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  • J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace: A Reader's Guide, and: J. M. Coetzee's Austerities
  • Mike Marais
J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace: A Reader's Guide. By Andrew Van Der Vlies London: Continuum, 2010. viii + 111 pp. ISBN 978-0-8264-0661-3 paper.
J. M. Coetzee's Austerities ED. Graham Bradshaw and Michael Neill Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2010. ix + 272 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6803-9 cloth.

Like all of the other publications in the series of which it forms a part, Andrew van der Vlies's Disgrace: A Reader's Guide conforms to a set format: a preface, followed by biographical information on the novelist and the context in which he or she wrote the text concerned, and then a longer section comprising a paraphrase and discussion of the work and its reception, together with suggestions for further reading. Despite these structural constraints, van der Vlies provides a very fine introduction to Disgrace in this volume. Readers will find especially insightful his treatment of Coetzee's preoccupation with alterity, and the responsibility, both ethical and aesthetic, that such otherness exacts. One very slight criticism I have of the monograph is that it could have contained more references to discussions of Coetzee's use of narrative point of view in its list of recommended reading. (James Meffan and Kim Worthington's examination of the ambivalent relationship between David Lurie and the narrator's voice comes to mind here, for instance.) Having said this, however, I have little doubt that van der Vlies's guide will prove a useful and comprehensive introduction to Disgrace in university programs.

According to its editors, Graham Bradshaw and Michael Neill, one of the principal aims of J. M. Coetzee's Austerities is "to align or realign the South African Coetzee with the 'late modernist' Coetzee whose South African critics have so often chided or attacked . . . for playing games that . . . question the relation between language and reality (and 'realism') instead of demonstrating some less complicated, more overtly political 'solidarity' " (2). What is fairly unusual for a volume of this nature is that it actually delivers on this promise. Several of its contributors sustain aspects of Bradshaw's informed introductory argument on the late-modernist dimension of Coetzee's writing by stressing his fiction's attention to the relationship between language and reality. So, for example, Carrol Clarkson [End Page 135] reflects at some length on the disjuncture between language and colonial space in Coetzee's fiction, eventually arriving at the conclusion that the sense of unsettlement here at issue is wrought not so much by space as by the English language itself. In a similar vein, Michael Neill's thoughtful essay on Coetzee's foregrounding of confession in Age of Iron argues that the confessional mode's reliance on a pure, immediate "language of the heart" is "always/already compromised by the only medium available to it" (95). Even Laurence Wright's astute argument on the importance to Disgrace of Arthur Schopenhauer's distinction between an undifferentiated, unknowable, noumenal world and the world-as-representation inevitably gestures to the inability of language to signify adequately.

Language is again at issue in Derek Attridge's essay on Coetzee's representation of the creative process as a "giving over of oneself to an other, without any certainty about the outcome" (35). Writing involves not simply searching for the right words, but waiting for them to come—as Barbara Dancygier points out in her intriguing contribution to this volume, in Slow Man the word "frivolous" comes to Paul Rayment from an obscure source, and thereby raises complex questions about the issue of control in the processes of both writing and reading. (I should add that both Zoë Wicomb and Bradshaw's essays also dwell on this particular passage.) If literary creation is a nonintentional form of waiting, it follows that the writer is not entirely in control of his or her writing, and therefore never simply able to press it into the service of some or other political program. In Attridge's words, the creative process, once underway, is "a matter of listening and being led" (36).

Not all the essays in this volume attempt...


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