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  • J. M. Coetzee and the Novel: Writing and Politics after Beckett by Patrick Hayes
  • Emily Johansen
Patrick Hayes. J. M. Coetzee and the Novel: Writing and Politics after Beckett. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. ix + 275 pp.

The novel has, since its inception, been deeply enmeshed and interconnected with its sociopolitical environment. Yet the nature of [End Page 204] this relationship has been under interrogation for nearly the same length of time; questions about the novelist’s responsibility to political communities have framed critical discussions of the novel for the last several centuries. These questions are, perhaps unsurprisingly, particularly central to studies of postcolonial authors and texts. Even less surprisingly, the question of politics and responsibility is at the forefront of critical engagement with J. M. Coetzee’s works, given their South African setting and their general philosophical rigor. Indeed, the titles of the two most prominent studies of Coetzee emphasize this: David Attwell’s J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (1993), and Derek Attridge’s J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading (2004).

Patrick Hayes’ J. M. Coetzee and the Novel: Writing and Politics after Beckett takes part in this ongoing critical discussion of Coetzee’s deep commitment to politics—both his direct response to apartheid and its legacies, and in a larger, more general sense of the possibilities and limits of community. More particularly, Hayes considers the intricate connection in Coetzee’s work between the historical traditions of the novel and a reformulation of the political that is fundamentally anti-foundational. Hayes argues “that Coetzee’s writing should be understood in the broadest terms as an attempt to move beyond a long discursive tradition . . . which attempts to position literary value, or literary truth, or most generally ‘culture,’ as superior to, or even transcendent of, politics” (3). This tension between literature as socially transcendent (a view generally posited by the European tradition of Kulturkritik), and literature as immanently enmeshed in power relations, particularly those of class (a view broadly associated with Cultural Studies), pervades Hayes’ lucid discussion of Coetzee’s work. Yet, as Hayes demonstrates, Coetzee’s work exists between this tension—refusing one pole or the other. As Hayes suggests in his discussion of Diary of a Bad Year but that is applicable to the complete oeuvre, Coetzee “takes . . . a position of creative weakness—a position through which different foundational ways of apprehending the condition of modernity can be put in touch with that which they find ‘beside the point’“ (246). This instability is not limited to the role of culture, but of politics in general: “there may be other ways of imagining the political, ways that consist of holding open, rather than either perfecting or closing down, different ideas of what constitutes a good community, to which writing is indeed amenable” (9). Politics, then, in Coetzee’s work might best be understood as both and neither transcendent and immanent. Yet this is a not a form of oscillating dialecticism; Hayes, instead, makes a case for the simultaneity of Coetzee’s sense of political community, rejecting both permanence and determinist understandings of the role of culture. [End Page 205]

Through his discussion of Coetzee’s work, Hayes outlines an intriguing way to consider political possibilities within the cultural field. A consideration of the Heideggerian notion of Gelassenheit, “a form of dialogue in which the desire to recognize the other is engaged with a potentially transformative alertness to . . . the difference the other might bring—a difference that might transform the terms upon which recognition is extended” (30), suggests new ways of understanding the novel’s overall engagement with politics. Hayes repositions the novel outside of stale debates about situatedness by instead imagining a “sustained dialogue [that] will therefore bring about a sustainedly unsettling ‘churn of words’, in which a given pattern of thinking is placed in transformative contact with that which it excludes” (31). In Hayes’ conceptualization, which follows Bakhtin’s theorization of heteroglossia, the novel itself is uniquely positioned to instantiate the moment of the arduous encounter with difference through its dialogical instability.

A further strength of J. M. Coetzee and the Novel is its consideration of Coetzee’s own rather voluminous...