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! (more…)

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“For a sixteen-year-old, it is an ambitious and serious library, comprising poetry, philosophy and translated classics, mostly affordable Everyman, Oxford and Penguin editions, those early-twentieth-century projects in the democratization of knowledge. The photograph is not well lit, but the large numbers on the spines of the Everyman volumes allow the identification of several of them. The key writings of Plato, St Augustine, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Locke, Kant and Descartes are represented, as are Russian classics such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There are no English novels, nor is there any Shakespeare, but there are collected works of poetry by T. S. Eliot, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Keats. Books such as Euclid’s Elements point to Coetzee’s ambition to become a mathematician, though Marx’s Das Kapital may have been less influential. Several of these books would leave their mark on the later fictions, although important future influences such as Pound, Beckett and Kafka are not as yet present.”

— Hermann Wittenberg, Times Literary Supplement

“… I have been through the letters and diaries. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record – not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer”

— J. M. Coetzee, Summertime

An upcoming international conference is offering scholars and enthusiasts a chance to engage with J.M. Coetzee’s work in new and interesting ways. Over the course of three days, the event will include a single day CHASE funded archival training workshop, and will feature a host of leading scholars in the field. Significantly, the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee will be appearing in person to give a reading. (more…)

Anthony Uhlmann on co-editing a new essay collection exploring Coetzee’s recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus
Jennifer Rutherford and Anthony Uhlmann (eds.), J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus (Bloomsbury, 2017)
Jennifer Rutherford and Anthony Uhlmann (eds.), J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (Bloomsbury, 2017)

How did you first encounter J.M. Coetzee’s writing?

In 2002 I was working on the preparation for a major conference on Samuel Beckett that was to take place in Sydney in 2003 and I was looking for keynotes. There was a major public lecture at the Sydney Town Hall which is a reasonably grand space. We invited a number of people including Herbert Blau and Luce Irigaray (via videolink). Someone suggested I ask J. M. Coetzee who was on the board of one of the research groups related to Samuel Beckett. I then went and read a few of his novels, including Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and The Master of Petersburg and was blown away by the quality of the works. I told him when I finally met him that he had renewed my faith in contemporary fiction. He agreed to act as a keynote and read the ‘At The Gate’ Lesson from Elizabeth Costello which had not yet been published when he read it January 2003. He spoke briefly of having mostly gained an understanding of rhythm, and the structure of sentences, from reading and studying Beckett. After that I read all of his novels and have been working towards writing about him. (more…)

An inventory of imaginative potential

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Scott Esposito has recently published The Missing Books, a catalogue of written works that do not exist. LitHub, who has posted extracts from the work, describe its entries for ‘books that have not yet been published (but might one day be), books within books, and books whose authors did not manage to ever complete’. Among the nearly 100 texts listed are Jorge Luis BorgesBook of Sand, a work that promises totality and completeness but which never came to be; there is a non-existent universal dictionary of every word in every language; and H. P. Lovecraft‘s Necronomicon, a book of magic to be written and expanded by future authors. In each case, Esposito is alluding to books that seem to hover tantalizingly between presence and absence. (more…)