J. M. Coetzee and the Archive

Marc Farrant on the major international conference that sparked new ways of thinking about the South African Nobel laureate
Coetzee, John 2010 (Photo by Marsha Miller)
J. M. Coetzee

How did you first encounter J. M. Coetzee, and what was it that sparked the idea for co-organising a conference on Coetzee & the Archive?

Like many Coetzee readers my first encounter was with the novel Disgrace. I was studying for a Masters at UCL and Disgrace was a core text on the year-long module covering modern English literature from the late nineteenth-century. It was immediately obvious why the novel was the on course, not least from the mixed reactions it provoked. Indeed, it was the only text we covered that year to garner opprobrium from some students in class. It’s a difficult read, the opening scenes that feature a licentious older man preying on one of his students, followed by the rape of his own daughter, test a reader’s mettle. But, it seemed to me at the time and still does, the open hostility the novel received required that one either ignore or abnegate a great deal of the responsibility the text places on the reader: the demand to respond to the ethical issues posed in the work beyond the staid and inherited conventions of moral outrage; to respond to the subtlety of a complex narrative voice that constitutes one of the best ever representations of complicity in the literary tradition, of the complicity of a liberal and educated conscience in crisis. Disgrace broaches the difficult terrain between both redemption and salvation, neither of which will fully serve since both partake of a certain violence or act of exclusion that would appear to tarnish the self-righteous anger of the oppressed as much as the villainy of the oppressor. If readers nevertheless insist that the novel is irresponsible it is therefore irresponsible, I would add, in the sense of informing us that it is perhaps never possible to be responsible enough, that responsibility is always lacking. Given its slender size the above, plus the intricate folds of literary and theological allusions, and the critique of the rationalizing project of secular modernity, makes for quite a novel!

The idea for the conference arose a few years later, once I’d decided to pursue these issues and contexts further through a Doctoral study of Coetzee’s relation to Samuel Beckett. I had become familiar with a fantastic network and resource for scholars, the Coetzee Collective, and through Carrol Clarkson, with Kai Easton, Chair of the Centre for English Studies at SOAS (University of London). Kai has extensive experience working on Coetzee and especially working with the archival materials. In fact, she was the first scholar to work with Coetzee’s manuscripts when the first instalment of the current collection was housed at Harvard’s Houghton Library (this was when she was herself a doctoral student:  some of the material is cited and referenced in her doctoral thesis (2000) and a later essay (2006)). I had just returned from a 2-month research trip to the US, to look at the archive, when we first began emailing in 2016. I had found the experience of archival research both fascinating and frustrating; Coetzee’s archive is vast and meticulously catalogued and I wasn’t sure exactly how to approach it. Talking to Kai it became clear to me that my experience was not unique, and not only that these rich materials deserved an audience (a few publications in recent years have helped in this regard, including David Attwell’s J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, 2015, and J.C. Kannemeyer’s biography, J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, 2012) but also that they presented an opportunity to consider and reflect on how we, as Coetzee readers and scholars, approach the works more broadly.

The eventual conference, ‘Coetzee & the Archive’, took place on the 5th and 6th of October, 2017, at Senate House library in Central London. We were delighted with the initial response and interest from scholars and students from around the world and were doubly delighted to welcome delegates from South Africa, Australia, South America, the US and from across Europe. We were also very lucky to secure a generous grant from CHASE (the Consortium of the Humanities and the Arts South-east England) as well as an award from the John Coffin Memorial Trust, that facilitated the collaboration between Goldsmiths & SOAS, together with the School of Advanced Study, and enabled us to fly J.M. Coetzee to London to attend in person. This added a great deal to the prestige of the event as well as to a companion event at Oxford the week before. Additionally, Coetzee joined us for a special workshop, Chasing the Archives on Wednesday, 4th October, which involved travelling that morning by riverboat from Westminster Pier to Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich!  Here we met with the curator of cartography, Dr Megan Barford, for a private tour of a selection of maps chosen in advance by Kai.  Focussing on ‘Cartographies of the South’, the session was inspired by Coetzee’s recent seminars on ‘Literatures of the South’ in Argentina, and featured maps relating to South Africa, Australia, and South America, but also – closer to home – the south of France and London.

In 2012, the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, opened the ‘Coetzee Collection’. How can such a collection help us to rethink and reimagine Coetzee’s work, and what relation does Coetzee’s work bear to the notion of the archive, as both an entity and a practice?

The Coetzee Collection located at Harry Ransom Center is vast, consisting of over 140 document boxes which include materials (drafts, typescripts, research notes) from all of Coetzee’s major works. The archive also includes teaching and publicity materials and Coetzee’s correspondence.  I believe it is the most accessed archive currently held by the Center, which is quite significant given the Center itself is the world’s most substantial archive of both twentieth-century literature and of living authors. The archive offers a window onto the incredibly rich and diverse contexts that lie behind the published works. I would highlight three significant contexts that emerge from the archive and are likely to now change the field of Coetzee Studies substantially. Firstly, the South African context of Coetzee’s writings is richly illuminated by the archival materials, which are seen to emerge from Coetzee’s personal and professional embeddedness even at their most abstract (this is the central thesis behind Attwell’s study). Secondly, the academic context that lies at the heart of Coetzee’s fictions, even his memoirs. An academic profession not only provided a source of inspiration and ideas, I think its important to emphasise the university (both as an idea and as institution, specifically the University of Cape Town) as a front-line with regard to Coetzee’s political commitments and engagements. Thirdly, the archive reveals the intersections that arise between Coetzee’s novels and other artistic media and discursive forms. Coetzee’s interest in philosophy, history, psychoanalysis and other fields of study is complemented by a long-term engagement with music, photography, and other media.

The first academic work published on Coetzee (Teresa Dovey’s The Novels of J.M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories, 1988) focused on his early novels and their relation to Lacanian psychoanalysis. Since then Literary Studies has turned increasingly away from theory or what is perceived, in some quarters, as a hermeneutics of suspicion (i.e. approaches that seeks to lay bare the hidden layers of ideological bias of which the work is a symptom). Instead a rise in empirical, genetic, and historical methods has led to an increasing use of archives; maintaining a distance from the author is no longer a prerequisite for serious scholarship. In this current climate Coetzee’s archive is perhaps uniquely interesting. The will to identify, or to find Coetzee through the works by appealing to archival materials, is balanced by a set of texts which constantly obscure authority and challenge identity thinking (and its positivist premise). Coetzee’s own early literary criticism and academic work (in the fields of structuralist linguistics and quantitative stylistics, often with a focus on Beckett) sustains an incisive critique of positivism that informs the fictions. Indeed, Dusklands, the first novel, addresses explicitly how such a positivist-scientific method risks complicity with the identarian logic of colonial brutality. Thus not only does literature, according to the critical writings, contests the empirical method imported from the sciences, Coetzee’s literary works stage this contest as key to their own being as literature. As a consequence, positivist approaches to the archive (like genetic criticism) are in contradiction with an aesthetic of negative freedom. This is epitomised, for instance, by Coetzee’s practice of autobiography in the third-person which constructs a kind of negative freedom that rests on the perpetual displacement of identification between the narrating and narrated selves.

That Coetzee is still living, and that the archive is also authored to a large extent (Coetzee meticulously ordered and dated his papers, and was involved in the curating process), also raises a series of fascinating problems. The critical distance usually required for scholarly work is lacking: Coetzee continues to publish new works (most recently 2016’s The Schooldays of Jesus, from which he read at the conference) and some personal materials remain embargoed. As Jan Wilm argued in his paper at the conference, the lack of completeness of the archive is compounded by the lack of completeness of the oeuvre. This combined sense of incompletion and a lurking authorial hand mirrors an understanding of the literary work that refuses a model of linear causality, of surface and depth. Coetzee’s understanding of the literary work qua literary work, as that which cannot be pinned down to a single origin, context, or authority, is attested to by a literary archive that challenges us to refuse the binary opposition between the comprehensive depth of archive materials juxtaposed to the surface level polish of the published works. Not only, therefore, do Coetzee’s writings problematise conventional archival or historicist methods, but the archive itself further stages how the literary demarcates a modality of truth in opposition to what Coetzee terms, in Doubling the Point, mere ‘truth to fact’. The archive, like the works, beg the question: where is the thing itself? This opens up a way of conceiving of the archive as a work/s and the works as a form of archive/s; the one as an extension of the other and vice versa. This possibility of a doubled reading I think is a particularly protean response to the question of literary archives and archival methodologies in general, and perhaps would approximate the imperative Coetzee outlines to ‘evoke/invoke [the] countervoices’ in one’s discourse.

Did you encounter any surprises during the event?

The conference was animated throughout by a lively discussion by experts in both archives and Coetzee, and amongst graduate students and academics. The high calibre of the contributions not only offered new and innovative contexts, insights and material for the study of Coetzee’s works, but also fostered a dynamic of methodological self-reflection that pervaded the general conversation. I think perhaps the greatest surprise was the sheer plurality of readings and approaches. I think few conferences are able to integrate topics that ranged from computer science and mathematics to Apartheid-era censorship. Other topics included South African and South American literature and history, translation, biopolitics and animal life, autobiography and life-writing, as well as varying approaches to the question of the archive itself (including the ethics of cataloguing, preserving, and utilising archival materials, and the digital past, present, and future of similar cultural repositories). The divergent topics were paralleled by a wide variety of presentational formats, including film screenings and keynote conversations. The use of multimedia helped to showcase the archive and other materials. This was perhaps best exemplified by Peter Johnston’s creation of a digital ‘Coetzee bot’, able to instantly generate Coetzeean lines of prose. This use of new digital technologies brought Coetzee’s own work in quantitative literary analysis to life and was exceptionally interesting. It was further fascinating to witness how the multi-modal approaches and different topics, necessitated by the archival theme, facilitated a discussion of paramount import in the contemporary humanities, namely that of our use of material culture more generally in a domain traditionally reserved for abstract thought. The diversity of the proceedings was exemplified by the presence of the acclaimed contemporary artist Richard Mosse, whose recent exhibition at the Barbican, Incoming, was originally inspired by Coetzee’s novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. The event closed with a public reading of The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee and a performance of J.S. Bach compositions by pianist Kathryn Mosley. Based on the evidence of the proceedings, and the mutually beneficial conversations that followed nearly all the sessions, I think further critical engagements with the archive is assured.

In addition to writing novels, Coetzee is recognised as an essayist concerned with questions of literature, philosophy, and contemporary political questions. Do you see a distinction between Coetzee’s writing across these different mediums? Does the archive help us approach Coetzee as a public intellectual as well as an artist?

The depth and range of Coetzee’s reading and interests, which arises to a large extent from his life-long career as an academic, is extraordinary. The archive gives us a keen insight into this aspect of Coetzee’s multi-faceted career and helps recover a perhaps neglected context of Coetzee’s works and engagements, namely the university. I think in future years studies will likely seek to redress the balance and, following Coetzee’s own self-distancing comments on the novel-form, focus more on Coetzee’s other professional pursuits. At the very least, the archive reveals how a number of the works arise from academic or institutional research (especially the early novels), and how institutional and intellectual life, in South Africa in particular, serves as an important source of inspiration (Disgrace is a clear example). Although in the public imagination Coetzee will always be most famous as a novelist (rather than an as animal rights activist or literary critic, say), his publications over the last 5 years reveal an equal commitment to non-fiction. In 2015 Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz published a dialogic exchange on psychoanalysis entitled, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, and 2017 saw the publication of a third-volume of book reviews, Late Essays: 2006-2017. Although these other activities might seem aloof from the two most recent novels the archive functions as a vital backdrop to help elucidate the hidden connections and cross-overs. I suspect future studies will continue to draw on the archive as a means to explore how Coetzee’s critical inventions extend from the fictions and vice versa.

Are you planning on any follow-up activities or events? What’s next for you?

Yes, we are currently working on a book proposal based on the conference.  From the outset, we saw it as an inaugural event of a multi-sited conference series, such as the series Kai co-convened on Zoë Wicomb, so we already have ideas for collaborative follow-up activities and will announce any future events on our conference website.

Visit the official website of the Coetzee & The Archive event.

Marc Farrant is an Associate Lecturer and AHRC/CHASE funded PhD candidate, working on a thesis which explores the relation between Samuel Beckett and J. M. Coetzee by drawing on a varied archival and theoretical approach. He is supervised by Dr. Derval Tubridy and Professor Josh Cohen (Goldsmiths), and Professor Shane Weller (Kent). He has also worked as a senior editor for several years for the online literary journal, Review 31, and has published widely, including for: The Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of books, The New Inquiry, Textual Practice, openDemocracy and others.


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