J.M. Coetzee on the Pleasures of Writing: Total Engagement, Hard Thought & Productiveness

Mar­tin Amis once crit­i­cized his fel­low nov­el­ist J.M. Coet­zee for writ­ing in a style “pred­i­cat­ed on trans­mit­ting absolute­ly no plea­sure.” This con­fused those of us read­ers who enjoy both men’s books, but then British tra­di­tion, of which Amis has been an inher­i­tor as well as a crit­ic, says that if some­one gets put on a pedestal, you must at least try to knock them down. The South African Coet­zee, win­ner of one Nobel Prize and two Book­ers, does­n’t exact­ly want for acclaim, but his stark prose and ascetic, ultra-seri­ous images hard­ly make him seem like an author drunk on his own lit­er­ary pow­er.

In a con­tro­ver­sial pro­file, Coet­zee’s coun­try­man Rian Malan wrote that “a col­league who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once.” We might expect the author of books like Wait­ing for the Bar­bar­iansDis­grace, and Eliz­a­beth Costel­lo to declare what he declares in the inter­view clip above: “Writ­ing, in itself, as an activ­i­ty, is nei­ther beau­ti­ful nor con­sol­ing. It’s indus­try.” Yet he does cred­it it with cer­tain plea­sures, “the plea­sures of total engage­ment, hard thought, ver­i­fi­able activ­i­ty, ver­i­fi­able results. Pro­duc­tive­ness.”

“Hav­ing writ­ten the book, being able to look back on hav­ing com­plet­ed the book, may or may not be con­sol­ing, but writ­ing a book is quite dif­fer­ent.” Work, asks the inter­view­er? “Yes. It’s good work.” And why do this work in the first place? Coet­zee would advise against the mis­sion of “trans­form­ing the world into the world as it should be. That would be too much of a task if one under­took it every time.” He finds “grasp­ing the world as it is, putting it with­in a cer­tain frame, tam­ing it to a cer­tain extent” — tam­ing “its wild­ness, its dis­or­der, its chaos” — “quite enough of an ambi­tion.”

These words come from an episode of the Dutch doc­u­men­tary series Of Beau­ty and Con­so­la­tion on Coet­zee which aired in 2000, after the pub­li­ca­tion of Boy­hood but before that of Youth and Sum­mer­time, the books of his tril­o­gy of par­tial­ly fic­tion­al­ized “autre­bi­og­ra­phy” in which he grasps frames, and tames the events of his own expe­ri­ence. “I haven’t for­got­ten the mis­eries of my child­hood,” he says, going on to insist that mis­ery has no beau­ty in itself. “I have plen­ty of hap­py moments in my child­hood, many of which are in the book. The rich­ness of those moments depends very heav­i­ly on their being embed­ded in a cer­tain life. A book is a way to bring that life to life,” in its plea­sures and sor­rows alike.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read and Hear Famous Writ­ers (and Arm­chair Sports­men) J.M. Coet­zee and Paul Auster’s Cor­re­spon­dence

Lists of the Best Sen­tences — Open­ing, Clos­ing, and Oth­er­wise — in Eng­lish-Lan­guage Nov­els

The Read­er: A Touch­ing South African TV Com­mer­cial Cel­e­brates Lit­er­a­cy and Scotch

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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