J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

– T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

“My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

– Tennyson, ‘Mariana in the Moated Grange’

In his review of Coetzee’s new novel Slow Man in the New York Review of Books John Lanchester writes: “It is hard to find an admirer of J.M. Coetzee’s work who does not think that his best book is Disgrace“. He just found one. Not that I don’t think Disgrace is a truly fascinating novel. But the Coetzee novels I admire, no, the Coetzee novels I worship, came earlier – Waiting for the Barbarians, The Master of Petersburg, In the Heart of the Country, The Life and Times of Michael K. Not since Dostoyevsky and Conrad has the novel been so relentless, so unmercifully intense. There is a gravity to Coetzee – his writing mesmerises you, draws you in, swallows you whole like some slow, sleek python. In their density, his novels are as cosmic and universal as black holes, gulping down the self like light. There is no escaping them. Other writers overwhelm you, Coetzee leaves you empty.

As Coetzee has grown older, though, his novels have aged with him (some would say matured, but the distinction, as applied to Coetzee, is meaningless). Not that they have become lighter or less implosive – if anything, the years have caused Coetzee to turn more firmly inward, so that the glimpses of the external world you once saw in his work have more or less vanished and the hinterlands of the soul have become, increasingly, the territory of his exploration. It is more that his novels have grown more meditative, more brooding. Where once there was the sparse sharpness of nightmare, the clear, burning lines of image, there is now the more blurred quietness of recollection, of nostalgia. It’s as though, in turning more firmly inward, Coetzee has come to recognise the fundamental incoherence of the self. If we are unable to see ourselves in black and white, Coetzee seems to be saying (as doubtless we are) then why should he, the writer, presume to provide anything less ambigious in his novels.

It is this search for ambiguity that Disgrace is a prime example of. Lanchester calls it misdirection, but in my mind it is rather indirection, the realisation, so central to the human experience, that if one is trying to describe motion, it is unnecessary (and may in fact be misleading) to specify where the movement is headed. To he who writes of journeys, destinations must be irrelevant.

In taking on this challenge, and doing justice to it, Coetzee has become, I think, the greatest, most faithful chronicler of human inwardness. In Slow Man, the main protagonist, Paul Rayment, is accused of always speaking like a book. The truth (ironically) is the opposite – Coetzee writes the way we think, more, the way we are. To read his exact and finely polished prose (In Disgrace, in Youth) is to listen to a voice in your own head. It is difficult to engage with Coetzee because it would mean engaging with yourself. It is not possible to question the veracity of what he is saying because in your heart you know it is true almost before he has said it. Like the image of yourself in a mirror, Coetzee cannot, should not be judged, he simply is.

His new novel, Slow Man, starts off very much in this inward vein. An aging and childless bachelor is struck by a car, his leg is amputated, he finds himself crippled, helpless; as Coetzee puts it (beautifully invoking Homer) he is unstrung. This in itself is not unique or interesting, it is almost (Coetzee’s word) frivolous. Suddenly aware of his loneliness, of the unfillable emptiness of his life, the old man, Paul Rayment, then proceeds to fall impractically and indiscreetly in love with the nurse who comes to care for him, a married Croatian woman with three children, named Marijana. As he struggles to understand and define his own feelings for Marijana (and to make his way deeper into the affections of her children), Rayment’s story becomes an intense and brooding meditation on the meaning of love and the fine distinctions between love and desire, love and sex, love and caring.

It is also a thoughtful and searching meditation on how we deal with Time, or rather, of how Time deals with us. In reply to a question from Marijana’s son, Drago, asking him if he hates things that are new, Rayment says, “I’ll give you a straight answer, Drago, but not at the cost of being laughed at. I have been overtaken by time, by history. This flat, and everything in it, has been overtaken. There is nothing strange in that – in being overtaken by time. It will happen to you too, if you live long enough.” As the novel progresses, Rayment’s lost leg becomes a metaphor for a deeper, more fundamental handicap (Coetzee writes: “after a certain age we have all lost a leg, more or less”) – of being old and jaded, of no longer having the appetite or the energy to believe or hope; of being incapable, in the end, of any form of love that is more than a longing for a lost and impossible past. Slow Man is Coetzee at his most allegorical, it is in many ways the most poetic book he has written in a long while. Speaking of Rayment, he writes at one point: “He himself has never been at ease with mirrors. Long ago he draped a cloth over the mirror in the bathroom and taught himself to shave blind.” It is small delights like this that make Slow Man such an intensely rewarding read.

Coetzee’s key insight in his recent work (most notably perhaps, in Disgrace) is that to live in a world without God is not to live in a world without fate. For the ancient Greeks, fate was an equalising force, inevitability was derived from a sense of what could only be called, if not justice, than balance. In Coetzee’s world, fate is a sort of potential energy, a force at once comforting and smothering, a power that you cannot escape from. In Greek theatre, destiny was the string on which human puppets danced, obedient to the hands of whimsical gods, the eloquence with which they met their fate being the chief point of the whole enterprise. In Coetzee’s novels there is no god, but human beings are still puppets, still obedient, except that now the inertia of their destiny has taken the forefront and there is no air left to scream with. In Slow Man, Coetzee writes:

“How quaint, how positively antique, to believe one will be advised, when the time comes, to put one’s soul in order. What beings could possibly be left, in what corner of the universe, interested in checking all the deathbed accountings that ascend the skies, debits in the one column, credits in the other?”

In some sense, then, Coetzee’s is a gentler, more sombre meditation on the existential problem of Sartre, of Camus. In a world where the Gods (if they still exist at all) have ceased to interfere, it remains to man to not only make his own destiny, but also to pass judgement upon it, and it is this knowledge that paralyses us, leaves us to drift without direction. Yet not to have direction is not to be inert – we may no longer inherit or deserve our fates, but we end up entangled in them anyway. Marijana’s daughter calls Rayment the Slow Man (hence the title of the book) but what seems like his sluggishness is merely the slowing down of our perceptions in the instant before a great and terrible accident. Like travelers who know that nothing we can do will change what is bound to happen, we watch in slow horror (and almost clinical detachment) as the inevitable collision draws nearer. It is a testament to the power of Coetzee’s prose that he can slow time down this way, make it stand still. That, in the end, is all Slow Man is – 260 pages of held breath, of falling body.

All this by itself would be enough to make this a great book, but Coetzee is not finished yet. Just as you are settling down into the hypnotic embrace of his writing, comes a blow, a shock, that leaves you dizzy with wonder. For all the things that Coetzee has been he has never been the most experimental of novelists [2]. Yet here it is – a twist in the plot worthy of Calvino. Without wanting to give too much away (you HAVE to read this book) let me say that Coetzee resurrects Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist of his last novel (and what must be, in my opinion, the weakest book he has ever written) and introduces her into the story as a deus ex machina in reverse, a sort of demonic godmother. What follows is one of the most mind-altering and deeply thoughtful explorations into the nature of fiction, its conventions, and the implications of these for the way in which we live our lives [3]. As the line between fiction and reality blurs, so that it is no longer possible to tell what is ‘fact’ and what hallucination, one is left with the deep suspicion that in the end we are all little more than figments of each other’s imagination. It’s almost as though, Coetzee, no longer satisfied with being one of the greatest novelists of his generation had decided to both write his exceptional prose and simultaneously deconstruct it. The result is dizzying, like being plunged into the middle of a hectic whirlwind of a mystery story where the clues all lead back to yourself. Imagine a combination of Chekhov and Borges and you’ll get the picture.

In some ways, this detracts from the emotional power of Slow Man. There is a deep (and exceedingly dry) sense of playfulness here; at one level, Coetzee has made it much harder for you to take him seriously. Yet the fact that Coetzee can do this and still have Slow Man be an insightful and moving novel, is a tribute to how great a writer he truly is. To build up a plot the way Coetzee does, to leave the reader with the one single message, the one set of ideas, would be amazing enough. To constantly dismantle this structure and then put it back again, without ever letting the intensity of the plot flag – to reinvent a novel midway and open up a whole range of different, often opposed ideas – is beyond belief. If you are left with the impression of being toyed with, it is because that is exactly what has been done to you. You have been manipulated, with exquisite skill, by a man who is an undeniable master of his craft, and the most you can do (much as all Rayment can do is be manipulated by the fate he has become involved in) is see it through “to the bitter end”.

Except that the end is not bitter. Or is it? Coetzee’s sense of balance sustains him all the way through to the close of this novel – the ending is both wildly improbably, anticlimactically hilarious, deeply heartwarming and predictably hopeless. Coetzee is too ruthless, too grown up a writer to bother with happy endings. There are no illusions here, all the happy pipe dreams that you may want to sustain about how this novel ends are systematically destroyed. Things are almost sure to turn out badly – Coetzee will not, cannot, lie to you about this. But in sticking this closely to the truth, Coetzee is forced to acknowledge that in the end, life is neither tragic nor comic, and that there is a thin, sickly triumph in continuing to live, however pointlessly or poignantly. It is this recognition, this pale winter sunlight warming the bones of his aged protagonists, that makes this one of Coetzee’s most optimistic, most forgiving, most (his word again) humane books.

Coetzee writes: “What do we call it when someone knows the worst about us, the worst and most wounding, and does not come out with it but on the contrary suppresses it and continues to smile on us and make little jokes? We call it affection.”

Slow Man is a deeply affectionate book from an author who has come to recognise, after years of uncompromising sternness, that only in showing kindness to others can we hope to receive some ourselves.

Notes

[1] The title of this post, comes, of course, from Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind: “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is: / What if my leaves are falling like its own? / The tumult of thy mighty harmonies / Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone / Sweet though in sadness”

[2] This is not entirely true, of course. There’s the interesting experiment of Foe, plus the superb Nobel Prize Speech.

[3] In particular, don’t miss the scene where Rayment, urged by Costello and himself blindfolded, makes love to a young woman who is blind. A scene worthy of Plato.

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