Featured post

Looking at Photographs: New series of talks at the RPS

  Sign up to my new series of talks on the History and Theory of Photography . Starts in September and it's perfect if you want an intro...

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Summertime in CoetzeeLand

A little bit of literature to shine some light on the world; Summertime by J.M. Coetzee is a wondrous book, a fictionalised biography, or a biographical fiction, in which the women and colleagues in Coetzee's life (real and imagined) talk about his weakness, ineptitude and lacklustre approach to everything, real or imagined.

You never know quite how real or imaginary the book is (the fictional Coetzee is unmarried, unsatisfied, unloved, the real Coetzee is married with children...) but you get the feeling Coetzee has had what passes for fun in CoetzeeLand laying his real/imaginary soul bare - his inadequacies and vulnerabilities are frighteningly recognizable to any man from an emotionally stifled and physically muted (English speaking, Afrikaans or otherwise) background.

My favourite bits are the scathing comments passed by Adriana, a Brazilian dance teacher whose glamour and vivaciousness are at odds with Coetzee's flyblown disposition.

Adrianna on John Coetzee: 'I did not greet him. I wanted him to see at once that he was not welcome. What did he think - that if he danced before me the ice in my heart would melt? How crazy! And all the crazier because he had no feeling for dance, no aptitude. I could see that from the first moment, from the way he walked. He was not at ease in his body. He moved as though his body were a horse that he was riding, a horse that did not like its rider and was resisting. Only in South Africa did I meet men like that, stiff, intractable, unteachable. Why did they ever come to Africa, I wondered - to Africa, the birthplace of dance? They would have been better off staying in Holland, sitting in their counting houses behind their dykes counting money with cold fingers.' 'I have a question. It is this... am I wrong about John Coetzee? Because to me, frankly, he was not anybody. He was not a man of substance... I know he won a big reputation later; but was he really a great writer? Because to my mind, a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You have also to be a great man. And he was not a great man. He was a little man, an unimportant little man.' ....................... Other narrators back up the flaws in the Coetzee character. Was he at ease with his black students - with black people in general? 'Was he at ease with anyone? He was not an at-ease person (can you say that in English?). He never relaxed. I witnessed that with my own eyes.So: Was he at ease with black people? No. He was not at ease among people who were at ease. The ease of others made him ill at ease.' .............. 'In the laughing department he is the last companion his father needs. In laughing he comes bottom of the class. A gloomy fellow; that must be how the world sees him, when it sees him at all. A gloomy fellow; a wet blanket; a stick in the mud.'

I wonder how many other writers could write that. How many writers lack the vanity (or have enough vanity) to face up to the fact that the great writer doesn't have to be a great man or woman, that they can be a John Coetzee, a man filled with physical and emotional coldness and distance, able to express themselves only on a page, living an ill-defined half-life between their real, fictional and literary celebrity selves.

Not many I would guess. That's why Coetzee's so special. I do think he had fun writing this book, looking down on himself and picking out the flaws of inadequacy, selfishness and regret about lives both lived and unlived - simple, universal flaws we all have in very similar forms but ones which we can't bring ourselves to mention.

At the same time, living out those flaws on the page throws down a challenge to the vainer writers of the world - the Great writers with Great Prose and Great lives and Great personalities. It's a challenge of honesty and relevation, of stripping yourelf at least partially bare. It's a simple challenge, but one he knows very few other writers can meet, essentially because they're not as good as him - for all their bluster they're not Great in any way. Coetzee is great, but with a small g - he's great in the simplicity of what he does, the way he holds his nerve and stays on the path he has chosen, one of a brutal (though not absolute) honesty where he is the man under scrutiny, he is the one who must wriggle beneath his delicious self-loathing.

If there is the myth of the Great Writer being a Great Man with a Great Life, how much more prevalent is that myth in photography, where self-aggrandizement is virtually a pre-requisite to success. And how many photographers could overcome their vanity and ego to say similar things about themself and their work?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It's very timely for something I'm thinking about at the moment. Thank you very much for expressing your admiration so clearly. You write with a clarity that I think will always elude me.


Rob Hann said...

I've always thought it funny that PDN has the annual Self Promotion Awards!

colin pantall said...

Thank you Anonymous, but I think my clarity is a bit fuzzy in places - I hope so anyway.

Indeed Rob - people need to promote. You don't get anywhere without promotion but at the same time I get your point. Absolutely!