Youth Essay, Research Paper
Portrait of the artist as a callow youth YouthJM Coetzee 169pp, Secker Disgrace , JM Coetzee’s last novel, set a contemporary benchmark in good fiction. Quite apart from winning him a second Booker, it had an icy brilliance that showed up the work of other novelists, peers and young pretenders alike. By comparison many of us seem at best technically defective, at worst expressive of literary “values” he might consider pure philistinism. Although the excuse was given of a prior engagement, the author’s non-appearance at the Booker ceremony only served to illustrate the point. This was not a man who played the game. If the game includes being “nice” to your fans, then tough. Sharing a panel with Coetzee at a reading, I remember him responding to a question from the audience with the words, “frankly, no”. Further explanation was not forthcoming. There was an embarrassed silence. Admittedly, it was a rather stupid question, but one felt he might have been a little more generous. Then again, the frank “no”, the refusal to allow himself or his readers to be under illusions, is the flip side of Coetzee’s unflinching gaze, the reason why his novels, like a good dose of salts, are a necessary purgative, to be prized rather than dreaded. His wary governance against comfort, against the slide into complacent thinking and language, can never prevent the reader’s own. But that it might do so is the one illusion a Coetzee novel permits us. At the same time, the feeling remains that he has every gift except tenderness. The search for tenderness, it turns out, is the subject of this new novella, Youth, which seems very much a portrait of the artist as a young man. Tenderness and heart and passion… these sometimes contradictory qualities are what its narrator, “John”, hopes for. One might think them the opposite of the frigidity of which John Coetzee is sometimes accused. One might even think the problem is real. The said John is studying mathematics at the University of Cape Town in the 1950s. Living frugally (marrowbone soup, cauliflower in white sauce), he supplements his income by working in the library. He hopes to be a writer, but soon realises that “art cannot be fed on deprivation alone… there must be intimacy, passion, love as well”. That “love as well” very much sets the tone of the book. Beneath the tranquil flow of the prose is a biting current of irony. This is mostly directed at the narrator’s own aspirations, such as his belief – the idiot child of Walter Pater and DH Lawrence – that art should be “hard and clear like a flame”, a flame to which women are irresistibly drawn, to light a dark absence peculiarly their own. John dreams of passion in Europe. “If women threw themselves at Henry Miller, then, mutatis mutandis, they must have thrown themselves at Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford and Ernest Hemingway and all the other great artists who lived in Paris in those years, to say nothing of Pablo Picasso. What is he going to do once he is in Paris or London? Is he going to persist in not playing the game?” Sex, in the form of an alluring if depressed nurse, does come to call. So does politics (marches, police beatings). But neither Jacqueline, who veers between euphoria and “the blackest gloom”, nor the marchers from the Cape Flats, that “army suddenly called into being out of the wastelands”, inspire the nascent writer in a positive way. His good-intentioned attempts at straight dealing with the black people of Cape Town leave him still more deeply mired in melancholy. Disillusionment, and the threat of military service, provoke him to flee South Africa. He ends up in London, city of The Waste Land , of gas stoves and cold-water sinks: that locus of postcolonial exile, black and white, classically rendered in the Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners . Aghast at this “disturbingly philistine” country, John gets a job as a programmer at IBM. He spends his leisure time at the British Museum Reading Room, writing poetry, later prose, and researching Ford Madox Ford. “History” lurks in the background. Sharpeville, the Cuban missile crisis, CND, Vietnam. The massive computer through which he pushes punch-cards contributes, he discovers, to the manufacture of a bomb. There is anomalous data. It’s not a problem with the punch-cards. ” The problem is real.” Computers can, he finds, be put to better use: “If he cannot, for the present, write poetry that comes from the heart, if his heart is not in the right state to generate poetry of its own, can he at least string together pseudo-poems made up of phrases generated by a machine…?” John sleeps with a succession of women. None of the relationships is satisfactory. The overwhelming feeling is one of gelid negation. By the end he is still chastising himself for being “cold, frozen”, for “lack of heat, lack of heart”. So what journey have we made? What, if anything, could have solved the problem? Words perhaps, and then only some words, in certain orders. The young writer likes Chaucer, admiring his “nice ironic distance”; unlike Shakespeare, “he does not get into a froth about things and start ranting”. But the real literary presence behind this allusion-packed book is Joseph Conrad: Ford’s collaborator, it is pointed out in an aside. Con rad’s 1898 tale “Youth” has to some degree a similar theme, insofar as it describes a young man’s first encounter with an alien culture. More generally, the two writers share a distaste for the prevailing intellectual ethos, a profound sense of metaphysical disjuncture, and a corresponding existential struggle with the idea of commitment, even to the artistic act itself. What Coetzee mainly draws from Conrad, however, is a method. The technique of both novelists depends on that “nice ironic distance”, a discrepancy between the manifest and latent content of the words on the page, a way of saying without asserting. In the deep structure of this book, that gap works as a kind of negative theology. Nothing like redemption oscillates in the space cleared by ironical distance; what does is a pilot light for more hope than one has come to expect from Coetzee. That pilot light is also the flicker of a smile. For this is a funny as well as doomy story, and so it ought to be. We all remember the angst of youth, that embarrassing wall of darkness. It makes one want to put one’s head in one’s hands, all over again. · Giles Foden’s new novel, Zanzibar, is published by Faber in September.