In his life of VS Naipaul, Patrick French remarked that it might be “the last literary biography to be written from a complete paper archive”. I sense something similarly historical about Coetzee’s achievement, a power of pre-internet concentration and application that has now been eroded in Version 2.0 people. A mental discipline that can stay trained on things for longer than other minds, without flinching; that can push thoughts, or sentences, one step further than they would normally go.
A quality of, in a word, seriousness. Coetzee says somewhere or other that, for a certain kind of artist, seriousness is an ethical imperative. So why do I find myself wanting to be so unserious in his august presence? To dwell on all those things that cannot be related in the polite literary profile, or the rigorous academic paper. Such as: what does it mean to be obsessed, perhaps unhealthily obsessed, with an author? And: why don’t black South Africans read or talk about Coetzee? And: why am I beginning to think that his work should not be taught at the University of Cape Town – or at least that a 10-year moratorium on Coetzee studies should be declared?
While I was traveling in South Africa, I happened to read in the Financial Times the winning piece in the 2012 Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize, by South African author Hedley Twidle. It is in turn ironic (“Droves of students arrive from Wisconsin and Ohio to spend a term abroad, filling the Coetzee sign-up lists”), surprising (“Coetzee, the staff informed me, is a regularly shoplifted author”) and clever (“…a question that all literary scholars should put to themselves on a daily basis: “How can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?””). Read the full piece here: you won’t understand anything more about Coetzee than you already know, the unknowability of the subject being among the postulates underlying the essay. But you will learn a bit about literary obsessions, seriousness, unseriousness, and a country that is “as irresistible as it is unlovable”, South Africa.