- In the Middle of Nowhere: J. M. Coetzee in South Africa by Jonathan Crewe
BY JONATHAN CREWE
UP of America, 2016.
v + 117 pp. ISBN 9780761866930 paper.
Taking its slightly ironic title from the words of the character Magda in J. M. Coetzee's novel In the Heart of the Country, Jonathan Crewe has written a highly readable and insightful study in which he demonstrates the importance of Coetzee to South African English studies both in initiating new approaches to literature and in marking the end of long established (arguably moribund) ones. Based on his forty-year friendship with Coetzee and focusing on the years from 1972 to 1974 when he worked with him in the English Department of the University of Cape Town, Crewe has written an illuminating book, partly memoir, partly informal biography, and partly critical analysis, on a selection of Coetzee's "South African" fiction, while insisting that Coetzee cannot be narrowly described as a South African writer. Indeed, one of Crewe's many perceptive insights is that Coetzee challenges this category, asserting that from the beginning of his academic career Coetzee set out to undo the canon of South African literature and to deprovincialize the teaching of literature in the University of Cape Town English Department. In fact, Coetzee, having completed his PhD in the United States at the University of Texas at Austin but being forced eventually to return to South Africa, was one of the pioneers in introducing cross-disciplinary research, comparative literature, and linguistics to South African English studies.
Some of Crewe's other suggestive insights highlight the humorous and romantic aspects of Coetzee's fiction, significant features largely neglected in the considerable critical literature and scholarship surrounding Coetzee's work. However, typically in Coetzee's work, which tends to extend or to subvert established conventions, the erotic is explored as anti-romance. Crewe demonstrates this [End Page 267] in a refreshing reading of Disgrace, which, he argues, also represents the end of the plaasroman (farm novel). Indeed, Crewe argues that Coetzee's earliest novels, culminating in Disgrace, already mark the end of the anti-apartheid novel too. In his introduction and his chapter on White Writing, Crewe argues that Coetzee was one of the first to emphasize the central importance of the plaasroman in South African literature, then generally considered an obscure Afrikaans genre, tracing it back to the pastoral in European Romanticism. The largeness of Coetzee's perspective is also seen in the range of writers he selects to study in White Writing, both Afrikaans and English, including ideologically suspect and neglected authors. This aligns with Coetzee's awareness of the limitations of ideological approaches to literature and his tendency, nevertheless, to champion the marginalized and voiceless in his writing. His introduction of idleness as a significant phenomenon to investigate in literary studies is likewise inspired and inspiring. Crewe manages to relate aspects of his and Coetzee's life that help to cast light on Coetzee's work without falling into the trap of biographical interpretation. He states at the outset that "[a]lthough I include personal recollection, I do not undertake formal biography" (5). Despite his modest claim that "I write as Coetzee's contemporary and early reader more than as a specialist, playing, to the extent I can, the role of native informant to his global readership and of both native and emigrant commentator on his work" (5), Crewe's book should prove valuable and fascinating both to Coetzee scholars and critics and to a more general readership. [End Page 268]