The Writing of Life

By Martin WoessnerApril 17, 2016

The Writing of Life
IT WAS A LITTLE OVER A YEAR AGO that I made my first visit to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Taking advantage of the winter break from teaching, and desperately needing an excuse to get out of town, I descended upon one of the finest collections of literary manuscripts in the country, if not the world. I didn’t realize it then, but I was both fleeing my life and trying to save it at the same time, doing the one thing I’ve ever done well: reading. I was seeking out the traces of a writer in whose words I had found solace once before. Secretly, subconsciously, I must have been hoping that a dose of literary therapy would work its magic on me once again.

“So you’re here to work on the David Foster Wallace Papers?” the cheerful receptionist asked. Admittedly, I wore the well-worn boots and shapeless sweater, not to mention the glasses and the beard, of a grad student who has spent more time with Infinite Jest than with actual human beings in the world. I couldn’t help but smirk at the assumption.

“No,” I replied. “I’m here to look at the Coetzee collection.” I could see her recalibrating her initial assessment of me. “Oh,” she said. “There are a few others here working on him as well.” And with that, I was ushered into the inner sanctum of the reading room.

There were at least five of us exploring the vast archive of Coetzee’s papers now held by the Ransom Center, making up roughly half of the reading room’s residents that week. A couple others were communing with the spirit of Foster Wallace, while one fellow consulted old detective novels and still another lady examined what appeared to be architectural or landscape designs of some kind. Some of these researchers had traveled great distances to Austin — from the United Kingdom, from Australia. I thought I heard somebody say that they drove up from Houston, surely the most treacherous journey of all. (I made that trip only once myself, to see Elliott Smith way back when.)

Fifty years earlier, J. M. Coetzee had journeyed to Austin from faraway South Africa, by way of England, where he was working temporarily as a computer programmer after having written an MA thesis on Ford Madox Ford, which he submitted to the University of Cape Town in 1963. Coetzee arrived at the University of Texas in the fall of 1965 to pursue a PhD in linguistics and literature. What would eventually become the Ransom Center was less than a decade old then, but it was already gobbling up manuscripts and artifacts of immense cultural value at an astounding pace. The works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett were early prizes, and at one point Martin Heidegger’s original draft of Sein und Zeit was about to join them, in a deal almost brokered by Hannah Arendt. At the Ransom Center today you can peruse collections stretching from Jorge Luis Borges to Gloria Swanson, or from Doris Lessing to Don DeLillo. There’s older stuff, too: Chaucer, Shakespeare, a Gutenberg Bible. Coetzee’s archive, needless to say, is in very good company.

As I familiarized myself with Coetzee’s clear and careful penmanship, poring over draft after handwritten draft, I couldn’t help but imagine him doing something similar decades earlier, as he deciphered Beckett’s scrawl. His dissertation was on Beckett, and he utilized the collection of his manuscripts obtained by the Ransom Center. But, having read J. C. Kannemeyer’s exhaustive biography J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, I knew that the author I was chasing did more in Austin than sit around and read Beckett. I knew, for instance, that he was also collecting materials — both in the library and well beyond it — that would eventually find their way into his first work of fiction, Dusklands, which appeared in 1974, some three years after Coetzee’s involuntary return to South Africa.


Perhaps because its primary themes are still so relevant today, Dusklands remains a dazzling work of fiction. It explores legacies of imperialism, madness, racism, and military brutality via two separate but necessarily entwined stories. Coetzee started drafting the second story, “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” first, in Buffalo, where he had landed his first academic appointment at the State University of New York. It passes itself off as a historical palimpsest. It contains the violent and racist first-person account of an early 18th-century Dutch colonist in the Cape, one Jacobus Coetzee, which has been “edited” by an S. J. Coetzee, who also provides a brief afterword. The “translator” of these texts, who also appends a brief preface to the work, is listed as J. M. Coetzee. But nothing is what it seems. Jacobus Coetzee was in fact a real historical personage, whose travel accounts J. M. Coetzee had read while studying in Austin (and to whom he was in fact distantly related), but the central “Narrative” in Dusklands is a work of fiction, not historical fact. The same goes for the editor’s afterword and the translator’s preface. The same goes, in fact, for the editor and the translator themselves. The J. M. Coetzee who was the “translator” of “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee” both was and was not the J. M. Coetzee whose name could be found on the cover of Dusklands.

Just who, exactly, was this J. M. Coetzee, and from where did he come? Was he owning up to his Afrikaner heritage in Dusklands or distancing himself from it? What some might see as postmodern play, as a kind of formalist gamesmanship underscoring the so-called “death of the author” — something akin to Borges’s classic short story “Borges and I” or even the lesser incarnations of it today in the seemingly confessional writings of a Ben Lerner or a Sheila Heti — was in fact just the opposite. It was what Coetzee scholar David Attwell, in his marvelous new book J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-Face with Time, calls “a huge existential enterprise, grounded in fictionalized autobiography.”

In an oft-cited remark — from an earlier interview with Attwell, actually — Coetzee once declared that “all autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography,” which seems to complicate, not dismiss, the whole idea of authorship, including the very ideas of authorial intent and responsibility. When Eugene Dawn, a technocratic cog in the vast American military-industrial complex who narrates the other story in Dusklands, “The Vietnam Project,” expresses “hopes of finding out whose fault I am,” we might be forgiven for thinking that he, Dawn, who cracks under the pressure of writing a dissertation-like report on wartime propaganda tactics, has more than a little bit of J. M. Coetzee in him — or at least as much as his “manager,” an “ordinary man” he loathes by the name of Coetzee.

Navigating one’s way through this authorial hall of mirrors is difficult. Even with the cardinal points of biography, autobiography, writing, and storytelling in view, it is easy to get lost in the unchartered territory between the life and the fictionalization of that life in the literary work. I suppose it is reassuring to know that, most of the time, Coetzee himself didn’t necessarily know where the one began and the other ended. Among the priceless treasures in the neatly organized boxes of his papers at the Ransom Center are little notebooks in which he recorded, rather regularly, his reflections on the creative process: a stray observation here, a fully formed self-critique there, as if he were subjecting his own writing to an internalized academic analysis. Often, he had no idea where a story was taking him until he actually got there, and the notebooks record his frustrations with false starts and imaginative dead ends along the way. But surely Coetzee’s routine of daily writing took him through familiar territory. Now that we have access to some of his papers, and now that biographical accounts are starting to give us a glimpse of his existence beyond the page, we can see how Coetzee’s life provided the seeds — if not the fully formed forest — for almost all of his fictional output.

There are at least two ways to survey this terrain, and, conveniently enough, Kannemeyer’s and Attwell’s books represent them. The subtle difference in their titles reflects what is in fact a rather wide divergence in their respective approaches. Kannemeyer’s massive tome promises “a life in writing,” whereas Attwell’s more nimble study investigates “the life of writing.” The former focuses on the biography and autobiography, and uses the writing and storytelling to illuminate them, whereas the latter looks first at the writing and the storytelling, and utilizes the biography and the autobiography to unlock their secrets. Kannemeyer, in other words, uses the fiction to get at the life, but Attwell uses the life to get at the fiction. If one boils the fiction down to its biographical components, then the other tracks the transformation of the flesh-and-blood life into the fictional worlds of the novels. Both approaches produce fascinating results, but Attwell’s captures more of the magic that is the creative process — a magic that still seemed to cling to the various notebooks, drafts, and clippings I felt and held, gingerly and maybe too reverently, in Austin.

For many years, Coetzee wrote out his drafts, longhand, in exam booklets from the University of Cape Town, where he taught English literature. It was at Cape Town where Attwell, who is currently a professor of English at the University of York, in England, earned his MA in African literary theory and criticism. Coetzee was his supervisor. Like his supervisor, Attwell went on to Austin to earn his PhD at the University of Texas. It’s safe to say that few other scholars know as much about Coetzee the man and the author as he does. His previous works — such as Coetzee’s Doubling the Point (1992), a collection of essays and interviews Attwell edited and conducted, and his own J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (1993) — have become indispensible points of reference in Coetzee studies. Given all this, and given that he was the first scholar to be granted access to the papers now deposited at the Ransom, even before they were available to the general public thanks to Coetzee’s own intervention, Attwell was well positioned to write yet another important book. But what he has produced in J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing is something that transcends the usual academic monograph. At times, it reads more like a primer on how literary works come into being than anything else, a profound meditation on what it means to take up writing as a way of life rather than yet another scholarly study of this or that discourse in this or that novel.

Much of Coetzee’s work has been described as cold or clinical — academic even. His prose is sparse; his aesthetic vision steely, even harsh. Coetzee’s novels depict bleak environs and are populated with characters who seem to be only one or two steps removed from Jacobus Coetzee and Eugene Dawn: deluded or delusional colonists, boring bureaucrats, lonely professors, cranky old authors — hardly the kind of people who might engender warm and fuzzy attachment on the part of readers. Just think of Magda, the narrator of In the Heart of the Country (1977); or the magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) if not also the protagonist of Life & Times of Michael K (1983); or Elizabeth Curren or David Lurie in Age of Iron (1990) and Disgrace (1999), respectively.

And of course there is Elizabeth Costello, the character who became Coetzee’s performative alter ego in the late ’90s and beyond, when, in lieu of delivering public lectures in his own voice, Coetzee would often read stories about Costello, an aging and sometimes cantankerous Australian academic and writer who seemed to have much, though not everything, in common with Coetzee, including his vegetarianism and his concern for the welfare of animals. Coetzee’s Tanner Lectures at Princeton, which were published as The Lives of Animals in 1999, offered us a character who was at once noble and frail, persuasive and disagreeable, determined and yet full of self-doubt. She may be the most realistic character Coetzee has ever created, yet she often rails against “realism,” as was the case with “What Is Realism?,” the first story in which she appeared, a piece read by Coetzee as the Ben Belitt Lecture at Bennington College in Vermont in 1996.

At almost every turn, Attwell emphasizes the profoundly personal and affective origins of Coetzee’s novels. This may come as a surprise to academics who think that everything Coetzee has written is simply too academic — a fictionalization of postcolonial theory, for example, or a meandering sociopolitical parable of some kind. The novels may indeed be these things, but they are also traces of an extremely self-conscious, engaged, and self-aware life. In the Heart of the Country, for example, is a pastoral novel about the genre of pastoral novels, but it is also, Attwell argues, a kind of self-administered therapy, the first of Coetzee’s many “swansongs to the Karoo,” his ancestral homeland, South Africa. It undermines the very genre out of which it stems, but it externalizes Coetzee’s conflicted attachment to the landscape that shaped some of his earliest and happiest memories, despite also being a landscape indelibly marked by generations of settler colonialism.

Similarly, Age of Iron, which tackles nothing less than the cruel and deforming heritage of apartheid and Afrikaner identity, is as much about Coetzee’s own relationship with his mother, transformed into the character of Elizabeth Curren, as it is about social upheaval and political change. The Master of Petersburg (1994), in which Coetzee reimagines a historical Dostoevsky searching for clues of the last hours of his stepson, who had fallen to his death, is a postmodern reworking of The Possessed, laden with intertextual fireworks — but it is also a profound statement, in fictionalized form, of Coetzee’s own grief over the death of his only son Nicolas, who had also fallen to his death from an apartment balcony in Johannesburg just two years before work on the manuscript began. . “The novel is,” as Attwell describes it, “a personal document seeking to become impersonal, and only partly succeeding” — a work of “autobiographical historical fiction, if that is imaginable.” Like Dostoevsky before him, Coetzee was trying “to write his son into immortality,” fully aware of the painful impossibility of just such an endeavor.

Far from diminishing the power of these novels, Attwell’s careful reconstructions of their respective evolutions demonstrate just how meticulous and multifaceted Coetzee’s artistic vision has been, from Dusklands all the way up to his most recent work, The Childhood of Jesus (2013). Even his most expressly political novels, such as Disgrace (1999), have grown out of deeply personal emotions and entanglements — in this case a father’s relationship with his daughter, Gisela. Attwell’s study, which will appeal not just to Coetzee scholars but to anybody interested in the writerly life, focuses primarily on what is now being referred to as Coetzee’s South African period, roughly from around 1974 to about 2002, when he officially moved to Adelaide, Australia, but it touches upon just about every piece of fiction that Coetzee has written, including, naturally, the triumvirate of fictionalized autobiographies: Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and Summertime (2009). In showing how Coetzee has turned his life into art, Attwell demonstrates that the life of writing, arduous and isolating as it is, can nevertheless be a meaningful, purposeful, fundamentally ethical endeavor of the highest order. But only if the life of writing faces up to its most dangerous and difficult task: the writing of life.

Throughout his career, Coetzee has been a scrupulous self-examiner but an ambivalent fictionalizer. “I have no interest in telling stories,” he confided in one of his working notebooks while toiling away on what would become Waiting for the Barbarians, “it is the process of storytelling that interests me.” Hence his penchant for always attempting to introduce — as Attwell puts it — “greater self-consciousness” into his writing. Attwell sees Coetzee as consistently “bearing witness” to his own “existence in the act of writing” throughout his career as a novelist — a kind of ongoing confession by other means, if you will. Sometimes this has entailed a process of addition or alteration, an attempt to put some part of himself directly into the thing he was writing. Most often, though, it has taken the shape of surgically precise editorial excisions, which occluded the very personal and intellectual motivations that animated the composition of the work in the first place. Looking closely at the countless drafts that Coetzee produced for each and every one of his novels, Attwell rightly concludes that, for this Nobel Prize winner at least, “deletion” is in fact “central to the process of invention.” If Foster Wallace is a patron saint of imaginative and expansive self-expression, Coetzee carries the banner for the relentless artistry of subtraction — a skill that, in these days of social media–induced oversharing, is surely slipping from view.


I went to Austin to find traces of America’s impact on Coetzee’s fiction. I spent much of my time on materials relating to “The Vietnam Project.” I knew that Coetzee had opposed American involvement in Vietnam; that he had submitted a satire of Swiftian proportions to the UT student newspaper deriding American military strategy at the time; and that his visa wasn’t renewed because he participated in faculty protests at Buffalo, which were held in support of student antiwar demonstrators. But I had no idea that much of his reading of American fiction, from William Faulkner to William S. Burroughs and Norman Mailer, was also filtered through the lens of the village massacres and napalm bombings taking place half the world away, televised, on occasion, for the nightly news. I had no idea that Coetzee had actually read, and carefully at that, the writings of Herman Kahn and other think-tank intellectuals who pushed the world toward policies of mutually assured destruction. There are traces of all these things in the published version of “The Vietnam Project,” of course, but you need a pretty powerful magnifying glass to see them. Once you look at the drafts and notes now at the Ransom Center, though, these precedents all but jump off the page.

What I also didn’t anticipate finding in Austin was evidence that stories such as “The Vietnam Project” reflected not just Coetzee’s reading or his politics, but his most intimate personal life as well. The collapse of Eugene Dawn’s marriage, a somewhat minor subplot in the final version of the story, was in fact the primary focus of Coetzee’s initial sketches, which consisted almost entirely of dialogue between a therapist and an unfaithful, unhappy wife, who spends her session complaining about her husband, and about men in general. I didn’t even have to speculate about the source material for these sketches, since traces of Coetzee’s own quarrels with his wife were right there in his notes. By the time the story was finished, though, all of this had been either deleted or omitted. The slate had been wiped clean — or almost clean, anyway.

“The Vietnam Project,” which began as an exorcism of marital strife, became on a much larger scale an exorcism of imperial madness. Sitting there in the reading room of the Ransom Center, I couldn’t help thinking that, at root, both evils were symptoms of the same psychological or spiritual malady, that a poisonous personal life merely mirrored the brutal realities of the world in which we live. Microcosm, macrocosm, it’s all one in the same. But was I contemplating Coetzee’s life or my own?

Despite the obvious differences between our respective lives and times, I was nevertheless struck by the underlying, unchanging similarities. The Vietnam War may have come to a close, apartheid may have ended, but the hatreds animating both were still with us. Not much had changed, I thought, in the 45 years since Coetzee started writing, on the first of January, 1970, in a cold basement in Buffalo. Now, as then, racism remains a vicious social virus, plaguing the body politic. Now, as then, imperial violence flashes across the television screen. Now, as then, a cold and calculating rationalism seems to deform our most intimate relations with other people. Now, as then, there is too much cruelty in the world. I’d like to think that we can write ourselves out of all this, that writing and storytelling might save us somehow. But that would mean coming face-to-face not just with time, but also, and more terrifyingly, with ourselves. And honestly, how much of ourselves can we bear to reveal — or not reveal, as the case may be?


Martin Woessner is Associate Professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education.

LARB Contributor

Martin Woessner is associate professor of History & Society at the City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education. He is the author of Terrence Malick and the Examined Life (forthcoming with University of Pennsylvania Press) and Heidegger in America (Cambridge University Press, 2011).


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