- J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event
Derek Attridge's J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading brings together a collection of provocative essays on the Nobel Prize–winning author. In a sequence of rigorous close readings, Attridge pays scrupulous attention to Coetzee's literary inventiveness, showing how it constitutes a sustained fictional staging of contests in which questions of ethics come to bear—questions of "responsibility to the other," of "trust and betrayal," and of "confession and truth to the self" (xii).1 At another level (although Attridge himself never makes a clear-cut distinction), literary texts are performances: they come into existence in the anticipation and instantiation of a reader, before any analysis of the happenings, ideas, and lives internal to the fictive world takes place. At this level of performative event, the ineluctable address of a literary text has the potential to interrupt familiar comfort zones, demanding that the reader respond to something other than the already known. Thus the text provokes unsettling thoughts about the ethical implications of the literary encounter itself, about [End Page 492] the responsive engagements of writer and reader in the very act of reading. These ideas find theoretical elaboration in Attridge's The Singularity of Literature, published in 2004 and presented as the "companion volume" to J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading.2 It is when these two books are read in tandem that the subtle inflections and literary applications of Attridge's arguments can best be appreciated.
Any "act of literature," Attridge argues, de-mands a responsiveness to the other on the part of the writer, as much as on the part of the reader. It is the writer's openness to alterity that makes for literary invention. Further, the readiness to engage the unknown reader in ways that will not have been determined in advance constitutes the freedom, but also the risk, of the literary encounter. As for the reader, "Reading a work of literature entails opening oneself to the unpredictable, the future, the other, and thereby accepting the responsibility laid upon one by the work's singularity and difference" (111). This confrontation with the other, both as fictional staging within the text (e.g., the medical officer's relation to K; Mrs. Curren's relation to Vercueil; and the magistrate's relation to the unnamed Barbarian girl) and with reference to the actual event of reading the book itself in all its strangeness, means that Coetzee's novels, Attridge argues, resist straightforward allegorical interpretations: "Allegory, one might say, deals with the already known, whereas literature opens a space for the other. Allegory announces a moral code, literature invites an ethical response" (64).
In his collection of readings of Coetzee's fiction (ending with an epilogue on Elizabeth Costello), Attridge demonstrates precisely the ways in which an ethical response as a relation to otherness is played out within the world of the novels.3 In the discussion of Life and Times of Michael K, for example, Attridge ingeniously shows how Coetzee's repetition of phrases such as "he thought" insistently remind the reader—probably contrary to expectation—that he or she is outside Michael K's consciousness. This, in turn, provokes further difficult questions about subjective agency, about the modes of representing it in a work of fiction.
Throughout J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading, Attridge directs the reader to The Singularity of Literature for "fuller theoretical developments" of questions "raised briefly" in the Coetzee volume (xii–xiii). Certainly, the exercise of cross-referring is instructive in many instances. In a discussion of Friday's silence as a trope for Foe's "challenge to the literary canon," Attridge writes, "All canons rest on exclusion; the voice they give to some can be heard only by virtue of the silence they impose on others. But it is not just a silencing by exclusion, it is a silencing by inclusion as...