By J.M. Coetzee
(Viking, 265 pp., $24.95)
In the middle of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, there comes a moment when the reader starts back in soft amazement, murmuring “What the ... ?” This moment occurs at the entrance into the action by the elderly Australian writer Elizabeth Costello, whom devotees of Coetzee will know from his previous novel, which was named after her, and from a curious and curiously memorable book, The Lives of Animals, based on the Tanner Lectures that he delivered some years ago at Princeton University. Coetzee’s contribution to that book consisted in two brief fictions, which revolved around a pair of lectures, set in fictional frames, supposedly given by Elizabeth Costello at Appleton College in New England, an academic occasion that Amy Gutmann, a certifiably real person and then the director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton, noted in her introduction to the book was “disconcertingly like the Tanner Lectures.” So far, so mystifying.
The message that Elizabeth Costello brought to Princeton was that in our treatment of animals we are as bad as the monsters who conceived and put into effect the Holocaust. Costello’s, or Coetzee’s, lectures were followed in the book by a series of responses from four distinguished academics. Later they were incorporated into the novel Elizabeth Costello, which was in its way as strange a performance as The Lives of Animals, and, though certainly fiction, hardly qualified as a novel. Slow Man, many readers will no doubt be relieved to hear, is a return to a more conventional form: it is unambiguously a novel, with one glaring exception.
John Coetzee, who now lives in Australia, was born in Cape Town in 1940, and spent some years in the United States working as an academic computer scientist and linguistic scholar. As a novelist he is a remarkable phenomenon: an austere and uncompromising intellectual whose books are international bestsellers. He has received pretty well every significant literary award it is possible to win. His success is an encouragement for those writers who persist, despite these hard times, in the conviction that the novel is still a serious art form, capable of delineating not only the inner landscape of an individual consciousness but also of reflecting something of the human condition in general.
THE “SLOW MAN” OF THE TITLE is Paul Rayment, a retired Franco-Australian photographer living in Adelaide. He is in his sixties, a childless divorcee with no living relatives, few friends and, it would seem, no acquaintances. Rayment was born in France—Coetzee has him mention, rather portentously, that in French his name rhymes with vraiment—and spent his early years in Lourdes, of all places, before emigrating to Australia with his mother and his despised Dutch stepfather. This complicated background seems irrelevant to the book’s main plot, but the mention of Lourdes is slyly ironical, in light of what is to come, and brings to mind Zola’s observation that on the road from Lourdes he saw many discarded crutches but not a single wooden leg.
Rayment is set up for us almost as a caricature of the man without qualities. He is cold, affectless, mean-spirited:
All in all, not a man of passion. He is not sure he has ever liked passion, or approved of it. Passion: foreign territory; a comical but unavoidable affliction like mumps, that one hopes to undergo while still young, in one of its milder, less ruinous varieties, so as not to catch it more seriously later on. Dogs in the grip of passion coupling, hapless grins on their faces, their tongues hanging out.
It does not take great powers of prophecy on the reader’s part to guess that Rayment is in for a fall, and so it proves.
RIDING ON HIS BICYCLE through the city one day, he is struck by a car driven by a heedless young man—”Wayne something-or-other, Bright or Blight”—and wakes up in the hospital to be told that, among his other injuries, his right knee is shattered. In a morphine haze he is addressed by the young doctor who will operate on him, seeking his consent to do whatever it may prove necessary to be done; and when he comes round from the anaesthetic, he discovers that his leg has been amputated above the knee. His first response is unreasoning rage: “Why did you not ask me first? he wants to say; but if he utters the words he will lose control, he will start shouting.”
It is assumed that Rayment will want a prosthesis, but he refuses even to consider such a thing. “Not in all his days has he seen a naked prosthesis. The picture that comes to mind is of a wooden shaft with a barb at its head like a harpoon and rubber suckers on its three little feet. It is out of Surrealism. It is out of Dali.” Instead, he will return to live in his apartment on well-to- do Coniston Terrace and learn to manage as best he can with crutches and a Zimmer frame. The latter piece of medical hardware affords a rare moment of fanciful invention—Coetzee’s novels are not noted for broad humor, but the paragraph conjuring up the imaginary physician “Johann August Zimmer, son of Austrian peasants” who “has the brainwave of adapting for the more frail among his patients the apparatus that back in Carinthia has for centuries been used to teach children to walk,” may provoke a hearty smile in the reader.
Rayment is tended by a series of day-nurses: Sheena, who pauses while giving him a sponge bath and puts on a baby voice to address him in the third person and say, “Now if he wants Sheena to wash his willie he must ask very nicely”; and then, more momentously, Marijana Jokić,
A sallow-faced woman who, if not quite middle-aged, exhibits a thickening about the waist that is quite matronly. She wears a sky-blue uniform that he finds a relief after all the whiteness, with patches of dampness under the arms; she speaks a rapid, approximate Australian English with Slavic liquids and an uncertain command of a and the, coloured by slang she must pick up from her children, who must pick it up from their classmates. It is a variety of language he is not familiar with; he rather likes it.
In fact, he rapidly comes to like everything about Marijana, and in his physically and emotionally maimed state, he soon finds himself helplessly in love with her.
Marijana is one of the most rounded characters, literally and figuratively, that Coetzee has ever invented, with her shapely calves and furtive cigarettes and hilarious and wholly endearing English. At the outset she cannot understand why he refuses a prosthese—pronounced as if it were a German word—and inquires sardonically if he thinks his leg will grow again.
“Like baby. Baby think, you cut it off, it grow again. Know what I mean? But you are not baby, Mr Rayment. So why don’t you want this prosthese? Maybe you shy like a girl, eh? Maybe you think, you walk in street, everybody look at you. That Mr Rayment, he got only one leg! Isn’t true. Isn’t true. Nobody look at you.”
Marijana—who, somewhat implausibly, was a picture restorer in her native Croatia—has a husband, Miroslav, a mechanic, and three children, two of whom are giving her trouble: the boy Drago is decent but wild and drives his motorbike too fast, and Blanka, the elder of two daughters, shoplifts. Rayment seeks ineptly to woo Marijana by involving himself in the family’s affairs, offering to pay for Drago to go to an exclusive boarding school and buying off the manager of the shop where Blanka has been stealing. Marijana is cautious, yet unwilling to spurn this poor one-legged goose who has so unexpectedly begun to lay so many golden eggs. At last, in his awkward, roundabout way, Rayment confesses his love. And at that moment…
AT THAT MOMENT THE READER finds his eyebrows, as Nabokov would say, traveling all the way round to the back of his bald head. For suddenly there comes tramping onto the scene what is surely the oddest alter ego a male author ever invented for himself: Elizabeth Costello herself, “a woman in her sixties . .. the later rather than the earlier sixties, wearing a floral silk dress cut low behind to reveal unattractively freckled, somewhat fleshy shoulders.” Uninvited and unexplained, she rings Rayment’s doorbell, strides into his life, and proceeds to roost there. Although he does not know her except, vaguely, by her reputation as a writer, she knows alarmingly much about him. For instance, she can recite the opening sentences of Slow Man, word for word. And having done so, she says wearily:
Do you know what I asked myself when I heard those words for the first time, Mr Rayment? I asked myself, Why do I need this man? Why not let him be, coasting along peacefully on his bicycle, oblivious of Wayne Bright or Blight, let us call him Blight, roaring up from behind to blight his life and land him first in hospital and then back in this flat with its inconvenient stairs? Who is Paul Rayment to me?
It is a daring novelist indeed who would introduce himself as a character in his own novel. Coetzee indulges in mordant self-mockery by bringing himself into the book in the shape of a dowdy, aging Australian female who takes over and directs the plot. Amazingly, he gets away with what in any other contemporary novel would be jeered at as a tired and pretentious piece of postmodernist trickiness.
Why did he risk it? The story of Paul Rayment and his getting of wisdom is pellucidly clear and straightforward, and could have been told perfectly well without the intervention of the tiresome Elizabeth Costello. But Coetzee is interested in more than a mere story. The lesson Costello has come to teach Rayment, who is her own creation, is that the imagination is the most powerful force a human being has at his command—that it is the very life-force itself. One day when he “finds her by the riverside, sitting on a bench, clustered around by ducks that she seems to be feeding,” he issues a challenge: are you sure, he asks her, “that you are not seeing complications where they do not exist, for the sake of those dreary stories you write?” In the midst of a long reply, in which she urges him to let his imagination expand to the full—”Your thoughts and your feelings. Follow them through”—she half-quotes a line of Wallace Stevens’s, and goes on to extoll what Stevens liked to call the “mighty imagination.” Quoting her—that is, Coetzee’s—book again, she says:
He finds her by the riverside, sitting on a bench, clustered around by ducks that she seems to be feeding—it may be simple, as an account, its simplicity may even beguile one, but it is not good enough. It does not bring me to life. Bringing me to life may not be important to you, but it has the drawback of not bringing you to life either. Or the ducks, for that matter, if you prefer not to have me at the centre of the picture. Bring these humble ducks to life and they will bring you to life, I promise. Bring Marijana to life, if it must be Marijana, and she will bring you to life. It’s as elementary as that.
The lesson she is trying to teach him is as simple as the one that Lambert Strether sought to teach Little Bilham in that famous scene in The Ambassadors: “Live all you can; It’s a mistake not to.” But the mode in which the lesson is couched is anything but elementary. “What does it matter who speaks?” one of Beckett’s narrators famously demanded; but in this key exchange between Elizabeth Costello and her creature, it matters very much who is speaking, and who is being spoken to. Slow Man is written in the third person, so when Costello gently deplores the “simplicity” of the narrative, it is not Rayment’s simplicity she is speaking of but her own, or, more accurately, that of J.M. Coetzee. Who is it, then, that is being urged to “bring me to life”? If Coetzee has not simply fallen into confusion here, he is inevitably criticizing himself and his book for a failure to imagine its characters strongly enough to make them seem living people—not to speak of those ducks.
What saves Slow Man from being a sterile, self-referential literary exercise is the vividness of the characters who animate it. Coetzee writes in a degree- zero style, purposely flat and unemphatic—he must be a translator’s dream—yet in this book he has found a new access of warmth and humor, and displays a vivifying fondness for his characters. It is his triumph in Slow Man to bring a world into being with a minimum of literary effects. Rare will be the reader who will quickly forget Marijana Jokić or Paul Rayment, but surely it is time for her creator to let the ubiquitous, omniscient, and tedious Elizabeth Costello fade into a graceful retirement.
This article originally ran in the October 10, 2005 issue of the magazine.