Diary of a Bad Year
by J. M. Coetzee
Reviewed by Hilary Mantel
New York Review of Books
Some writers begin by lulling their readers, some by shocking them. J.M. Coetzee begins by starting an argument. The narrator of Diary of a Bad Year, of whom we as yet know nothing, is speaking of the nature of the state. Hobbes is the first name to occur. Why are we starting with Hobbes, not with Aristotle? Because, says the constant reader, we are in the territory of Coetzee, the balladeer of the limp and the harelip; the lives of his characters are miserable, brutish, but not short enough, being frequently prolonged beyond any use their owners have for them.
Turn the page.
What the Hobbesian myth of origins does not mention is that the handover of power to the state is irreversible....We are born subject....One mark of this subjection is the certificate of birth.
With this certificate the state gives you an identity, and you carry with you a notice of this identity, "or you do without an identity and condemn yourself to living outside the state like an animal (animals do not have identity papers)."
Any reader who has kept a dog with a pedigree longer than his own may be provoked to smile. Less frivolously, we might wonder if the status of inhabitants really changes when the state assumes a recording function. Think of it historically: in England, for instance, government instructions to record baptisms, burials, and marriages were first sent out in 1538. Before this year, people were subjects. After this year, they were subjects. Neither before nor after were they animals. Is not the voice on the page a touch flamboyant, dramatic, overstating his case in a way perhaps allowable in someone who has lived under a tyranny? Who is speaking anyway? Will he show us his papers, or will we ramble for hours in the easygoing terrain of the modern novel, hoping to bump into him and fit a face and a name to the words?
But we cannot concentrate on the argument. Our attention is being pulled away. The page we are reading is divided in two, and below the line another story is sharing the space, another tone of voice, as quiet and private and close to the reader's ear as the first voice is distanced, amplified, and public:
My first glimpse of her was in the laundry room. It was mid-morning on a quiet spring day and I was sitting, watching the washing go around, when this quite startling young woman walked in. Startling because the last thing I was expecting was such an apparition; also because the tomato-red shift she wore was so startling in its brevity.
The second voice hardly commands instant sympathy. It sounds like that of an affected lecher: "startling brevity," indeed. But on the second page a picture is evoked, to add to the voice:
The spectacle of me may have given her a start too: a crumpled old fellow in a corner who at first glance might have been a tramp off the street.
The heart plummets. Is the crumpled old man below the line the same person as the Hobbes-quoting dogmatist above? Do philosophers do their own washing? Is that seemly? Should a scholar not have a housekeeper? But then we ask -- by now we are in the habit of contending with ourselves -- why should he not do his laundry? Why do we assume it's the genius and the retard who require someone to pick up after them? Perhaps it's good for him. Perhaps it makes him humble. Perhaps he even likes going down to the basement. Perhaps it's his only contact with his neighbors. Perhaps it's his lucky day, encountering this neighborhood beauty. Perhaps it's therapeutic. Perhaps it's redeeming.
Coetzee does not go in for pathos. In his essay on Beckett's fiction in his collection Inner Workings, he notes, and not with approval, "an uncharacteristic dip into plangency" in his subject's story "The End." But bathos can also work on the emotions. It turns out that the narrator of the Diary is an eminent writer who is contributing a section to a book called Strong Opinions. He is weak and old. Above the line running across the page, he continues to assert himself: he opines on democracy, on terrorism. Below the line, he trembles. Somewhere in the white space between the two sections, his authority drains away. If you don't like what he says, you can push him over.
Has a white space ever worked so hard? In the gap one falls between worlds. Above, the intellectual life; below, the affective life. Strength above, weakness below. Above, the grand generalization; below, the particular itch of a feeble body, not yet ready to give up the ghost of bodily desire. The writer discourses on the breakdown of authority and tells us the plot of The Seven Samurai, while the feeble tramp in the laundry room struggles to get a conversation going with the startling beauty, "black black hair, shapely bones. A certain golden glow to her skin...." "A derrière so near to perfect as to be angelic." He feels a "metaphysical ache" that he thinks she notices, and that he guesses makes her impatient. He would like her to take notice of his strong opinions, not his physical frailty.
So when at their second meeting in the laundry room he finds that Anya can type, he proposes that she help him out with his section of the projected book. He wants, he tells her, a secretary with "a feel, an intuitive feel, for what I am trying to do." Even, he suggests, an editor -- a junior partner in his enterprise. The reader doubts the success of the arrangement. Above the lines, Strong Opinions has moved on to Machiavelli. We are speaking the robust, darkly glittering language of necessity. Anya, below the line, mouths the limp, impoverished phrases of corporate cant. Just now she is between jobs, but her partner, with whom she lives on the top floor of the building, claims her as "a secretarial resource." Previously she has worked in the "hospitality industry." She hopes to move into "human resources." The narrator has confessed in his bottom-of-the-page reflections that he is not being honest. He does not need a secretary. The German publisher who has commissioned Strong Opinions can easily transcribe a dictaphone tape. He doesn't need Anya, but he wants her and will flatter her to get her: "What self-respecting woman would want to deny she has an intuitive feel?"
The would-be employer suspects that Anya is fully aware of the adulterous possibilities of the situation. The reader is sure of it. She is not an ingenuous young woman, naturally dependent, like the student in Coetzee's Disgrace who gives way unwillingly to her teacher's sexual approaches. Anya has the whip-hand here. We hope she will gratify him, up to a point; we see that he is lonely. We only hope she will not humiliate him. We recognize that, like the protagonist of Slow Man, the writer called C has a full bank account and an empty heart. Already the reader is involved, though we may not be sure how far the author wants us to care about his creations. In what sense are we shown, on the page, beings about whom we can shape an opinion, on whose behalf we ourselves can form desires? We are used to Coetzee rattling the cage of fiction. Perhaps we shall find he has slid out through the bars, and left us empathizing with the empty air.
Who is Anya, the glowing Filipina? If she's a muse, she's late on the scene, when we consider that the writer thinks of himself as "post-physical." His mind is lively, but his hand is already slackening its grasp on the pen. Will he be strong enough to take advantage of whatever she brings to his writing life? On the other hand, the desiccated heroes who tread Coetzee's desert landscapes have a perverse vigor. If we go back to 1983, to The Life and Times of Michael K, we have a character who is starved through a whole novel but does not die. Paul Rayment in Slow Man, whose lack of capacity to drive his own narrative suggests he is senescent, turns out to be only sixty.
In the days of naive photo-tourism, travelers in torrid zones would show us a near-naked and sexually null human being, as wrinkled as a blob of tar on a scorching road, and then surprisingly reveal that he or she was only twenty-seven. Something the same happens with Coetzee's characters: they seem on the brink of extinction, but there's life in the old dogs yet. The strong opinions never flag. Al-Qaeda. Pedophilia. Harold Pinter. Avian influenza, intelligent design, Guantánamo Bay. We are aware that they are edging us from the stock-in-trade of the finely pessimistic yet liberal commentator, and toward Coetzee's familiar and haunted and powerful preoccupations: disgust, disgrace, shame, the painful lives of animals. The arguments above the line are variously persuasive, invariably robust. Sometimes the opinion offered above the line is slyly taken apart by the characters below it. The miracle of the book is that it is deeply involving, wryly funny, and perfectly easy to read, even when the bifurcated narrative splits into three.
For soon, Anya has her own first-person voice. She tells us what she thinks of the writer, as he tells us what he thinks of her. He, like Coetzee, is a South African, now living in Australia. Like his creator, he has written a novel called Waiting for the Barbarians, and some essays on censorship. There is an area of overlap, and there are areas of biographical variation. Perhaps we should see John C, like Coetzee's creation Elizabeth Costello, as a kind of fuzzy doppelganger; as they come down the road to meet their original, the real and the fictive pass through each other, outlines smudged, not a perfect fit but unnervingly close.
Anya misunderstands C to be South American. She calls him Señor, or perhaps Senior. She corrects his English, which she believes is not his first language. How are we to understand Anya's status in the novel? Are we to take her as equal in value to that of the shambolic bag person who occupies the privileged position at the top of the page? Has she been granted -- by that sleight of hand that takes place between writer and reader -- the autonomy of a fictional character?
In his essay on Robert Walser, Coetzee refers to the pleasure the writer got from "damselling," which he defines as "experiencing a feminine life imaginatively from the inside." We are probably safe in saying that Coetzee is not damselling, as Anya appears to have the soul of a performer in a burlesque show: "As I pass him, carrying the laundry basket, I make sure I waggle my behind, my delicious behind, sheathed in tight denim. If I were a man I would not be able to keep my eyes off me." She speaks in coy cliché: "Always keep a man guessing." Though she is almost thirty, she is the kind of child-woman who is used in pornography, and she knows this, and the author of Strong Opinions knows this, so when he begins to pick away, above the line, at the logical basis of society's taboo on pornography involving children, a queasy resonance is set up between one narrative stream and the next.
At this stage, the person of Anya is half-made. Though she proves to be better educated than Señor C at first assumes, she says she is uninterested in politics and seems to be scornful of his trade and of his "know-it-all tone." Yet she has a writer's compulsion to embroider language:
I am his segretaria, part-time. Also, now and again, his house-help. At first I was just supposed to be his segretaria, his secret aria, his scary fairy, in fact not even that, just his typist, his tipitista, his clackadackia.
The signs are that she exists only to look at the writer looking at himself:
My guess is he unbuttons himself when I am gone...and makes himself come. And then buttons up and gets back to [the then Australian prime minister] John Howard and George Bush, what villains they are.
"Unbuttons" is so literary a term that we know the narrator is jibing at himself. Anya is the cruel puppet, and the theme of the show is his vulnerability. Just as no man is a hero to his valet, no writer is a hero to his daily help. C lives in squalor. Anya has to remove the empty bottles and scoot around his apartment with the cockroach spray. She can't, she says, see a man living in filth. Anya is developing a mind of her own, a power of decision. The novelist is caught at work, in the familiar, traditional process of character creation. Embodied first as a crude masculine fantasy, by the time fifty pages have passed Anya is endowed with an inner life, a capacity to suffer and to change. The idea that she will serve as C's editor seems nonsense, until her reactions begin to affect and shape his text, and finally induce him to turn inward and begin a second diary, a record of the more personal opinions that will open to the reader his inner life.
But first, below the line on the page, a plot is enacted. Anya's partner, up on the top floor, is a freckled entity whom C calls "Mr Aberdeen" and describes as a "pale, hurrying, plump and ever-sweaty fellow." C hates the thought of him having sex with Anya. He both despises him and envies him: "I would give my right arm to be Mr Aberdeen." His real name is Alan, and he is an investment consultant, attuned to "the economic dimension" of the world. Among his colleagues he passes for an intellectual, but -- just as Anya speaks French but has never heard of Voltaire -- he is a cultural blunderer: "Orpheus and Eurydice, said Alan, famous lovers. Orpheus was the man, Eurydice was the woman who got turned into a pillar of salt." For Alan, politics is an effete pursuit, an evasion of the real. "The big issues, the issues that count, have been settled." Alan has a bandit mentality.
Señor C is his natural prey, an "old-fashioned free-love, free-speech sentimental hippie socialist." Having breached the security of C's personal computer, Alan devises a plan to siphon off the old man's savings. C's will, Alan has discovered, leaves his money to his sister, who is already dead, and "the secondary heir is a charity, some dead-end organization...that rehabilitates laboratory animals." As for the interest accruing on his bank account, "I am going to put that money to some use," Alan threatens.
Anya, in the end, dissuades him. But it is a near thing. It has to be, for the reader's sake; there are times when we are happy to meander through a novel, but every book, at some point, needs to pin its reader to the page. Like Anya, trying to persuade Señor C to be less austere in his approach, the reader demands "a story with human interest, that I can relate to." But it is so wearying for a writer to have to perform this chore, and C doubts he is fit anymore for the demands of narrative:
To write a novel you have to be like Atlas, holding up a whole world on your shoulders and supporting it there for months and years while its affairs work themselves out.
The stage in life is reached when a writer of fiction is no longer content to show off to others, but needs to engage with personal and urgent questions of his own: how to live, how to die. But because of who he is, he must work them out in the public realm, on the page. If he is also a commentator on society and politics, he must consider whether his opinions -- which anyway are "subject to fluctuations of mood" -- have degenerated into a licensed grouchiness, into a simple complaint that the world has not lived up to his fantasies of how it should be. He is faced with the need to question and renew his attitudes, at the same time as he is tempted to give way to what Anya calls "soft opinions." He wants to consider his dream-life. He has an attraction, perhaps for this writer always there, to "the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration."
Coetzee has written a great deal about the perplexities, shifts, and accommodations of a writer's life, but never so cogently as in Diary of a Bad Year. Under some regimes -- the old Soviet Union, South Africa under apartheid -- all working writers can claim to be heroes. Accidents of birth have cut them a slice of moral grandeur, theirs for nothing as soon as they take up the pen. Committed to seriousness, and bound either to emigration or delicate evasion of the censor, they need perhaps feel no obligation to entertain. Reading them has become a moral duty for the bien-pensant. Coetzee, as one of these distinguished few, has employed his special status skeptically. He has employed irony, allegory, indirection, and yet he knows his duty: often, as in Disgrace, which many readers think his greatest work, moral analysis hangs heavy from every line. The Diary, by contrast -- and in great contrast to Coetzee's last novel, Slow Man -- is nimble, at times frisky, as it keeps its reader's attention on the move, above and below and between the lines, in and out of different frames of reference.
There is a sense of mischief about it; perhaps the comic is calling to him, as it does to the narrator of Disgrace when he abstracts himself from the gruesome events which have taken place in his family and sits down to write his opera about Byron in Italy. One could make a harsh comic opera out of the duel at the center of this book: the high-minded, palsied miser scratching the itch of his lust, his animal nature surging to the fore; the crass blusterer who schemes to cheat him; their fateful meeting, long anticipated; the smart, sleek little woman who steps between them and deflects their aim.
For Anya grows in stature, as she types out the strong opinions and comments on them. Señor C sometimes sounds peevish, a cheap point-scorer. To be sure, the reader is wary of identifying his opinions with Coetzee's, or with holding either author to his word. C warns Anya, "the opinions you happen to be typing do not necessarily come from my inmost depths." It is not their mutability or shallowness that undermines them, but Anya's experience of the world, which, as it unfolds, seems to be broader than her employer's. Having typed out his opinions on pedophilia, she interjects, "I saw enough of old men and little girls in Viet Nam." When, in Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee's novelist heroine appears before an otherworldly tribunal that asks her to state her beliefs, she at first pleads that she has none; she is a secretary to the voices in the air from whom her novels come, and "a good secretary should have no beliefs. It is inappropriate to the function." In this sense, Anya is not a good secretary. She writes herself into the text, and finally tackles Señor C/Coetzee on his home ground. She disagrees with him on the crucial subject of shame.
Señor C in Strong Opinions discusses the shame of nations; the America of George W. Bush, he suggests, will seem to posterity to lie under a curse, in the same way as Germany and South Africa. No individual is excused from the burden of collective guilt:
When you live in shameful times shame descends upon you, shame descends upon everyone, and you have simply to bear it, it is your lot and your punishment.
But Anya, by way of challenge, tells the story of how she and a girlfriend were raped by three American college boys who had taken them sailing. The boys had treated them as worthless, as trash, and trash doesn't complain of being thrown away. But she and her friend went to the police, and the boys were arrested.
She took the decision opposite to that taken by the narrator's daughter in Disgrace, a white woman who elects not to report the crime to the police when she is raped on her remote farm by three black intruders. Their thefts are reported, and the terrifying attack on her father. But the rape itself she prefers to think about and to deal with herself, making a private matter out of what seems to her a piece of public revenge, prepared for her by history. In Anya's case, a policeman asks her if she is sure she wants to go through with pressing charges: "Infamia is like bubble gum, wherever it touches it sticks." She tells him -- and tells Señor C -- that when a man rapes a woman the dishonor is his, only his, that is how it is in the twentieth century.
But Señor C is not sure. He feels that he is dishonored by the men's actions, and "I would be very surprised if in your inmost depths they did not continue to dishonour you." She is angry, taking him to be replicating the policeman's argument; but perhaps what he is saying is that she too is dishonored because, though a victim in this case, she is part of the human race, and can't be innocent of the impulses to power and self-gratification that lead to rape and other crimes. The shame with which Coetzee and Señor C are preoccupied then becomes like original sin, an inescapable, ineradicable part of being human. Anna's argument takes this to be an evasion of responsibility. If everyone is responsible then no one is responsible. And surely that cannot be what our history is -- a saga of wrongdoing in which no one is responsible? To Anna, the saying "No man is an island" is meaningless. She, the underdog, knows who does what to whom, and who benefits, and who pays.
This argument is the first breach between the author and the tipitista. She leaves him but returns, because, she says, she has promised to type the book and she always keeps her promises. Toward the end of the book she leaves Alan, she moves to another town, she makes a life of her own, she is not under her creator's eye and yet she still exists. She begins as a toy; she escapes her author, develops free will, and of her own free will she decides she will come back, if needed, to nurse Señor C. She is the woman he saw in a dream, early in his narrative, a dream about "dying and being guided to the gateway to oblivion by a young woman." Anya has nothing to gain from C. Her return to his life will be an act of altruism -- that phenomenon which would be so baffling to Mr Aberdeen, who would not be able to price it. There is a question of concern to both Señor C and Coetzee, and it is this: Who will go with us to the threshold of death? In Disgrace, the narrator is told, "I don't think we are ready to die, any of us, not without being escorted."
As C begins to write his second diary, more personal and introspective than his first, he remarks that foreknowledge of death broods over the writer's every utterance. And yet we ignore the fact: "Conventions of discourse require that the writer's existential situation...be bracketed off from what he writes." By assenting to that convention, are we agreeing to read only half-truths? Are we accepting that the author can never be true to himself, however rigorous his intention? Perfect fidelity would require that every sentence be accompanied by a commentary on the author's state of being as he wrote it. All novels would be like Tristram Shandy. They would never come into being. The words would hover above the margins of pages ruffled by the breath of the recording angel. It is not only fear of death that disturbs the novelist; every time one sits down to write, a gap like the grave opens between intention and effect.
Taking it to be his proper daily task, an artist spends his life trying to narrow that gap, but for what? So that he can impose his "strong opinions" on the world? So that his perhaps worthless personality is stamped all over everything he touches? C shrugs at his limitations: "I was never much good at evocation of the real." Mr Aberdeen sneers that "he is a man whose sole achievement lies in the sphere of the fanciful," but C remarks about his reputation that "now the critics voice a new refrain. At heart he is not a novelist after all, they say, but a pedant who dabbles in fiction."
But then, what use is fiction anyway? Elizabeth Costello's sister, a missionary in Africa, says, "I do not need to consult novels...to know what pettiness, what baseness, what cruelty human beings are capable of." Novels add nothing by way of information to the historical record, and C knows this. Anya offers chirpy reassurance: "As for your writing, you are without a doubt one of the best, class AA, and I say that not just as your friend." But it is not Anya who will help him in his perplexity. It is Dostoevsky:
I read again last night...The Brothers Karamazov, the chapter in which Ivan hands back his ticket of admission to the universe God has created, and found myself sobbing uncontrollably.
In the chapter mentioned -- the one in which the second of the brothers rehearses his gruesome collection of examples of cruelty to children -- Ivan is overwhelmed by the horrors of the world. He believes there are actions beyond human or divine forgiveness.
The narrator sees that Ivan's examples are theatrical, grotesque, the outraged sentimentalities of a man determined to defrost his frozen heart. If we draw our instances from torturers, our analysis of human behavior will be skewed. C believes that Ivan's opinions are wrong. But he hears that his voice is true. "It is the voice of Ivan, as realized by Dostoevsky, not his reasoning, that sweeps me along." The reader finds in The Brothers Karamazov what the narrator describes, with excitement and heightened feeling, as "the battle pitched on the highest ground!" The novel, as a form, justifies itself by being the arena where such intellectual and emotional battles can be fought. More particularly, a rereading of Dostoevsky's novel may be the key to this book, and a background against which to examine Coetzee's thought. As Auden says, "About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters." The masters of the novel form -- Tolstoy, Dostoevsky himself -- show us the way. "They annihilate one's impurer pretentions; they clear one's eyesight; they fortify one's arm."
When Señor C is dying, Anya thinks, she will go back to Sydney. She will put him in the boat on the river he must cross, and then clean his flat. If there is -- as she has long suspected -- any pornography lying about, she will throw it away and keep his name clean. She will take his clothes to the charity shop and write to his publisher to say there won't be any more strong opinions in the mail. This will be an act of love.
As always, Anya's voice is practical, prosaic. Above the line, the great cry from the writer's heart; below, the housekeeping arrangements for the corpse. In the white space between, in the descent -- into the laundry room, into bathos, into the underworld -- in the negotiations performed in that space, the power of this novel resides: not with the above-the-line argument, not with the rational and impersonal, but the human particularity through which the rational argument is mediated. This is the "why?" of the novel, of any novel. Polemics are not enough. What ensures Señor C his quietus is that his strong opinions have been read by the light of a single human heart.
That, at a guess, is where the Diary leaves us, though it is possible that this elusive author and his multiplying meanings are already melting from this page and on to some other page, to be reargued afresh. As the hovering ghost of Elizabeth Costello says, "If you think you have the right person you have the wrong person."
Hilary Mantel's memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, was published in 2003. Her latest novel is Beyond Black.