Only Disconnect

The Pole BY J. M. Coetzee. NEW YORK: LIVERIGHT. 176 PAGES. $26.

The cover of The Pole

HOW ROMANTIC IS J. M. COETZEE? At first the question, prompted by his eighteenth novel, The Pole, sounds like a joke. The journalist Rian Malan, who visited Coetzee’s office at the University of Cape Town in the early 1990s, reported that the novelist didn’t smoke, drink, eat meat, or, except on very rare occasions, laugh. “It helps to have a piercing gaze,” Coetzee wrote in one of eight essays on Beckett, and his own author photographs show a man who, with his ironed shirts, unvainly swept-back hair, and eyes that would win any no-blinking competition, resembles a semi-retired notary public, or a mob boss who hasn’t got his hands dirty for decades. In his work, too, he offers little in the way of solace or solicitude, presenting a harsh world in parched prose.

Coetzee is aware of this perception, and though he said Malan “does not know me” and was “not qualified” to talk about his character, he has also acknowledged that his taste for “spareness” is an “unattractive part of my makeup.” Almost the first thing we encounter in his body of work, at the start of “The Vietnam Project,” the first of the two stories in Dusklands (1974), is a government-agency manager called Coetzee—a person “utterly without vision”—asking the military analyst Eugene Dawn to make his project on psychological warfare “blander.” There are traces of mockery in his portrayal of the novelist-critic C., in Diary of a Bad Year, and the novelist-critic Elizabeth Costello, in the collection named after her, while the author himself is the subject of a highly addictive series of third-person fictionalized memoirs, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, where the things John Coetzee is said “not” to be include: “easy to take to,” “a snappy dresser,” “a giant” of modern literature, “a sensual being,” able to grow a decent beard. In the final volume, in which John is being remembered after his death, a woman tells a biographer to title his book “The Wooden Man.”

Sex is frequently depicted in Coetzee’s fiction. It’s a messy, miserable business. Eugene Dawn notes that the erotic bliss mentioned in the “marriage manuals” has “eluded” him and his wife, Marilyn. That is one way of putting it. Here, you might be surprised to learn, is another: 

Before the arrival of my seed her pouch yawns and falls back, leaving my betrayed representative gripped at its base, flailing its head in vain inside an immense cavern, at the very moment when above all else it craves to be rocked through its tantrum in a soft, firm, infinitely trustworthy grip. The word which at such moments flashes its tail across the heavens of my never quite extinguished consciousness is evacuation: my seed drips like urine into the futile sewers of Marilyn’s reproductive ducts.

A similar image occurs in Waiting for the Barbarians, where the Magistrate embraces a young woman with the “most intense pleasure” but then things “peter out vacantly,” prompting him to think that his “intuitions are clearly fallible.” Dostoevsky, in The Master of Petersburg, doesn’t even get the promising start. “In the act there is nothing he can call pleasure or even sensation. It is as though they are making love through a sheet.” At one point in Youth, John wonders “what happens afterwards, between a man and a woman who have failed at the game?” Coetzee’s readers already know of one possibility. In Disgrace, which appeared a few years earlier, the academic David Lurie has a joyless fling (“a failure”) with a department secretary named, like Coetzee’s first protagonist, Dawn. After that David tries to avoid her. In return she snubs him. He wonders if castration is the answer. “Not the most graceful of solutions, but then ageing is not a graceful business.” Would the sight of a man on a chair “snipping away at himself” be any uglier, he wonders, than “the same man exercising himself on the body of a woman”?

The most recent and probably final sex scene in Coetzee’s body of work comes in The Childhood of Jesus, the first of three books about a miraculous boy called David. It’s more briskly written than the one in Dusklands—a rare moment of grandiloquence—but the act evoked is no more joyous. Simón, David’s adoptive father, persuades a woman called Elena to sleep with him on the grounds that their “physical contact” would bring them closer together. She is skeptical, and when the experience is underwhelming—Simón’s feeling of “pent-up desire . . . proves to be an illusion”—her pillow talk takes the form of an I-told-you-so. “You see what I mean? . . . It doesn’t advance us, does it?”

Coetzee appears to be having fun at the expense of these lovers. But that’s not the same as viewing sex as pointless or a waste of time, as agreeing with Elena. John, in Youth, convinces himself that sex is “the measure of all things.” Even Henry James, he reckons, “has pages where he darkly hints that everything, finally, is sex.” The presentation of romantic love as high-stakes and low-yield, all-important but rarely easy, points to a central paradox in Coetzee’s writing. As he called Beckett a dualist who finds dualism “ludicrous,” so he might be seen as a romantic of an unusually conflicted kind—a self-hating romantic even. In Boyhood, John ignores the poems in a collection of Wordsworth that his father has “ticked in pencil” but later finds himself writing Keatsian sonnets. On the one hand, “love” is a word he “mouths with distance,” something he convinces himself to see “no sense in.” On the other hand, he believes in its “powers,” especially after he moves to London, a city full of “beautiful girls.” A former colleague in Summertime recalls that while John did not engage in Dionysianism, he approved of Dionysian impulses. Of course Coetzee recognizes the shortcomings of both positions, individually and as responses to each other. We may sense his judgment at Dawn, the secretary in Disgrace, working herself into a “froth of excitement,” but he is scarcely endorsing David’s pseudo-logical castration plan. Turning away from passion, literally trying to cut off its sources, is in no way preferable to letting it all hang out.

This internal conflict seems to have originated, or so Boyhood prompts us to conclude, in Coetzee’s relationship with his mother, whose overbearing affections caused him to retreat. Coetzee’s “cold” demeanor and usually unflappable prose constitute a rear-guard action, not a rejection of “warmth” but a defense against fever. It’s not surprising to read that John feels “a horror of spilling mere emotion on to the page,” but the basis for his horror is telling: “Once it has begun to spill out he would not know how to stop it.” If he is avoidant, it’s because he has so much to avoid. 

Hilma af Klint, The Swan, No. 12, Group IX/SUW, 1915, oil on canvas, 59 1/2" × 59 1/2".
Hilma af Klint, The Swan, No. 12, Group IX/SUW, 1915, oil on canvas, 59 1/2″ × 59 1/2″.

Coetzee is not alone in making this seemingly paradoxical internal division the basis of a literary sensibility. In fact, by his account, it’s a trusty route to greatness. In his introduction to Madame Bovary—one of the twelve books in the “personal library” he has curated with an Argentinean publisher El Hilo de Ariadna—Coetzee recalls that Flaubert felt himself to be a Romantic driven by fashion or circumstance to a “clinical” approach and bourgeois subject matter. Writing about Molloy—another inclusion in the personal library—he notes that Beckett’s “intellectual” approach conceals the fact that the novel came from a “source deep within its author.” Rilke’s poems do not express abstract “ideas” but reflect his “moods.” The “cerebral” ironies of Zbigniew Herbert “mask the most intense ethical and indeed lyrical passion.” Then there’s T. S. Eliot. In Youth, John transcribes a sentence from Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in which the poet rejects Wordsworthian aesthetics. John wonders if Eliot’s claim that poetry represents an escape from personality and emotion is “just a stratagem to conceal his own dullness,” then rejects this possibility. As Coetzee observed in a 1991 lecture, Eliot wrote poetry of an “astonishingly personal” kind.

Expression, for Coetzee, is inherently autobiographical, an uncomfortable truth that most intellectual endeavors work to repress or conceal. He spent a while in the early 1960s trying to prove that logic was a mere invention, reflective of the mind’s need for pattern, not an insight into reality as such. In the 1991 lecture, named after Eliot’s “What Is a Classic?,” Coetzee noted that the poet, as he pontificated on Virgil and imperial Rome, failed to consider his own Americanness, the “odd angle” from which he approached the subject. Coetzee has expressed suspicion of what he considers “the Anglo Weltanschauung, with its inbuilt templates of how one thinks, how one feels, and how one relates to people, and so forth.” The bedrock of this worldview is the idea of “common sense,” an Enlightenment inheritance that disavows the element of partiality in judgment and opinion, and exploits the narrow clichés of romanticism, as a sort of alibi, a way to protect, by means of contrast, the category of the rational—of writing, speaking, and thinking that derives from the faculty of reason, not some personal animus or prejudice.

The Pole is Coetzee’s latest—and, it must be said, slightest—attempt to challenge and redraw the established equation between personality and expression, and to reveal how human beings reflect deep predilections, “express themselves,” even at their most putatively rational and restrained. Witold, the title character, is a concert pianist in his early seventies “best known as an interpreter of Chopin,” though we are advised that his Chopin is “not at all Romantic” but “somewhat austere” and “over-intellectualized.” The story begins in 2015, when he is invited by Beatriz, middle-aged and unhappily married, to perform for a concert circle in Barcelona. Beatriz, though not given to grand passions, is more outwardly impulsive than Witold: “A portion of her intelligence consists in an awareness that excess of reflection can paralyze the will.” She believes that music makes you better, and can transport you. Witold, asked why Chopin is so important, argues that his music tells us “about ourselves. About our desires. Which are sometimes not clear to us.” But Witold’s speech is also not clear to Beatriz. He blames his poor English, then adds that his Polish wouldn’t fare much better. Only the music speaks. But Beatriz finds Witold’s rendering of Chopin too detached, less “intimate” than the one she knows. She prefers the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau. His Chopin speaks to her heart.

Witold invites Beatriz to Girona. His declaration of love begins, “I am not a poet,” and continues: “I can only say, since I met you my memory is full of you, the image of you . . . I travel from one city to another city to another city, that is my job, but you are always with me. You protect me.” When he is finished, Beatriz reflects, “Not much of an aria.” She has no reason to disbelieve what he claims to feel, but finds it “distasteful.” Again, he sends her back to his recitals, and as before, she is disappointed. “So dry, so matter-of-fact!” She “shivers with distaste” at the prospect of sharing a bed with him. She tells him he should “smile more.” There’s a suggestion at one point that the title might have a secondary meaning—Witold and Beatriz as poles apart. Even when they understand the literal meaning, their words are like “coins passed back and forth in the dark.” And yet despite the obstacles, Beatriz allows herself to be surprised, to loosen her preconceptions, and gradually they form a kind of bond. 

In a 1987 lecture, Coetzee argued that novels should be a “rival” to the prevailing reality, not a “supplement,” promoting “an other mode of thinking.” A message of this kind—like the Pole’s declaration—is almost bound to confuse or repel or fall on deaf ears. In this light, the autobiographical trilogy is less an act of self-trolling than a kind of credo, even a shot across the bows of the uncomprehending. But Coetzee doesn’t enact this resistance purely as parable or narrativized polemic. It underpins his formal approach. The enemy, simply put, is literary realism, which by disguising or denying its own artifice—a move that the term enshrines—combines the delusion that you can present things as they are, saying in essence “Here is the world,” with a desire that the reader get swept up in that world. Realism is not merely a set of conventions but conservative in a larger sense, an act of collusion on the writer’s part with a system of assumptions in which the reader is enlisted. Coetzee has forged a sense of distance, smudging the windowpane in order to challenge prevailing modes of seeing and being, with hallucinatory logic (Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country), an otherworldly tone (Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K), literary palimpsest or pastiche (Foe), writing about himself as a character (Boyhood, Youth) and as dead (Summertime), dividing the page between competing narratives (Diary of a Bad Year), introducing an author into the fiction (Slow Man), constructing an alternate universe built on literary tropes and nudging in-jokes (the Jesus trilogy).

He hasn’t always pulled it off. Working on Disgrace in the mid-1990s, and recalling the example of Age of Iron, Coetzee wondered what it was about “the South African material that drives one towards dull realism?” But in The Pole he has found another solution. It begins with an unnamed male having “trouble” with a “woman” and a “man,” recalling the suggestion in Madame Bovary that the narrator is one of Charles’s old schoolmates (“We were in class when the headmaster entered”). Later, we read that “it is only a matter of chance” that the story being told concerns Beatriz and Witold, not Beatriz’s cleaner: “Another fall of the dice and the story would be about Loreto’s submerged life.” More sustained is the use of numbered paragraphs—153 in barely as many pages—a device which, recalling its use in his second novel, In the Heart of the Country, Coetzee said liberated him from having to make “smooth” transitions. It also prevented the reader from being engulfed by “the represented.” 

J. M. Coetzee, 2014. Photo: Alejandro Guyot
J. M. Coetzee, 2014. Photo: Alejandro Guyot

The fleeting author-figure in The Pole is having trouble because people reveal themselves gradually. At first he thinks that the identities of Beatriz and Witold are “perfectly clear,” a formulation bound to set alarm bells ringing among long-time Coetzee readers. It’s a tribute to the varieties of romantic experience, the historical vagaries of romantic expression, and the power of obliquity, as well as a pointed swipe at the arrogance and limitations of the Anglophone, that the breakthrough in Beatriz’s understanding of Witold comes in the form of a book of Polish variations on medieval Italian poetry (Dante’s Vita Nuova) by someone who was “not a professional writer” rendered into Spanish by a woman who declares “I am not a literary translator.” The current of feeling is better preserved, more resonantly or authentically channeled, by pastiche, versions, variations, allusion, rewriting, than someone stating exactly what he or she thinks or feels. (The Pole is itself a sort of rewriting of Dante’s relationship with Beatrice but of Chopin’s relationship with George Sand, as depicted in her novel A Winter in Majorca.) Even if you write in apparently cool prose, or describe yourself in the third person, or fail to talk the way “a poet” is expected to talk, fail—or refuse—to play like Claudio Arrau, you are always and inevitably projecting who you are, manifesting poeticism of some kind. It’s a matter of finding a frequency that others can recognize, and hoping that they make the effort.

At one point, the biographer in Summertime recasts an interviewee’s thoughts in the third person to find a pronoun that is “like I but is not I.” This is the space that Coetzee promotes and strives to inhabit, a third realm, not inherited or imposed, but tailored to his needs. The Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians outlines the method when he says that in his interrogations, he gets “first lies,” “then more lies,” “then the truth,” but all of Coetzee’s work has engaged in this effort, with varying degrees of directness. On finishing The Pole, I was reminded of the paragraph that opens Dusklands—just before we meet the author’s namesake—a tripartite formula that takes us from the world of fact via confessional neurosis to a declaration of artistic intent: “My name is Eugene Dawn. I can’t help that. Here goes.” 

Leo Robson’s debut novel will appear in the UK in 2025.