- Looking Backward
How lucky can you be? Here is a man who can indulge in the delicious irony of writing about his younger self after he is dead. A famous writer, he has attracted a biographer who goes to the trouble of hunting up five people who knew him when he was young and unpromising. They describe him as awkward, shy, bumbling, withdrawn, and unattractive. None of them give the slightest inkling of what he was to become.
One is Adriana, a native Brazilian who has found her way to Cape Town, where she is left with two young daughters after her husband dies of brain damage from an attack with an axe while he is serving as a guard. She meets Coetzee while he is teaching her young daughter. This is how she describes him: “He was in his early thirties, I estimated, badly dressed, with badly cut hair and a beard when he shouldn’t have worn a beard, his beard was too thin.” He also struck her not just as unmarried, but “also [End Page lxxxiv] not suited to marriage, like a man who has spent his life in the priesthood and lost his manhood and become incompetent with women.” As it turns out, he has no teaching certificate, and yet he teaches her beautiful lively daughter English, making her memorize poems by Keats (“What is Keats?” she asks).
The tone of the interviews is complex: hilarious, witty, sad, dramatic, subtle, and wonderfully natural all at once. It seems perfectly balanced as a piece of writing. Each interview has its own flavor, but in none of them does Coetzee appear as a bright young man going places, who is full of ambition and self-confidence. Yet neither is he just a bewildered clumsy lout. He says to Adriana that he was not born to coach students to pass exams: “But it is not my vocation. It is not what I was called into the world to do.” What strange things this strange young man says. He has loftier fare in store. But he seems to have no idea how he will take the next hurdle.
Julia, an attractive twenty-six-year-old woman, the subject of a broken marriage, the mother of a young daughter, has an affair with Coetzee—an act she says she will never forget (“her heart never stopped hammering”). Thus she repays her husband’s previous betrayal. She comments to the interviewer that though Henry James frequently uses the theme of betrayal, she doubts he ever committed the bodily act. (A rare authorial slip: it’s hard to imagine her having read James or even George Eliot, much less having noted the theme of betrayal. Coetzee just wanted to give his own opinion without attribution.) Julia, by the way, stresses her complete innocence in the arts of seduction, but she also admits that she was the leader, not Coetzee, entering into the affair. So, no matter how sexless young Coetzee appears to some women, we know that they have missed something about him. This adds another layer of irony to this portrait of the artist as a young man.
As colleagues of Coetzee as a teacher, both Martin and Sophie agree that he was an adequate academic, though that being a librarian might have suited him better. It is significant that both taught courses with him and both of them seem very bright. (It is curious that he and Martin are contenders for a job that Martin gets and that he doesn’t. Yet they are colleagues in the same institution as if they both won.) In the Sophie interview the stress is more on African politics and Coetzee’s “conservative” and “utopian” outlook. Sophie is to the left of Coetzee: she finds him naïve and impractical. The more radical students avoided his course on African literature.
Neither of Coetzee’s colleagues changes the essential picture we have from the previous interviews of a man withdrawn and secretive, who finds connection with others to be uneasy and difficult (though he immediately takes to Martin and vice versa...