If we wish to escape the cycle,’—that is, the cycle of our endless hunger for answers—‘perhaps we should be scouring the world not for the true answer but for the true question’. When we expect to hear David’s ‘message’, his answer, we get only a question: ‘Who am I?’ The long-awaited answer never arrives.

Whatever the titles may suggest, David is not Jesus. He does not have a ‘message’ that sets the world alight. Nothing in the novels explicitly links David to Jesus other than the titles. How would our reading change without them? What if we had The Childhood, The Schooldays and The Death of David? Would we find the same allegorical parallels between David’s plight and that of Christ? I doubt it. The Jesus reference provokes an allegorical reading that the texts deny; the allegory deliberately fails. Here, Coetzee may be pushing back against critics, like South African writer Nadine Gordimer, who claim that he is merely an ‘allegorical’ writer. The allegory so many readers seem to find in Coetzee is a fiction. We get a gesture towards the potential for allegory but never the thing itself. This is perhaps why Coetzee gladly reveals the plot of his novel in his blurb: by shifting the focus away from what happens, we must read instead for how things happen, and attend to the act of reading itself.

The Jesus trilogy has tried, perhaps more than any other work by Coetzee, to disturb English-speakers’ relationship to their own language. We read these novels in English but must constantly remind ourselves that the characters are speaking Spanish. When David tries to learn to read the words fantástico and gigante, he is learning to read the same language he is speaking. We sense that there is some trick being played on us, but there isn’t. If we imagine the scene in Spanish, these reading scenes are the simplest imaginable: it is simply a scene in which a young boy is trying to learn to read Spanish words, in a narrative written in Spanish. A consequence of this is that our relationship to our own language becomes uneasy. As Coetzee’s friend (and critic) Derek Attridge recently wrote: ‘He has lost interest, he says, in the way his books are received and read in the English-speaking world […] and has become more interested in the way they are received elsewhere’. Who can blame him? Coetzee tries to make us feel something that English speakers so rarely have to: that the language we speak or read is not our own.

Perhaps we should see Coetzee as an old bird flying south for the winter, in search of more welcoming climes. (Every year since 2015 he has hosted a lecture series in Buenos Aires on ‘Literatures of the South’.) In the English-speaking world he has more often been defined by what he is not than what he is. For Nadine Gordimer, Coetzee is not sufficiently attentive to the ills of the South Africa. For Martin Amis, Coetzee is not funny. We sense he is tiring of this. For Sophie Denoël, a fictional character in his novel Summertime, who discusses her own author, Coetzee is neither ambitious nor difficult, and doesn’t show enough passion. These are valid critiques: Coetzee is about as likely to join Twitter as he is to write a joke. But Coetzee is rarely read on his own terms, something he makes a point of doing when he reads other authors. (‘What I mean by saying that I try to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky on their own terms is that despite my own lack of religious position, I make every effort to enter into that religious world that they inhabit.’) It seems we in the Anglophone world are not paying Coetzee the same courtesy, and we are the poorer for it.

The Death of Jesus is not a great novel. The term ‘great novel’ doesn’t naturally fit any of Coetzee’s works, except, perhaps, his most novelistic of novels, Disgrace. His books have no great characters, no great passages of lyricism, no great moments of realisation when things start to make sense. But this is deliberate. One does not sense that The Death of Jesus is trying to be a great novel. Take the first sentence: ‘It is a crisp autumn afternoon’. Any reader of English knows that autumn afternoons are always crisp; to say so is a cliché. If Coetzee was playing the same game as other novelists, he would avoid cliché. But he doesn’t. It seems there are more important things at stake for him here. In this trilogy, Coetzee refuses to answer to his critics in a way that maybe he used to. Asked to pay more attention to the political realities of South Africa, he sets his trilogy in another world entirely. Asked to be less philosophical, he reworks the material from Plato and Wittgenstein. Asked to give us the ‘answer’ to his text, he gives only questions.

This is Coetzee on his own terms. The novel refuses resolution. David’s ‘message’ never reveals itself, but Simón suspects it may be found in his copy of the children’s Don Quixote, borrowed (stolen) from the Novilla library. The librarian has left a note inside the cover, asking the children to write down the message of the book. Simón sees two comments:

I liked Sancho, reads the first. The message of the book is, we should listen to Sancho because he is not the crazy one.

The message of the book is Don Quixote died so he could not marry Dulcinea, reads the second.

Neither comment is in David’s hand. A pity. Now it will never be known what, in David’s eyes, the message of the book was, or what most of all he remembered from it.

We will never know what David thought Don Quixote’s ‘message’ was; nor will we ever know if he had his own. But if we think this represents the total absence of meaning, we are mistaken. Meaning, like the messiah, may not announce itself when it comes. We must learn to recognise things for what they are, learn to know the thing when we see it; learn, that is, to read.

CHRISTIAN EDWARDS reads English at Worcester. He hopes Liverpool somehow bottle it.

Art by Ellen Sharman


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