A Saving Skepticism: On J. M. Coetzee’s “The Pole”
By Jasmine LiuOctober 30, 2023
The Pole by J. M. Coetzee
The story follows Beatriz, a Spanish “society lady,” and her affair with an older Polish concert pianist, Witold. Witold is a quiet, dreamy defender of a perishing world—perishing because he is a classical pianist with a revisionary take on Chopin, perishing because he is old and dying. Without really knowing Beatriz, he falls in love with her, idealizing her in the mold of Beatrice from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Witold is an archetypal figure for Coetzee, who has often narrated the inner movements of the souls of characters like him. The innovation of The Pole is that it is not told from Witold’s perspective, but from Beatriz’s.
With Beatriz—a sensible, middle-aged woman who has little patience for artists and romantics—at its center, The Pole is Coetzee’s most pared-down novel to date. There is in it a deliberate resistance to the recursive kind of philosophical thinking that habitually addles his narration.
In the novel’s opening pages, Coetzee writes of Beatriz: “She is an intelligent person but not reflective. A portion of her intelligence consists in an awareness that excess of reflection can paralyse the will.” Her frequent reference to nationalities as shorthand for typecasting others is part of her no-nonsense constitution. Quaint labels like “a gentle Pole” and “French men with crude habits” are omnipresent. On matters of music, nationality operates as a privileged form of aesthetic judgment. The protagonist favors Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, but she wonders if “perhaps there was something he was deaf to, some feature of the mystery of Chopin that foreigners will never understand.” She is bewildered by the Pole’s idiosyncratic approach to Chopin, which contains nothing of the subtlety and intimacy she expects from “a real Pole.” A young Japanese violinist mentioned in passing has, of course, “extraordinary technique.”
With his latest title, his uninhibited littering of the text with national characteristics, Coetzee establishes contact between “foreigners” as a principal concern. Down to the details, he commits to the particularity of his choices; what could be an Eastern European identity picked at random proves, upon a foray into his literary essays, richly significant.
The Pole attempts none of the Beckettian abstraction of the Jesus Trilogy on one end, none of the charged ethical dilemmas of post-apartheid South Africa that is the setting of Disgrace on the other. If it appears on its face to be a simpler offering, placing center-stage a mundane affair between two well-to-do people late in life, it sustains his engagement with many of the same philosophical questions that have doggedly pursued him as early as 1980 in Waiting for the Barbarians. What comes of the relationship between a person who aspires to live beyond his death and one who does not? If such a meeting must be violent, can it be something else, too?
For decades, Coetzee has relentlessly plumbed the aporias of the pursuit of creating something that lasts beyond one’s own lifetime. Rarely has he done so by giving voice to somebody unsympathetic to that project. The result of doing so, in The Pole, is surprising. Rather than amounting to a blistering critique of the futility of making art, the novel proposes, from a new view, fresh uses for classic works of art.
Coetzee’s concern for a world fading away is not one that he has only lately taken up. In Waiting for the Barbarians, his magistrate laments a civilization in decline, melancholic at the thought of centuries of history returning to dust. Several of his narrators express confused sentiments toward the new South African state; if they have an unremitted hatred of the evils of apartheid, they are also anxious about celebrations of its downfall that turn their back on the past.
The Pole, much less political than his prior work, foregrounds a form of musical appreciation that is “wealthy, aging, and conservative in its tastes.” Witold accepts recital invitations and teaching posts that confirm he is past his prime. Beatriz, who lives in Barcelona, volunteers her time to help stage monthly concerts. On paper, a good pair for an affair—a renowned pianist who is advancing in age with a touch for the romantic; an “elegant woman” locked in a staid marriage with an abundance of free time who has a reverence for the transporting powers of music. But before they even meet, Beatriz is nettled by him. She stews while coordinating logistics around his visit, building an unfounded image of him in her mind to chastise. When she sees him on-stage, she decides: “What a poseur! What an old clown!”
What to make of this instant ungenerosity? It fits in with Beatriz’s pragmatic attitude, her compulsive habit of mapping out the dreadful implications of scenarios that haven’t yet taken place. Still, we suspect that there is something specific about the Pole that rankles her. At dinner, he remarks that happiness is not most important to him, that “music is most important.” She becomes incensed: “What of Madame Witold? How does she feel when her husband says that happiness is not important?” She commands him silently to justify his art. Finally, unable to resist, she interrupts, apparently without compunction: “[C]an we for a moment go back to Chopin? Why does Chopin live on, do you think? Why is he so important?”
As somebody who barely knows him, Beatriz embeds her interjections with an accusation. Why dedicate his whole life to a man who is dead? She is vindictive with her line of questioning, as if she won’t let up until he repents for the absurdity of his life’s work. By the end of this exchange, Coetzee reveals the second meaning of “the Pole,” who is Beatriz’s diametric opposite. While he is “impractical,” with “the greater part of [his] virtue […] spent on his music,” she is a woman who gives directions to the staff, arranges for translators, and is so attentive to detail that she thinks to wonder if a visiting pianist will expect sex or at least feminine flattery from his host.
Soon, Witold makes advances on her over email, comparing his unrequited affections to Dante’s for Beatrice. Although Beatriz waves away the comparison as ridiculous, she surprises herself with how frequently she thinks about him. She listens to his recordings; she composes an angry letter to him; her mind wanders to Brazil, where he has invited her. Finally, a change of heart sets in, and she plots a week-long trip to the family farmhouse with him. Her urgent task at hand is to disabuse him of his romantic fantasies. After his stay, she hopes, “[h]e will have seen her as she truly is,” so “[h]e can then return to his native land a sadder and a wiser man.”
Their time away is spent on meals at home, visits to restaurants and cafés, long rambles. Finally, she invites him to sleep with her; they carry out a sexual liaison for the rest of their stay. Between the two of them, there is no warmth. They do not touch, kiss, or converse like lovers. “Sometimes, while he is about his erotic business, her mind drifts idly to the shopping she must ask Loreto to do, to the appointment she has missed with the dentist,” Coetzee writes. Beatriz treats sex as many of Coetzee’s female characters do—coldly, as if it is nothing more than a hospitality. What differs here is that she is the protagonist, not the Pole; her matter-of-factness is not a misapprehension by the male gaze but her subjective reality.
When the week comes to a close, Beatriz tells herself a story—that “[s]he had a fling”—and neatly ties a bow on the affair. He is in love with her. She feels nothing for him. Upon his death, she discovers that he has spent his evanescent years pining for her, writing poetry about her.
Coetzee’s relationships are relations of inequality with no mutuality. In the last installment of his trilogy of fictionalized memoirs, Summertime (2009), a biographer interviews a string of women who have had romantic involvements with the writer. One woman prompts the biographer to scrutinize the books he has written. “What is the one theme that keeps recurring from book to book?” she asks. “It is that the woman doesn’t fall in love with the man.”
Beatriz experiences a physical revulsion to Witold—being kissed on the cheek by him is like “being touched by dry bone.” She sees his attraction to her as part of his fetishistic nostalgia for a lost past, a broader sentiment she does not share. Confounded by him, Beatriz presses him for his “grand design,” but Witold finds this kind of thinking foreign, responding, “A normal man and a normal woman do not have a plan.”
While the opaque relationship at the heart of Waiting for the Barbarians is a very different one, the similarities are worth considering. The narrator, a magistrate of a town that lies at the edge of the fictional Empire, takes in a girl who has been tortured by military officers bent on dominating the “barbarian” tribes who inhabit the surrounding territories. He cleans her and nurtures her to health. They share moments of physical intimacy, though for the most part, their intimacy is not sexual.
As a consequence of the violence she has suffered, the girl’s vision is blurred, and the magistrate struggles to know what she sees. He probes her for details about her past, her feelings, her traumas, but she is unyielding. Their shared language is a “makeshift” one with “no nuances.” “She has a fondness for facts […] for pragmatic dicta; she dislikes fancy, questions, speculations,” he observes. “[W]e are an ill-matched couple.” The alterity of the barbarian girl is produced doubly by her intrinsic difference from him and by her status as Empire’s other, two facts necessarily entangled with one another. The magistrate realizes too late that his actions as a benevolent lover cannot be separated from his duties as an executor of Empire. He cannot distinguish his pursuit of the barbarian girl’s personal truths from the techniques employed by colonial administrators to extract spurious confessions.
The girl’s refusal to make herself known to the magistrate is her resistance to his excesses of language and meaning, excesses she knows all too well to be violent; his frustration toward her abstruseness is, on the other hand, a microcosm of his ambivalent feelings toward civilization. If he sees very clearly the barbarities of civilization, he also asks himself in a beautifully ambivalent passage,
Do I really look forward to the triumph of the barbarian way: intellectual torpor, slovenliness, tolerance of disease and death? If we were to disappear would the barbarians spend their afternoons excavating our ruins? Would they preserve our census rolls and our grain-merchants’ ledgers in glass cases, or devote themselves to deciphering the script of our love letters?
The dialectic of civilization and barbarism is one Coetzee has critically engaged for decades. In “What Is a Classic?,” an essay Coetzee first delivered as a lecture in Austria in 1991, he concludes that a classic is that which survives attacks by critics. He asks what it means for a classic to survive—a question that requires a momentary consideration of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. For Herbert, he argues, the opposite of the classic is the barbarian. This is a special concern for Herbert, he thinks, because he “writes from the historical perspective of Poland, a country with an embattled Western culture caught between intermittently barbarous neighbours.” There is nothing essential about the classic that allows it “to withstand the assault of barbarism,” according to Coetzee. “Rather, what survives the worst of barbarism, surviving because generations of people cannot afford to let go of it and therefore hold on to it at all costs—that is the classic.” Coetzee decides that the classic is contingent on historical circumstance and unquantifiable labor and care.
The imbalances in the relationship between Beatrice and Witold are dramatically less pronounced than those that mark the relationship between the magistrate and the barbarian girl. Witold, if more outwardly urbane, does not live under a political regime that authorizes his urbanity with violence. Nonetheless, according to the dichotomous terms that Coetzee has wrestled with throughout the long arc of his career, the relationship of Beatrice and Witold can be figured as a modern confrontation between the barbarian and the classic—between a lady who is indifferent to the progressive possibilities of history and a man who, in his smallest, most quotidian ways, wishes to leave something of his life to the world after he departs.
Years after their affair ends, Beatriz discovers upon Witold’s death that he has written a suite of Polish poems for her. She makes a trip to Warsaw and ponders what she would like to do with them. She wonders if letting his poems molder in darkness would be akin to burning them, which she unequivocally understands to be “an act of barbarity.” Finally, she decides to get them translated. While he has no special significance to her, and she is not especially curious about his poetry, she sees that she has been entrusted with an ethical obligation, even if it is not one that anybody has assigned to her. She begins to feel a warmth toward him. “It so happens that she does not go in for grand, hopeless passions […] but that does not mean she does not admire grand passions in others,” Coetzee writes.
The poems don’t strike her, or the translator, as great. Still, she considers them and writes two letters to him about them. In her diligence toward them, she keeps Witold’s memory alive. Her feelings toward him alternate between anger and gratitude, ultimately settling on something in between. “You had the whole creaking philosophical edifice of romantic love behind you, into which you slotted me as your donna and saviour,” she writes in a letter. “I had no such resources, apart from what I regard as a saving scepticism about schemes of thought that crush and annihilate living beings.”
In “What Is a Classic?,” Coetzee contemplates the signature paradox of the classic—that criticism makes the classic: “[T]he interrogation of the classic, no matter how hostile, is part of the history of the classic, inevitable and even to be welcomed.” Beatriz’s challenge is an unlikely instance of this interrogation Coetzee speaks of. If he remains preoccupied with unrequited feelings, in The Pole he moves beyond rendering the opacity of the beloved to suggest how love transforms the object of its desire. In return, he displays renewed reverence to the everyday ethical acts that, contrary to threatening the survival of classics, secure their place in history.
Jasmine Liu is a writer from the Bay Area based in New York.
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