Reviewed: The Childhood of Jesus by J M Coetzee and Harvest by Jim Crace

Across the boundary.

The Childhood of Jesus
J M Coetzee
Harvill Secker, 288pp, £18.99

Harvest
Jim Crace
Picador, 320pp, £16.99

Daniel Defoe managed to get the names of three European cities into the opening sentence of his first novel, creating a context of solid reality in which the reader’s disorientation would feel all the more pronounced. By the third chapter, “Wrecked on a Desert Island”, Robinson Crusoe is stranded in an environment whose name he doesn’t know and whose features he is forced to describe. And so the modern novel, like the Greek and Spanish romances that preceded it, started life as an imaginary travelogue – and continued down that road, as it were, in the work of Swift and Sterne. Now, almost three centuries on, J M Coetzee, the South African Nobel Prize-winner who rewrote Robinson Crusoe from a female perspective in Foe has made a sparsely populated, Spanish-speaking city with enviable welfare provision the setting for his boondoggling and unfestive new novel.

After spending six weeks in a desert camp, Simon, a man with no possessions and no memory, arrives in Novilla with a small boy, David. Simon takes a punishing job as a stevedore and spends his free time pursuing a glum affair (“Quietly, discreetly, they do the business of sex”) and searching for David’s mother. One day, he sees a woman on a tennis court. On Simon’s feeble assurances (“All will become clear to you . . . or so I believe”), she agrees to take the child.

Like the majority of Coetzee’s flinty, poker-faced novels, The Childhood of Jesus is written in the third person and its portrait of Novilla is offered from the outside. Voltaire also used the third person but when Candide and Cacambo arrive in El Dorado, they note its many differences from Westphalia. Simon, by contrast, proves a maddeningly unreliable reader proxy, responding as we would to some things but not to others. In his more impassioned moments, as when he expresses rage that no one drinks or raises their voice and that everyone conducts relations in “beginner’s Spanish”, he seems to be an inhabitant of the reader’s world. But when David identifies a passage of German poetry as “English”, he doesn’t blink.

Now and again, Coetzee seems to be confirming our sense of the novel’s silliness, such as when he uses deadpan precis to put an earlier scene in perspective: “Eugenio seems intent on showing that their disagreement about rats, history, and the organisation of dockside labour has left no hard feelings.” At other points – for example, Simon’s professed desire to find “a new life, a new beginning” – the novel feels earnestly, desperately human.

Such conflicting impulses are evident throughout. When one of Simon’s colleagues says that if he wants meat, he should make a rat trap, Simon reflects: “He can see no sign that he is joking. Or if it is a joke, it is a very deep joke.” The Childhood of Jesus is rarely funny and deep at the same time. Nevertheless, “deep joke” is one of the categories to which it could be said to belong.

“Novel of ideas” is another. It emerges that Novilla has a raging adult-education scene, with courses including: “Philosophy. Elements of Philosophy. Philosophy: Selected Topics. Philosophy of Labour. Philosophy and Everyday Life.” The Novillans favour a kind of philosophy, primarily concerned with the chairness of chairs, which Simon finds sterile. His own taste inclines towards ethics and metaphysics – philosophy that “changes one’s life” – but there doesn’t seem to be much of it about. While Simon’s adult associates are pursuing questions of logic, his five-year-old companion grows increasingly obsessed with the idea that numbers have secret motives and meanings.

Although David’s behaviour and utterances are often Christ-like – the title exists outside the book’s world – his behaviour has more in common with that of three boy-men born in the 1880s – Wittgenstein, Kafka and in particular Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician discussed in Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. On the one hand, Costello asks: “Was Ramanujan closer to God because his mind . . . was at one . . . with the being of reason?” On the other, she suggests that the “phenomenon” of Ramanujan might be attributable to the ways in which an intellectual tradition based on reason instals the idea of reason at the centre of the universe. The question of whether numbers are an invention or a discovery, whether order is inherent or imposed, is passionately debated in The Childhood of Jesus and at points where most novels might be moving things along or bringing them to a head.

Accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1987, Coetzee said that he only wished he could join Milan Kundera, a previous winner, in paying tribute to Miguel de Cervantes. But as long as South African novelists of his generation were confined to “a world of pathological attachments and abstract forces, of anger and violence”– to writing “prison” literature – they could only dream of taking up residence “in a world where a living play of feelings and ideas is possible”.

When the time came, with the election of F W de Klerk in 1989, Coetzee expressed his new freedom by returning to the novel’s hybrid roots. Like some care-free citizen of Georgian England or imperial Spain, he has been toying with biography, memoir, the lecture and the essay. Among the works that followed his novel about Dostoevsky (The Master of Petersburg) were a trilogy of exercises in oblique self-reckoning – a kind of Being John Coetzee – and a trilogy of exercises in skewed allegoriself- portraiture, the Elizabeth Costello books. The best-known work from this period, the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace (1999), is also the least characteristic, a social realist novel about a libidinous academic in post-apartheid South Africa. A later book, Diary of a Bad Year, a series of essays interspersed with the events surrounding their composition – was much more consistent with the mood of experimental buoyancy.

Under apartheid, Coetzee felt comfortable emulating writers who deal with anger and violence but not those who trade in games and jokes, however deep. The Childhood of Jesus, Coetzee’s most freewheeling work so far, might be seen as a homage to Beckett, whose characters, in Coetzee’s words, are confined to “a purgatorial treadmill on which they rehearse again and again the great themes of western philosophy” – both Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year contain sections about the afterlife – and Borges, whose fiction he described as “a game of chess in which the reader is always a move behind the author”. The only book that Simon and David read is the story of Don Quixote written by Benengeli, the author within Cervantes’s text, and it is tempting to see Novilla not as a reconfigured version of the feudal or industrial or post-industrial city but as an outpost of the republic of letters with its own customs, laws and logic – Novel-land.

The English writer Jim Crace, author of ten previous books, belongs to a tradition that runs parallel to that of Defoe, in which an exotic landscape is described from the inside, by a habituated narrator or a long-time resident. Exoticism becomes mundanity; an atmosphere foreign to the reader is just the air the characters breathe. Among the novelists who have tried the trick are Nabokov, Orwell and Henry Green but none made it the cornerstone of their fictional project, the common – or near-common – thread for a shelf’s worth of books.

Crace’s first story, published in Ian Hamilton’s New Review in 1974, opens with a Defoe-like swarm of place names (Interstate 80, San Francisco, Salt Lake City) but he had mended his ways and mutated into a full-blown Borgesian prankster-imaginer by the time he published his first novel, Continent (1986). The reviews that Crace wrote during the intervening decade reveal interests in that direction: Hugh Fleetwood’s Fictional Lives “poses some teasing allegori cal riddles and creates narrative knots which both stimulate and amuse”; an early novel by Barry Unsworth is “an unashamed fictional concoction which is consistently alerting and stimulating”.

Yet the spirit of play in Crace’s work serves as the cover for a spirit of elegy. Starting from scratch – inventing cultures, fabricating epigraphs – better enables him to communicate his message, usually about transition and impermanence. His novels depict, in prose of sometimes overpowering richness, the encroachment of progress on a stone-age community, the Judean desert (Quarantine – which portrayed 40 days in the adulthood of Jesus) and a post-industrial city. Harvest takes place in a village, nameless rather than unnamed, that is being dragged, kicking and screaming and, as things turn ugly, fistswinging, into the late 18th century, or Crace’s tailored version of it.

Although the period and the setting are never specified, the narrator, Walter Thirsk, builds up a pin-sharp picture of local customs through his accounts of events over a turbulent week – a series of haunting set pieces in which the villagers try to ward off unwelcome visitors, one of whom, the enigmatic landowner Edmund Jordan, is planning to fill the wheat fields with sheep.

Walter started off as a newcomer to “these vicinities” and even though he was never “blond” enough to belong, succeeded in gaining acceptance; his narration is full of details about the village’s ecology and the villagers’ habits and, more decisively, antipathies that testify to a long acquaintance. Walter proves the ideal guide, at once insider and outsider, a specialist in the lore of the land whose imagery pits natural wonder (doves are “white consciences on wing”) against the human macabre (the “grinning white of bone”).

The most seductive and enthralling of Crace’s novels, Harvest is also likely to be his last, as declared in a recent interview. Ending is its theme – or if not ending, then the destructiveness inherent in change. The way of life known to the village (“harvesting and tillage”) is the only one described;Thirsk offers the reader next to no glimpse of life elsewhere and falls silent the moment he leaves. Crace uses the novel’s final flourish to reassert the primacy of place in his tuneful but heartsick fiction. The “village bounds” are the novel’s bounds as well.

J M Coetzee's new novel presents a landscape with its own customs, laws and logic. Image: Riccardo Vecchio

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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How Moonlight’s win led to the most shocking Oscars night in history

They gave Best Picture to La La Land first by mistake.

“This is not a joke by the way. This is not a joke.” You know things are bad when, at possibly the most anticipated cultural moment of the year, you have to keep insisting what’s happening is not a bad skit. Yes, La La Land was announced as the winner of Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards - but it later turned out that Moonlight had actually won the prize.

We often talk about “Best Picture shocks”, but this was an unprecedented moment in Oscars history: an extraordinary sequence of live television that ended in the makers of La La Land, led by producer Jordan Horowitz, having to hand over the most prestigious award of the night, mid-acceptance speech, to the Moonlight team.

But Moonlight’s victory is shocking in a more significant way than the deep, horrible cringe you feel watching the La La Land team’s celebrations turn sour. It’s shocking because a genuinely original and urgent underdog film about the coming-of-age of a black gay man won Best Picture. 

It’s tempting to see Moonlight’s win as part of a conversation that started last year, when the #OscarsSoWhite scandal began. But, of course, the Oscars has a much longer history of rewarding straight white stories and actors. This was the first Oscars in a decade with multiple black acting winners. Viola Davis became the first black person to receive an Oscar, Emmy and Tony for acting. Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim to win for acting, ever. In 2017.

This year's awards saw the continuation of a split result for the Best Directing and Best Picture gongs - something that was once relatively rare but has happened almost every year since 2013. But while La La Land did still pick up six awards, and Moonlight three, there can be no doubt that this was Moonlight’s night.

"All you people out there who feel like there's no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected… we have your back," director Barry Jenkins said when accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The biggest shock of the night wasn’t the seven-minute long fumble over who actually won Best Picture. It’s that a film about black gay love could move the voting members of an awards ceremony dogged by such a long history of racism. Oh, and that Suicide Squad is now an Oscar-winning film.

The full list of winners and nominees at the 2017 Academy Awards

Best picture

Winner: Moonlight
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Best director

Winner: La La Land - Damien Chazelle
Arrival - Denis Villeneuve
Hacksaw Ridge - Mel Gibson
Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan
Moonlight - Barry Jenkins

Best actor

Winner: Casey Affleck - Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield - Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling - La La Land
Viggo Mortensen - Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington - Fences

Best actress

Winner: Emma Stone - La La Land
Isabelle Huppert - Elle
Ruth Negga - Loving
Natalie Portman - Jackie
Meryl Streep - Florence Foster Jenkins

Best supporting actor

Winner: Mahershala Ali - Moonlight
Jeff Bridges - Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges - Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel - Lion
Michael Shannon - Nocturnal Animals

Best supporting actress

Winner: Viola Davis - Fences
Naomie Harris - Moonlight
Nicole Kidman - Lion
Octavia Spencer - Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams - Manchester by the Sea

Best cinematography

Winner: La La Land - Linus Sandgren
Arrival - Bradford Young
Lion - Greig Fraser
Moonlight - James Laxton
Silence - Rodrigo Prieto

Best original score

Winner: La La Land - Justin Hurwitz
Jackie - Mica Levi
Lion - Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka
Moonlight - Nicholas Britell
Passengers - Thomas Newton

Best original song

Winner: La La Land - City of Stars by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
La La Land - Audition by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Moana - How Far I'll Go by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Trolls - Can't Stop the Feeling by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
Jim: The James Foley Story - The Empty Chair by J Ralph and Sting

Best original screenplay

Winner: Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan
20th Century Women - Mike Mills
Hell or High Water - Taylor Sheridan
La La Land - Damien Chazelle
The Lobster - Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou

Best adapted screenplay

Winner: Moonlight - Barry Jenkins and Alvin McCraney
Arrival - Eric Heisserer
Fences - August Wilson
Hidden Figures - Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Lion - Luke Davies

Best costume design

Winner: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Colleen Atwood
Allied - Joanna Johnston
Florence Foster Jenkins - Consolata Boyle
Jackie - Madeline Fontaine
La La Land - Mary Zophres

Best make-up and hairstyling

Winner: Suicide Squad - Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini and Christopher Nelson
A Man Called Ove - Eva Von Bahr and Love Larson
Star Trek Beyond - Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo

Best documentary feature

Winner: OJ: Made in America
13th
Fire At Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated

Best sound editing

Winner: Arrival - Sylvain Bellemare
Deepwater Horizon - Wylie Stateman and Renee Tondelli
Hacksaw Ridge - Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright
La La Land - Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
Sully - Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman

Best sound mixing

Winner: Hacksaw Ridge - Kevin O'Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi - Gary Summers, Jeffrey J Haboush and Mac Ruth
Arrival - Bernard Gariepy Strobl and Claude La Haye
La La Land - Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A Morrow
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson

Best foreign language film

Winner: The Salesman - Iran
A Man Called Ove - Sweden
Land of Mine - Denmark
Tanna - Australia
Toni Erdmann - Germany

Best animated short

Winner: Piper - Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer
Blind Vaysha - Theodore Ushev
Borrowed Time - Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj
Pear Cider and Cigarettes - Robert Valley and Cara Speller
Pearl - Patrick Osborne

Best animated feature

Winner: Zootopia
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

Best production design

Winner: La La Land - David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
Arrival - Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock
Hail, Caesar! - Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh
Passengers - Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena

Best visual effects

Winner: The Jungle Book - Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R Jones and Dan Lemmon
Deepwater Horizon - Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington and Burt Dalton
Doctor Strange - Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould
Kubo and the Two Strings - Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean and Brad Schiff
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould

Best film editing

Winner: Hacksaw Ridge - John Gilbert
Arrival - Joe Walker
Hell or High Water - Jake Roberts
La La Land - Tom Cross
Moonlight - Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon

Best documentary short

Winner: The White Helmets - Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
4.1 Miles - Daphne Matziaraki
Extremis - Dan Krauss
Joe's Violin - Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen
Watani: My Homeland - Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis

Best live action short

Winner: Sing - Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy
Ennemis Interieurs - Selim Azzazi
La Femme et le TGV - Timo Von Gunten and Giacun Caduff
Silent Nights - Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson
Timecode - Juanjo Gimenez

***

Now listen to Anna discussing the Oscars on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.