- Confession, Shame, and Ethics in Coetzee and Knausgård
In the final chapter of Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust, which centers on a reading of Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (1771), Paul de Man calls attention to how autobiography involves the creation of a stage for self-exposure and for exhibiting one's guilt (de Man 1979, 285–6). Turning confession into literature, for de Man, is inextricably bound up with performing confession as a kind of public display. At stake here is a conflict between confession as an act of reparation and confession as an act of persuasion, rhetoric, and form. All autobiographies run the risk of being an encomium or apologia for the writer's actions, a risk this paper proposes to explore in relation to the autobiographical novels of J. M. Coetzee and Karl Ove Knausgård.1 The primary focus here will be on Book 3 of Knausgård's Min kamp from 2009 (translated as Boyhood Island in the British edition)2 alongside Coetzee's comparatively brief and far more selective Boyhood (first published 1997), the first volume in a trilogy of fictionalized autobiographies including Youth (2002) and Summertime (first published 2009) published together in 2011 as Scenes from Provincial Life. The purpose of this comparative analysis is to view Knausgård's project in the broader context of world literature, [End Page 274] offer a contrastive perspective, and reflect on the ethical implications of literary form in relation to autobiography.
It may seem odd, on the face of it, to pursue a comparative analysis of Coetzee and Knausgård, and one might object that there are few compelling reasons to compare them on broader historicist grounds. Born in 1940, Coetzee belongs to the generation that grew up in the immediate postwar, the baby boomers, while Knausgård, born in 1968, belongs to the generation that followed, the cohort whose marginality is indicated by the common moniker "Generation X." The disparity between the two might be further compounded by the fact that Coetzee, a South African writer whose political orientation grows out of the apartheid era, is a Nobel Prize-winning author of world historical significance and ethical gravity, whereas Knausgård, having enjoyed the relative privilege of being an author funded by the Norwegian welfare state, has built a reputation as a media sensation whose novels openly transgress social norms regarding respect for the private lives of his family members. My interest in a comparative analysis of these very different writers and autobiographical projects does not, of course, rest on any notion that there is a shared history or particular contextual affinity between the two. Rather, the contention of this article is that a comparative analysis, focused primarily on textual matters, opens up a space for reflecting on how these two very different autobiographical projects address ethical problems of self-exposure, guilt, and shame as discourses of confession and testimony.
Boyhood and Boyhood Island, and the wider projects to which they respectively belong, entangle generic distinctions between the novel and autobiography; both share a common theme, male childhood; and both, as I hope to show, make possible different kinds of ethical reflection around guilt and shame by means of distinct narrative strategies. As we shall see in more detail, Coetzee's autobiographical novels employ an impersonal, distanced narrative style, whereas Knausgård, by contrast, employs a highly personal and intimate tone. I argue that Coetzee's approach serves to contain the dilemmas of the past and, implicitly, puts them to use in what Derek Attridge calls an "ethics of otherness" (2004, 1–31); the path Knausgård pursues, by contrast, revives something uncontained in the past, which causes trouble in the field of ethics yet also paves the way for what I will call an emergent ethics of empathy, wherein identification with past frames of reference makes new ethical demands in the unfolding present moments of Knausgård's narrative. [End Page 275]
In order to shed light on the functions of autobiography, especially the tropes of truth-telling, self-exposure, and shame, this paper begins by situating Coetzee and Knausgård in relation...