J. M. Coetzee and the Art of Slow Reading

I talk to Jan Wilm about the Nobel winner. He shares his approach to Coetzee’s writing, and the first two novels that sparked his enthusiasm
J. M. Coetzee
J. M. Coetzee

When did you first encounter the works of J. M. Coetzee?

There seem to me to exist two very common encounters with the literary texts that change one’s life in one’s salad days. Encounter one is raw, perhaps pure, immediate and emotional, when one feels the literary text entering very deeply into what used to be called one’s soul. There, it seizes one, lifts one up and sets one on a course that will retrospectively seem like the right path. Encounter two is marked by bewilderment, lack of understanding, a sense of loss even, being shaken at the feeling that one has failed to taste from the greatness one was sure to find.

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J. M. Coetzee, Youth

My encounter with Coetzee was marked by what I might call a productive contradiction, as it featured two radically different experiences with two texts by Coetzee that I read around the same time. The first was his often heartbreaking and often hilarious second memoir (following Coetzee I prefer to call these works ‘autrebiography’), Youth (2002); the second was his harrowing and heartrending Disgrace (1999). In retrospect it seems natural to me that a younger, bookish person would be drawn more quickly to John’s rite of passage to becoming a writer in Youth, his passage of plight through an estranging London, as circumstance reveals to himself the importance of literature. Disgrace was a shock, a bomb going off in the heart. But I felt unable to grasp the subtlety and nuance of Coetzee’s tricks in the book, his liberty to play with conventions of the realist novel and politics. Yet, there was the encounter with Youth and it kept me reading and re-reading Disgrace, and this in essence taught me, at least in theory, to give any book the benefit of the doubt, to return to it and try to let it enter into one’s soul at another time. At times, even today, I still feel the same kind of productive contradiction at work in my encounter with Coetzee’s exquisite oeuvre.

The writer has a reputation as one of the world’s most reclusive writers. How accurate is this as a portrait of the writer, do you think?

A very interesting question to me would be why we seem to expect that a writer should be anything but reclusive. Like reading, writing is best done in silence. Colm Tóibín once said he preferred not to read his works aloud while he was writing them, as the reader generally doesn’t read the text aloud either. The voice one hears when reading is a mystical mix of one’s own voice one hears in one’s mind (vastly different, of course, from the voice one uses in speech) and the voice of the characters, the narrators, the poetry that has passed into the page. At times it’s more harmful than helpful to hear the writer’s ‘real’ voice as a ghostly echo behind the written words. Perhaps the music of literature is best played in silence. I welcome any writer’s reclusiveness. Every writer who is dead today is by nature reclusive to us. It does their literature no harm. What we are left with are the texts, which is all a writer should be anyway.

What led you to research Coetzee’s work?

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Samuel Beckett

My academic interest in Coetzee began during another moment of productive contradiction, this time involving Coetzee and a writer who is, in many ways, his predecessor, Samuel Beckett. I embarked on a comparative and comprehensive study of Beckett and Coetzee, involving an explanation of their respective cultural and philosophical heritages, of Beckett’s (unwitting) paving of the way for ‘sons’ such as Coetzee to follow in his footsteps (‘footfalls’, one should say); and of Coetzee’s admiration of and departure from Beckett.

It was an endeavour that proved too vast, too encyclopaedic, and finally too empirical. I was struggling like a Thomas Bernhard narrator, schlepping suitcases of notes and research around and never making headway. To focus solely on Coetzee was a relief, and allowed me to immerse myself more deeply into the oeuvre of a writer who had by then surpassed most of my other favourites. My research only deepened my appreciation of Coetzee; my joy of reading him increased tremendously through total immersion. And I firmly believe that reading should always be, in part (paradox upon paradox), wholly immersive.

Your new book is called The Slow Philosophy of J. M. Coetzee. Can you say a little bit about what you mean by ‘Slow Philosophy’?

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Jan Wilm, The Slow Philosophy of J. M. Coetzee (Bloomsbury, 2016)

I should begin by saying what I do not mean by it, that is anything to do with the so called ‘slow movement’, which fetishizes anything from slow food to slow sex. ‘Slow philosophy’ is, like all expressions, an imperfect expression. It is not limited to philosophy in its disciplinary and academic forms and instead rests on a much more flexible meaning of the term ‘philosophical’, which I like to think is linked to the phenomenon of thinking. What I am describing in the book is the way in which Coetzee’s oeuvre is able to provoke the reader into thinking in a different way, a way I describe using the other, equally flexible, term of the above expression, ‘slow’. Slow is an entirely positive and wholly productive term here, connecting to what might be called ‘meditative’ thinking, as opposed to instrumental and overtly rationalist thinking. One might tap into Youth here, where the protagonist notes: “Finally he has no respect for any version of thinking that can be embodied in a computer’s circuitry.”

“I argue for a technique and mode of reading that Friedrich Nietzsche already called ‘slow reading’ in 1886, an exacting, voracious, rigorous yet not unemotional or unloving approach to literature, which consciously aims at consuming the literary text in as slowly a way as possible.”

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Friedrich Nietzsche

I argue for a technique and mode of reading that Friedrich Nietzsche already called ‘slow reading’ in 1886, an exacting, voracious, rigorous yet not unemotional or unloving approach to literature, which consciously aims at consuming the literary text in as slowly a way as possible. Literature is sensory; it takes time for those Japanese paper flowers that Marcel Proust’s Marcel drops into the water to unfold, and it takes time to let the taste of the Madeleine infuse his adult soul with the delectable deliciousness of the past. Whether reading for pleasure or for research, the book argues that reading should be done slowly, as it is in the slow appreciation of a text’s aesthetic that one comes to think meditatively in a way I would not hesitate to call (crudely, no doubt) ‘philosophical’.

The book positions itself against philosophical studies of literary works that seem to find the ‘philosophical’ only in a novel’s presented or proposed ideas, only in its plot, or only if a character opines about Schopenhauer or Schlegel; and it explicitly argues against studies which seem content to apply a philosophical theory (unsurprisingly the one that coincides with their area of expertise) to a literary text as if it were a saddle one could strap on a horse and ride it wherever the poor animal doesn’t want to go. The fact that in recent years more and more books have appeared that do precisely this speaks of a disconcerting decline in confidence in both philosophy and literary theory departments, exploiting the neo-liberal fetishization of interdisciplinary research, and feeling the need to turn out large numbers of works recycling the same philosophical applications to literature. The danger is that these works are not produced for epistemological or educational reasons, but for economic ones in an increasingly inflexible and inhospitable system.

Adorno and Dickens, Dostoevsky through Levinas, Levinas with Proust. If philosophy can (and should) concern itself with anything and everything, then it may be found in everything and anything, especially in aesthetics. In terms of Coetzee’s works, the ‘philosophical’ ‘content’ of his style is just as important as the ‘philosophical’ heft of his content. And if literary criticism should (and can) concern itself with philosophy, since literature as the storehouse of the world always already contains everything, especially philosophy, then scholars need not feel the compulsion to nobilitate their work by setting the text into motion with kicks from their feet in the stirrup of a philosophical saddle.

How do you think your book adds to our understanding of Coetzee’s work?

I hope it situates itself in a tradition of works by Coetzee scholars such as Derek Attridge and Patrick Hayes, whose deepest concern seems to lie in the magnificently wrought texts themselves. I hope it continues to liberate Coetzee scholarship from philosophical needle-searching and mere theoretical application, and encourages to focus one’s attention even more on Coetzee’s aesthetics and without neglecting the view onto contents and contexts – since all these are inseparable, all these may be found in the aesthetics.

Coetzee is also known for his essays and reviews of other writers and their work (eg. Beckett, Sebald, Walser). How would you characterise Coetzee’s output as a literary critic?

It is a considerable part of his oeuvre, not only his generous and attentive essays on writers who are in some way part of his formation, but also his essays on South African literature (White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, 1988) and on censorship (Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship 1996). As in the case of Jorge Luis Borges, Coetzee’s readings are as important as his writings, and in his essays we gain profound insight into an oeuvre that has grown as much from life as it has been borne out of literature.

Coetzee’s most recent novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, has drawn criticism from some who think his best novels are behind him. Do you care to comment?

J. M. Coetzee, The Schooldays of Jesus
J. M. Coetzee, The Schooldays of Jesus

It surprises me that such criticism seems always quick to compare Coetzee’s later works with his earlier works, saying that there might be something he has lost, while these critics never seem to take into account a comparison of who they were when reading the earlier works and who they are now. What if they have lost something? What if their best work is behind them, and they’re proving it with hasty, rather unlettered literary criticism?

I have a little bit of pity for people who don’t care for Coetzee’s later oeuvre, which is ever more fascinating in the way it aims at a paradoxical development and dissolution of the previous works. Yet, I don’t have too much pity for such people. In a sense it’s comforting that there continue to appear works by the greatest living writer, which are far ahead of anything that is grasped as a masterpiece immediately. Sometimes it is the plight of the masterpiece at first to function as a canvas for scorn, and only later as a canvas that pictured a new world of possibility in art already in existence. Remember that Buñuel stocked his coat pockets with bricks when he and Dalí first showed Un chien andalou in Paris – and that he almost needed them to defend himself. And remember how Dylan was booed as he was going electric. And remember that some people today are still outraged when they listen to Schoenberg. No matter.

If we recall that Coetzee’s earliest novels weren’t uniformly received with praise in his native South Africa upon publication, we might rejoice at the fact that – even when criticism seems on the prophesied decline – not too much seems to have changed yet.

For those who are new to Coetzee, can you recommend a place to start?

Rather than attempting to recommend any text that is meaningful to me for personal reasons, which may (but more likely will not) coincide with those of another reader, let me point to a pair of quotations from the two works mentioned previously, so as to highlight the often neglected lyricism and tenderness that Coetzee is able to mine from the ashes of the literary, historical, and psychological landscapes he presents.

“‘As dark as the inside of a needle,’ writes Brodsky in one of his poems. He cannot get the line out of his mind. If he concentrated, truly concentrated, night after night, if he compelled, by sheer attention, the blessing of inspiration to descend upon him, he might be able to come up with something to match it. For he has it in him, he knows, his imagination is of the same colour as Brodsky’s. But how to get the word through to Archangel afterwards?

“On the basis of the poems he had heard on the radio and nothing else, he knows Brodsky, knows him through and through. That is what poetry is a capable of. Poetry is truth. But of him in London Brodsky can know nothing. How to tell the frozen man he is with him, by his side, day by day?” — Youth

“She wants him to come on the wind, to wrap himself around her, to bury his face in the hollow between her breasts. Alternatively she wants him to arrive on the dawn, to appear on the horizon as a sun-god casting the glow of warmth upon her. By any means she wants him back.” — Disgrace

What’s next for you?

I’m working on an edited collection theorizing the various different philosophical approaches to Coetzee’s work that have been done over the years, which I’m happy to co-edit with my colleague and friend Patrick Hayes. The book will be released by Oxford University Press in 2017. I’m editing a volume on the greatest living German writer of his generation, the as yet untranslated Michael Lentz; and I’m also translating Maggie Nelson’s incredible book The Argonauts into German, which will be released in Germany in 2018.

The Slow Philosophy of J. M. Coetzee is published by Bloomsbury.


About the Author

Jan Wilm is a Lecturer in English Literature at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. He also works as a book reviewer and translator. He lives in Frankfurt. For regular reviews (in German) see his blog www.wilmvorlesungen.de.

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4 Comments

  1. “Disgrace was a shock, a bomb going off in the heart.”

    This description took me back to reading Disgrace for the first time (also my first JM Coetzee), as an English Lit student. The most surprising and shocking (in a deeply heart-wrenching way) book I’ve read up to that point in my life, and probably up to this point as well.

    Excellent article!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anzel!

      Thanks for your kind comment about the article. Yes, Jan’s words on Disgrace chimed with me in a similar way – although Youth was my first experience of Coetzee’s work and for some reason still has that powerful resonance for me. Fantastic stuff!

      Best,
      Rhys

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “It surprises me that such criticism seems always quick to compare Coetzee’s later works with his earlier works, saying that there might be something he has lost, while these critics never seem to take into account a comparison of who they were when reading the earlier works and who they are now. What if they have lost something? What if their best work is behind them, and they’re proving it with hasty, rather unlettered literary criticism?”

    Love this! (If I could figure out how to grab and tweet it I would, but alas…)

    It can be too easy to fall back on this critique than to challenge oneself to grow as a reader and critic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was quite struck by the resistance to Coetzee’s most recent novel, but having not yet read it myself I couldn’t weigh in on the discussion. When I was interviewing Jan, I couldn’t resist asking him what he thought about it all – and I think his take on it is an interesting one!

      Liked by 1 person

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