J.M. Coetzee and the Power of Narrative

by Gillian Dooley


J. M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940 and is the author of fourteen works of narrative fiction (some of which masquerade as memoirs) and several books of literary essays. He has won the prestigious Man Booker Prize twice (for Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace) and he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003.

As a novelist born in and living most of his life in South Africa, Coetzee has been viewed by many readers and critics through an ideological lens, which he has always resisted to a greater or lesser extent. Much excellent criticism of Coetzee puts his work in context; historical, political, literary and theoretical. J.M. Coetzee and the Power of Narrative differs from that of most commentators in that it does not concentrate mainly on the political or post-colonial aspects of his work, and resists allegorical readings--which so often ignore style, language, point of view, and narrative structure.

This book is a consideration of various themes and techniques ranging across Coetzee’s whole oeuvre. It aims to discover the “how” rather than “what” or “why”: where does Coetzee’s work derive its power? A discussion of themes, influences, and allegorical meanings tends to bleach out the experience of reading; and this experience is surely the only reason for choosing Coetzee’s narratives over anyone else’s. It examines the type of resistance to be found in his work, a resistance which seems to have little basis in a political belief or a rational philosophy of justice. The book also traces the effects of Coetzee’s choice of point of view in each of his books––how it interacts with questions of complicity and impressions of realism, as well as how it relates to the subject matter and characters he is dealing with in each case. It is also an exploration of the place of the comic arts in Coetzee’s work. This is a subject which has routinely been dismissed by critics who have failed to discern any humor in the novels. The contention is that a sense of the ridiculous and absurd is implicit in much of Coetzee’s narrative prose and can be seen in the underlying structure of all his books. This study delves into his use of language and languages: the choice of tenses, the surprising flights of imagery to be found amidst the taut elegance of his narrative style; and also the multilingual sensibilities he shares with many of his characters, not excluding the non-verbal language of music.

The subject of sex and desire has attracted less critical attention than various other themes, and, of those critics who have considered it, most seem bent on extracting allegories of sexual politics which are not necessarily warranted by a close examination of the texts. This book disputes some of these readings and suggests considering the subject in other ways. It also looks at another uncomfortable aspect of Coetzee’s books: his treatment of the bond between parents and children.

J. M. Coetzee and the Power of Narrative will appeal to scholars and general readers who are interested in exploring Coetzee’s work without necessarily having an extensive knowledge of literary theory.


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