by J M Coetzee
A review by John Banville
In the middle of J.M. Coetzee's new novel, there comes a moment when the reader
starts back in soft amazement, murmuring "What the ... ?" This moment
occurs at the entrance into the action by the elderly Australian writer Elizabeth
Costello, whom devotees of Coetzee will know from his previous novel, which was
named after her, and from a curious and curiously memorable book, The Lives
of Animals, based on the Tanner Lectures that he delivered some years ago
at Princeton University. Coetzee's contribution to that book consisted in two
brief fictions, which revolved around a pair of lectures, set in fictional frames,
supposedly given by Elizabeth Costello at Appleton College in New England, an
academic occasion that Amy Gutmann, a certifiably real person and then the director
of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton, noted in her introduction
to the book was "disconcertingly like the Tanner Lectures." So far,
The message that Elizabeth Costello brought to Princeton was that in our treatment
of animals we are as bad as the monsters who conceived and put into effect the
Holocaust. Costello's, or Coetzee's, lectures were followed in the book by a
series of responses from four distinguished academics. Later they were incorporated
into the novel Elizabeth Costello, which was in its way as strange a
performance as The Lives of Animals, and, though certainly fiction, hardly
qualified as a novel. Slow Man, many readers will no doubt be relieved
to hear, is a return to a more conventional form: it is unambiguously a novel,
with one glaring exception.
John Coetzee, who now lives in Australia, was born in Cape Town in 1940, and
spent some years in the United States working as an academic computer scientist
and linguistic scholar. As a novelist he is a remarkable phenomenon: an austere
and uncompromising intellectual whose books are international bestsellers. He
has received pretty well every significant literary award it is possible to
win. His success is an encouragement for those writers who persist, despite
these hard times, in the conviction that the novel is still a serious art form,
capable of delineating not only the inner landscape of an individual consciousness
but also of reflecting something of the human condition in general.
The "slow man" of the title is Paul Rayment, a retired Franco-Australian
photographer living in Adelaide. He is in his sixties, a childless divorcée
with no living relatives, few friends and, it would seem, no acquaintances.
Rayment was born in France -- Coetzee has him mention, rather portentously, that
in French his name rhymes with vraiment -- and spent his early years in
Lourdes, of all places, before emigrating to Australia with his mother and his
despised Dutch stepfather. This complicated background seems irrelevant to the
book's main plot, but the mention of Lourdes is slyly ironical, in light of
what is to come, and brings to mind Zola's observation that on the road from
Lourdes he saw many discarded crutches but not a single wooden leg.
Rayment is set up for us almost as a caricature of the man without qualities.
He is cold, affectless, mean-spirited:
All in all, not a man of passion. He is not sure he has ever liked passion,
or approved of it. Passion: foreign territory; a comical but unavoidable affliction
like mumps, that one hopes to undergo while still young, in one of its milder,
less ruinous varieties, so as not to catch it more seriously later on. Dogs
in the grip of passion coupling, hapless grins on their faces, their tongues
It does not take great powers of prophecy on the reader's part to guess that
Rayment is in for a fall, and so it proves.
Riding on his bicycle through the city one day, he is struck by a car driven
by a heedless young man -- "Wayne something-or-other, Bright or Blight" -- and
wakes up in the hospital to be told that, among his other injuries, his right
knee is shattered. In a morphine haze he is addressed by the young doctor who
will operate on him, seeking his consent to do whatever it may prove necessary
to be done; and when he comes round from the anaesthetic, he discovers that
his leg has been amputated above the knee. His first response is unreasoning
rage: "Why did you not ask me first? he wants to say; but if he utters
the words he will lose control, he will start shouting."
It is assumed that Rayment will want a prosthesis, but he refuses even to consider
such a thing. "Not in all his days has he seen a naked prosthesis. The
picture that comes to mind is of a wooden shaft with a barb at its head like
a harpoon and rubber suckers on its three little feet. It is out of Surrealism.
It is out of Dali." Instead, he will return to live in his apartment on
well-to-do Coniston Terrace and learn to manage as best he can with crutches
and a Zimmer frame. The latter piece of medical hardware affords a rare moment
of fanciful invention -- Coetzee's novels are not noted for broad humor, but the
paragraph conjuring up the imaginary physician "Johann August Zimmer, son
of Austrian peasants" who "has the brainwave of adapting for the more
frail among his patients the apparatus that back in Carinthia has for centuries
been used to teach children to walk," may provoke a hearty smile in the
Rayment is tended by a series of day-nurses: Sheena, who pauses while giving
him a sponge bath and puts on a baby voice to address him in the third person
and say, "Now if he wants Sheena to wash his willie he must ask very nicely";
and then, more momentously, Marijana Joki´c,
A sallow-faced woman who, if not quite middle-aged, exhibits a thickening
about the waist that is quite matronly. She wears a sky-blue uniform that
he finds a relief after all the whiteness, with patches of dampness under
the arms; she speaks a rapid, approximate Australian English with Slavic liquids
and an uncertain command of a and the, coloured by slang she
must pick up from her children, who must pick it up from their classmates.
It is a variety of language he is not familiar with; he rather likes it.
In fact, he rapidly comes to like everything about Marijana, and in his physically
and emotionally maimed state, he soon finds himself helplessly in love with
Marijana is one of the most rounded characters, literally and figuratively,
that Coetzee has ever invented, with her shapely calves and furtive cigarettes
and hilarious and wholly endearing English. At the outset she cannot understand
why he refuses a prosthese -- pronounced as if it were a German word -- and inquires
sardonically if he thinks his leg will grow again.
"Like baby. Baby think, you cut it off, it grow again. Know what I mean?
But you are not baby, Mr Rayment. So why don't you want this prosthese? Maybe
you shy like a girl, eh? Maybe you think, you walk in street, everybody look
at you. That Mr Rayment, he got only one leg! Isn't true. Isn't true. Nobody
look at you."
Marijana -- who, somewhat implausibly, was a picture restorer in her native Croatia -- has
a husband, Miroslav, a mechanic, and three children, two of whom are giving
her trouble: the boy Drago is decent but wild and drives his motorbike too fast,
and Blanka, the elder of two daughters, shoplifts. Rayment seeks ineptly to
woo Marijana by involving himself in the family's affairs, offering to pay for
Drago to go to an exclusive boarding school and buying off the manager of the
shop where Blanka has been stealing. Marijana is cautious, yet unwilling to
spurn this poor one-legged goose who has so unexpectedly begun to lay so many
golden eggs. At last, in his awkward, roundabout way, Rayment confesses his
love. And at that moment....
At that moment the reader finds his eyebrows, as Nabokov would say, traveling
all the way round to the back of his bald head. For suddenly there comes tramping
onto the scene what is surely the oddest alter ego a male author ever invented
for himself: Elizabeth Costello herself, "a woman in her sixties ... the
later rather than the earlier sixties, wearing a floral silk dress cut low behind
to reveal unattractively freckled, somewhat fleshy shoulders." Uninvited
and unexplained, she rings Rayment's doorbell, strides into his life, and proceeds
to roost there. Although he does not know her except, vaguely, by her reputation
as a writer, she knows alarmingly much about him. For instance, she can recite
the opening sentences of Slow Man, word for word. And having done so,
she says wearily:
Do you know what I asked myself when I heard those words for the first time,
Mr Rayment? I asked myself, Why do I need this man? Why not let him be, coasting
along peacefully on his bicycle, oblivious of Wayne Bright or Blight, let
us call him Blight, roaring up from behind to blight his life and land him
first in hospital and then back in this flat with its inconvenient stairs?
Who is Paul Rayment to me?
It is a daring novelist indeed who would introduce himself as a character in
his own novel. Coetzee indulges in mordant self-mockery by bringing himself
into the book in the shape of a dowdy, aging Australian female who takes over
and directs the plot. Amazingly, he gets away with what in any other contemporary
novel would be jeered at as a tired and pretentious piece of postmodernist trickiness.
Why did he risk it? The story of Paul Rayment and his getting of wisdom is
pellucidly clear and straightforward, and could have been told perfectly well
without the intervention of the tiresome Elizabeth Costello. But Coetzee is
interested in more than a mere story. The lesson Costello has come to teach
Rayment, who is her own creation, is that the imagination is the most powerful
force a human being has at his command -- that it is the very life-force itself.
One day when he "finds her by the riverside, sitting on a bench, clustered
around by ducks that she seems to be feeding," he issues a challenge: are
you sure, he asks her, "that you are not seeing complications where they
do not exist, for the sake of those dreary stories you write?" In the midst
of a long reply, in which she urges him to let his imagination expand to the
full -- "Your thoughts and your feelings. Follow them through" -- she
half-quotes a line of Wallace Stevens's, and goes on to extoll what Stevens
liked to call the "mighty imagination." Quoting her -- that is, Coetzee's -- book
again, she says:
He finds her by the riverside, sitting on a bench, clustered around by ducks
that she seems to be feeding -- it may be simple, as an account, its simplicity
may even beguile one, but it is not good enough. It does not bring me to life.
Bringing me to life may not be important to you, but it has the drawback of
not bringing you to life either. Or the ducks, for that matter, if you prefer
not to have me at the centre of the picture. Bring these humble ducks to life
and they will bring you to life, I promise. Bring Marijana to life, if it
must be Marijana, and she will bring you to life. It's as elementary as that.
The lesson she is trying to teach him is as simple as the one that Lambert
Strether sought to teach Little Bilham in that famous scene in The Ambassadors:
"Live all you can; It's a mistake not to."
But the mode in which the lesson is couched is anything but elementary. "What
does it matter who speaks?" one of Beckett's narrators famously demanded;
but in this key exchange between Elizabeth Costello and her creature, it matters
very much who is speaking, and who is being spoken to. Slow Man is written
in the third person, so when Costello gently deplores the "simplicity"
of the narrative, it is not Rayment's simplicity she is speaking of but her
own, or, more accurately, that of J.M. Coetzee. Who is it, then, that is being
urged to "bring me to life"? If Coetzee has not simply fallen into
confusion here, he is inevitably criticizing himself and his book for a failure
to imagine its characters strongly enough to make them seem living people -- not
to speak of those ducks.
What saves Slow Man from being a sterile, self-referential literary
exercise is the vividness of the characters who animate it. Coetzee writes in
a degree-zero style, purposely flat and unemphatic -- he must be a translator's
dream -- yet in this book he has found a new access of warmth and humor, and displays
a vivifying fondness for his characters. It is his triumph in Slow Man to bring
a world into being with a minimum of literary effects. Rare will be the reader
who will quickly forget Marijana Joki´c or Paul Rayment, but surely it
is time for her creator to let the ubiquitous, omniscient, and tedious Elizabeth
Costello fade into a graceful retirement.
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