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Diary of a Bad Year

by J M Coetzee (Viking, 2007)

There is no point quibbling about whether or not J M Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year is a novel. Instead of the standard, small-letter legend, "A Novel," the author has set forth the word "Fiction," but there is little need for fastidiousness. For all that Diary is dominated by the "hard ideas" of an ageing writer, numbered and titled like the sections of a treatise, the book is "about" the interaction of three characters, and characters, as distinct from abstract ideas, are all that a novel requires.

There is even a story, obliquely presented but not at all difficult to make out. The layout, or composition, of the book invites the conclusion that the story is appended to the ideas. Most of the novel's pages are divided, horizontally, into three sections. At the top, the ideas. "On national shame." "On probability." That sort of thing. Below that runs a kind of journal, in which the author of the ideas relates his encounters with a woman whom he engages to type up the ideas from his dictation. At the bottom, the woman records her encounters with him. The relationship between these horizontal frames is asynchronous; at several points, the woman comments on ideas that we have read several pages before. How to follow the book is pretty much a matter of personal initiative. It is not at all clear that a close study of the correlations, such as they are, between the three lines of text would reveal a significance worth the pursuit. My own feeling is that the ideas are as much a part of the story as the two diaries are. Without the ideas, what's left would be the somewhat colorless and sordid tale of a dirty old man's final amorous adventure. Although very misleading, that would be the most natural summary of a journals, if the ideas vanished.

As it is, the ideas constitute a blade of irony. Señor C, as the woman calls him (her name is Anya, and she lives with a stock-market tout by the name of Alan), is at the mercy of his ebbing powers. His agedness seems to take the form of a personal dereliction, an unkemptness, as if the writer has abandoned social engagement without taking the positive step of reclusion. He is, in every sense of the word, "retired." And yet his ideas, as he lays them out for us, glisten with keen discernment. Without being particularly dense, they are stated with economy. It is as though the writer's body has become a receptacle for everything cloudy and uncertain about life, leaving behind a range of clear and distinct ideas, beautiful objects to pick up and consider. What makes them beautiful, however, is their vitality.

Take the final idea of the first (and longer) section of the book: "On the afterlife." After toying with the sheer conundrum of imagining heaven — "Will the wife-soul have to spend eternity not only with her beloved husband-soul but also with the detested mistress-soul who was her husband's co-beloved in the temporal realm?" — Señor C get serious in a plainspoken way.

Doubtless the theologian, as theorist of the afterlife, will reply that the kind of love we will feel in the beyond is unknowable to us as we are now, just as the kind of identity we will have is unknowable, and our mode of association with other souls, therefore we might as well cease speculating. But if "I" will in the next life have a kind of existence that "I" as I am now am incapable of understanding, then Christian churches should rid themselves of the doctrine of the heavenly reward, the promise that good behaviour in the present life will be rewarded with heavenly bliss in the next: whoever I am no I will not be then.

The question of the persistence of identity is even more crucial to the theory of eternal punishment. ... Only the memory of who I was and how I spent my time on earth will permit those feelings of infinite regret that are said to be the quintessence of damnation.

It seems clear to me that any attentive reader will soon be grasping a similar distinction that we make with respect to our own past selves: for while we do keenly regret the mistakes of our youth, we accept those of our childhood almost as if they were fatalities rained down by an uncaring Fortune. As children, it is universally felt, we are not responsible for the future to which our childhood leads us. This despite the obvious truth of the maxim about the tree growing as the twig is bent. We helplessly regard childhood as helpless.

Thinking of this sort of thing, while wondering, as any reader of Diary of a Bad Year will, what Anya really thinks of Señor C — even after she tells us — we become intimate with the septuagenarian thinker. That he has ideas the way Anya has a flattering wardrobe is the most natural thing in the world, and however objective our impression of the writer's thoughts might be at the outset, it quite soon becomes personalized. If we want to know what it is like to be someone who thinks a great deal, and does so cogently, for publication (the "hard thoughts" are going to be published, we're told, in German translation) — if we want to know that, then we won't much care about how clumsily or abstactedly such a someone goes about the ordinary daily tasks that are more familiar to us. To concentrate upon the mundane in such a context is to deny that there is a life of the mind. We can say that Señor C really lives among his ideas only so long as we feel that he really lives among them. So long as a thinker holds onto his cerebral integrity, it doesn't much matter how badly the rest of him sags. The sagging almost amounts to liberation.

Because almost every tiny detail of this fiction points to its real-world author, J M Coetzee, it's worth bearing in mind that he has deliberately rendered his alter ego a full ten years older. There is an aspect of Diary of a Bad Year in which experience is replaced by anticipation, so that what Mr Coetzee has given us is a diary not of things that have happened but of things to come. His book is indeed lighted by a sense of expectation, not retrospection: Señor C, old as he is, has not seen everything. He has not yet taken the bath that Mr Coetzee is running for him, or tried on the clothes that the novelist has laid out for the evening.

The tension between the explicit regret of an elderly man whose ability to enjoy life has been sharply circumscribed by the degeneration of his body, and the implicit zest of an intelligent man whose thoughts are as bright and sharp as new pins, makes Diary of a Bad Year a very rich read. (March 2008)

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