Following the deaths, in 2018 and 2019, of VS Naipaul and Toni Morrison, there can be little doubt that JM Coetzee stands as the pre-eminent novelist in the English-writing world – and in some moods I think he has the edge on both of them.
Born in Cape Town, of German and Afrikaner parentage, Coetzee turned to fiction just over 50 years ago, when he set to work on Dusklands, a pair of long stories concerned with the application, in 1970s Vietnam and 18th-century South Africa, of rationalist ideas of human nature. “What is it?” a woman asks the Coetzee figure in his autobiographical novel Summertime, when he hands her a copy of Dusklands. “Is it fiction?” “Sort of,” he replies. The same might be said of virtually all of Coetzee’s subsequent books.
After Dusklands, he produced a run of novels dealing with repression and using forms such as allegory (Waiting for the Barbarians), literary homage (Foe), folk narrative (Life & Times of Michael K) and missive (Age of Iron). Then, during the two decades following the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, Coetzee’s work became more direct, or self-reflexive. His preferred approach was the portrait of a writer, whether real, as in the autobiographical trilogy that ended with Summertime, or invented, as in his book about the garlanded Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello. (The exception – and in many ways, his least characteristic work – is Disgrace, the story of a middle-aged academic who loses his job and moves to his daughter’s farm.) In recent years, the project that has consumed Coetzee’s attention is a trilogy of deadpan, present-tense, fable-like fantasies, at once overtly philosophical and utterly cryptic, that culminates in his extraordinary new novel The Death of Jesus.
In what sense are these books only “sort-of” fiction? Because fiction as commonly understood means “realism” – flesh-and-blood characters mating, scheming and dying in a well-drawn familiar world. Coetzee, meanwhile, seeks insights of an abstract, reflective kind.
More significantly for Coetzee, as a South African writer and an explorer of colonial and postcolonial communities, realism was the genre of the oppressor. It emanated from imperial centres – London and Paris in the 19th century – while projecting, Coetzee said in 1982, “a middle-class version of the world”, promoting values such as individualism and portraying the lifestyles of lawyers, politicians, businessmen, their wife, children and staff. Coetzee’s favourite English novelist since the rise of realism, Ford Madox Ford, possessed, he claims, “no clearly recognisable class identity”, while his masterpiece, The Good Soldier, serves as “an exposé of the hypocrisies of the British ruling class”.
But the realist novel was also an outgrowth of the era’s dominant philosophy: Enlightenment reason – the same body of “knowledge” that had justified imperialism. Coetzee, a prolific essayist, has never discussed the work of Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot or Balzac. His heroes either pre-date the emergence of formal realism (Daniel Defoe, Henrich von Kleist), or were remote from it (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fyodor Dostoevsky), or sought to dismantle its apparatus and destroy its presumptions, as in the case of anti-Enlightenment moderns such as Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Robert Musil. For Coetzee, this sort of disruptive fiction is far better suited to considering social customs or the nature of reality than convention-bound “lifelike” realism.
In Coetzee’s novels, devices that can roughly be characterised as “postmodern” are wielded not in the service of rational detachment – as distancing devices – but of passionate engagement. Yet Coetzee doesn’t write with what we conventionally recognise as passion – and this is the seeming contradiction at the heart of his work. In the exchange of letters published as The Good Story, he assured the psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz that he writes “not in a cool, scientific spirit but under the sway of feeling”. Ironically, given his indifference to the mid-19th century, the writer closest to his position is Gustave Flaubert, who was temperamentally Romantic (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi”) but took a conscious decision to write clinical, precise, objective prose.
Coetzee explores many of these ideas in the Jesus series, as well as dramatising his own predicament, by constructing a parallel fictional universe – bare, sparse, tailored to his needs. At the start of The Childhood of Jesus, a middle-aged man arrives with a small boy in an unknown place. They are ascribed the names Simón and David and are sent to a city, Novilla, where modern technology doesn’t exist, idealist philosophy and irrational mathematics are all the rage, and everyone communicates in what Simón, in a forgivably rare outburst of bewildered frustration, calls “beginner’s Spanish”. It soon emerges that David is a savant. He rejects the unquestioned logic of human communication and social relations, and develops his own arcane theory about how numbers work. (None of the characters is named Jesus, but David is the obvious analogue.)
Simón doesn’t understand David’s ideas, but he recognises that the boy is remarkable. In the weak middle volume, The Schooldays of Jesus (2016), the action unfolds in a smaller city, Estrella, where David enrols in the local dance academy and becomes involved in a cult preoccupied with the relationship between choreography and astrology – a movement resisted by a joyless group of census-takers, watch-makers and a newly dogmatic Simón.
The Death of Jesus, the best in the series, and the shortest, serves as a reply to the previous book’s extremities. Simón’s position has softened. He has more or less returned to his original role – recognising David’s brilliance and even genius, and believing in his need for independence, while wanting to reject his ideas.
In the opening scene, David, now ten, encounters Dr Julio Fabricante, the head of a local orphanage, while playing football in a park. Claiming to have no parents, David asks if he can play for their team. He is accepted and moves to the orphanage, to the outrage of both Simón and Inés, David’s adoptive mother, but he soon falls gravely ill. The initial diagnosis is “a general inflammation of the joints”, then the disease is thought to be “idiopathic”. As his condition worsens, David converts to vegetarianism and sometimes eats nothing at all. He also rekindles his friendship with Dmitri, a murderer whose decision, portrayed in The Schooldays of Jesus, to admit his guilt while refusing to ask for mercy was uneasily accommodated by Estrella’s rigid legal system. Dmitri, who may or may not be rehabilitated (“a new man”), becomes David’s chief disciple, and mocks Simón for being too sane and earthbound to understand his messages. But it isn’t only Simón. Few people seem to know what he is getting at. After David dies, Dmitri expresses his fear that David had been “dispatched to the wrong place at the wrong time”.
The Death of Jesus abounds in definitional disputes, hairline distinctions and logical paradoxes. When David needs a transfusion, there is dispute over whether blood is best understood by science or primal instinct; Dmitri thinks that the doctor’s “types” are less important than a donor’s personal affinity with the patient. Simón shifts the goalposts on whether David should be treated as “an exception”, depending on what kind of treatment (medical, pedagogical) he is requesting. David dismisses the legitimacy of the word “why” when he isn’t the one using it and insists that things “don’t have to be true to be true”. And towards the end, the reader is prompted to wonder if David’s end isn’t really a beginning? There’s a rumour that on dying you “wake up on some foreign shore” – as Simón and David did at the start of the first volume – and are forced “to play out the rigmarole all over again”.
But the novel’s central lingering question concerns the availability and applicability of knowledge. Should meanings be “brought out into the open”? Should the hidden be “revealed”? And if so, how do you actually achieve it – through verbal exposition or musical composition or a kind of divination? Then what do you do with what you know? In the first book, Simón insisted that the aim of philosophy was not to speculate about phenomenal reality – the “chairness” of chairs was a hot topic for Novillans – but to improve one’s life. The new book concerns itself directly with the desire of David and the other characters – Simón, Inés, Dmitri – to become “who you want to be”,”the “master” of one’s “fate”.
If this sounds vague, then Coetzee persuades us that the novel’s ineffability is an aesthetic choice, driven by respect for nuance and a resistance to the glib. And the grief that David’s death provokes is movingly depicted, the mood of elegy pervasive, and the desire to glean what he incarnated fervent, even desperate. The novel’s last seven chapters dispel once and for all the suspicion that Coetzee has been simply, or only, playing some kind of game, or mounting a needlessly elaborate homage to a literary tradition powered by the riches of obsessive non-rational thought: The Brothers Karamazov, Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s The Lord Chandos Letter, Beckett’s Watt. (He once described the setting of Beckett’s work as “a purgatorial treadmill” on which the characters “rehearse again and again the great themes of Western philosophy”.)
David has various models in history and literature – Törless and Chandos among them – but now that the trilogy is complete, his important forebears are those figures whose messages were not understood by swathes of their contemporaries. “Odd to find himself contemplating Jesus as a guide,” reads a 1975 notebook entry attributed to Coetzee, in Summertime. “But where should he search for a better one?”
The novel appears to take place in a world at once post-religious – Simón cannot remember what “confessing” was – and proto-Christian: David says that in his next life he wants to have a beard and “teach everything”. Also lurking in the background is the Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, dead at the age of 32, who, like David, “thought in mathematics”, and many of whose results, Coetzee’s character Elizabeth Costello explained in the novel named after her, “remain undemonstrated to this day, though there is every chance they are true”.
There is another candidate for the original David – the author himself. In a 2013 essay, Coetzee observed that the Australian novelist Patrick White depicted characters “mocked by society yet doggedly occupied in their private quests for transcendence” and had also been convinced of his own capacity for seeing “through appearances to the truth behind them”. Do the Jesus novels allegorise in a similar fashion Coetzee’s own achievements and struggles?
It seems more tempting to read Simón as an image of his creator, but he is only that part of Coetzee that other people superficially identify: cold, cerebral. Simón resists the local “prejudice against arithmetic”, dismisses Fabricante’s views on orphan education as “romantic nonsense”, and calls the idea of psychosomatic illness “simply laughable”. David calls Simón “the one who has reasons” and lacks “ears to hear”. Even the visitation of astral imagery when he does his stilted dancing comes with a “reasoned explanation”: the rhythm of the dance and chant of the flute induce a trance-like state.
So David embodies the other side of Coetzee: the anti-rationalist desperate to prove that logic is man-made and reason an enclosed self-justifying system, the primitivist who, according to Summertime, espoused “a whole philosophy, of music and dance” and spewed his own share of “romantic nonsense”. If the Jesus trilogy corresponds in any way to Coetzee’s earlier trilogy – collected under the title “Scenes from Provincial Life” – it’s notable that in the final volume of that series, Summertime, the person whose legacy is being picked over is the novelist John Coetzee.
The amusing put-downs of Coetzee’s work (“Too easy. Too lacking in passion”) in that book might also be read in a more aggressive spirit, as voicing the suspicion, also expressed in Coetzee’s letter to Arabella Kurtz, that his true allegiances have been overlooked, that he feels at odds with prevailing fashions, or ahead of his time. (The South African academic Tony Morphet once recalled that when he first read Dusklands he struggled to grasp “the pattern of meaning” while feeling convinced that the book was “a herald… a new way of imagining”.)
There’s a limited degree to which a novelist can present themselves, however indirectly, as unloved or unheard when they have been awarded the Jerusalem Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (twice), the Booker Prize (twice) and the Nobel. Yet Coetzee is still best known for Disgrace, an exercise in what he called “dull realism”. And his reputation is not entirely settled. James Wood speculated that many readers, on hearing about Coetzee’s Nobel in 2003, would have thought about all the things he doesn’t offer: the lack of colour, comedy, social vision. This is roughly what Martin Amis was getting at when he said that Coetzee exhibits “no talent”.
You might dismiss such objections by recasting them as a compliment to the power of Coetzee’s reader-baiting anti-realism, but The Death of Jesus furnishes a more suitable – and suitably grand – riposte. After David has died, Simón tries to assure Inés that the two of them have actually been “lucky”. In other circumstances, he says, they might have lived “ordinary lives”. Perhaps they would have found “contentment of a kind”. But he asks what “that ordinary contentment” would really have amounted to. “Instead we had the privilege of being visited by a comet.”
The Death of Jesus
Harvill Secker, 208pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people