A Dry Soul

J.M. Coetzee’s new novel pits reason and passion against each other. It would be a lot sexier if reason didn’t win.

Adi Embers

When reading The Schooldays of Jesus and its 2013 predecessor The Childhood of Jesus, it’s worth bearing in mind that the author of these books passed away some years ago. I don’t mean this in the mundane sense of literal death (the man named John Coetzee is still alive and well and residing in Adelaide, Australian) but that he killed himself off imaginatively, in an act of Barthes-style authorial suicide, in the book that preceded this strange diptych, 2009’s Summertime. The ingenious conceit of that autobiographical fiction (or, if you prefer, fictionalized autobiography) was to present itself as raw material for a planned biography of the recently-deceased Coetzee––a series of transcribed interviews conducted with people who knew the author in his mid-30s. The apparent subject of the interviews emerged only obliquely. “The only story involving John that I can tell,” as a former neighbor of Coetzee puts it, is “the story of my life and his part in it, which is quite different, quite another matter, from the story of his life and my part in it.” The major project of Summertime, in this sense, was a displacement of the author as centralized authority, of Coetzee as sole guarantor of his own biography.

Despite his image as a paragon of austere literary authority––the Nobel Prize, the air of almost comical seriousness, the sense of preternatural restraint and control that emanates from everything he writes––it’s the dismantling of this sovereignty that has long been one of the most interesting aspects of his work. Here’s how he put it in a 1992 interview: “Writing is not free expression. There is a true sense in which writing is dialogic: a matter of awakening the countervoices in oneself and embarking upon speech with them. It is some measure of a writer’s seriousness whether he does evoke or invoke those countervoices in himself, that is, step down from the position of what Lacan calls ‘the subject supposed to know.’ ”

The Jesus novels (which––spoiler alert!––have nothing to do with anyone named Jesus, biblical big shot or otherwise) are relentlessly dialogic, in the literal sense that they proceed mainly in the form of Socratic exchanges about all kinds of philosophical and ethical questions: the true nature of numbers, the conflict between reason and passion, and (mercifully only briefly) the straight-up chairness of chairs. It’s countervoices all the way down.

In the first installment, The Childhood of Jesus, we meet a middle-aged man named Simón and his 5-year-old charge Davíd, as they begin a new life in a city named Novilla, the capital of a Hispanophone socialist utopia which may or not be the actual afterlife. Like everyone else in Novilla (a name that we can read as “no town,” in reference to the Greek “no place” of utopia and that also happens to sound a lot like the English word for book-length fictional narrative), the pair has arrived by sea from former lives elsewhere, all knowledge of which has been entirely wiped away. Simón, acting in loco parentis, spends the early part of the book trying to reunite Davíd with his mother, and although he has no clue as to her identity, he becomes convinced, for absolutely no good reason, that he has found her in the form of a woman named Inés, who, just as mysteriously, allows herself to be likewise convinced. (This is not, needless to say, a work of psychological realism.) At the end of the book, the trio are fleeing Novilla, having gotten into hot water with the municipal officials over their decision to home-school Davíd, who has clashed with his teachers over his unorthodox approach to reading and counting. When we rejoin the trio at the start of this new book, they are still on the run, working as itinerant farm laborers on their way to a new life in the city of Estrella.

It certainly wouldn’t be true to say that these books are plotless, as such, because an awful lot of plot-type stuff undeniably happens in them: There are thwarted loves, workplace accidents, unofficial adoptions, clashes with government authorities, and even an honest-to-goodness murder trial. But Coetzee is transparently unconcerned with these events as anything other than occasions for discussion between his characters––characters who are, for the most part, realized only through the presentation of their speech.

And they are relentless discussers, these characters; they spend most of the books tirelessly back-and-forthing on whatever topic comes to hand. In the first book, for instance, Simón’s tentative advances (framed by him as a “tribute”) toward a civil servant named Ana quickly lead to a powerfully unsexy colloquy on the topic of desire:

“And as a tribute to me––an offering, not an insult––you want to grip me tight and push part of your body into me. As a tribute, you claim. To me the whole business seems absurd––absurd for you to want to perform, and absurd for me to permit.”

“It is only when you put it that way that it seems absurd. In itself it is not absurd. It cannot be absurd, since it is a natural desire of the natural body. It is nature speaking in us. It is the way things are. The way things are cannot be absurd.”

This sort of dialectical tension between reason and passion is a major theme in Schooldays. Davíd attends an academy in which everything––including, most bizarrely, mathematics––is taught through dance. The children are instructed in “calling down” the numbers from the heavens through specialized interpretive moves, an educational practice Simón finds utterly baffling and vexing. (Simón’s utter bafflement and vexation tends to stand in, throughout the books, for the bafflement and vexation of the reader, except on the not-infrequent occasions when Simón is himself the cause of the reader’s bafflement and vexation.) When Ana Magdalena, one of the teachers at the school, is murdered by a caretaker named Dmitri––with whom she may or may not have been having an affair but who was certainly sexually obsessed with her––a Dostoevskian shitstorm of discourse is unleashed on the topic of passion and whether it’s a pernicious influence over human life. (Ostentatiously Russian character names like Dmitri and, most tellingly, Alyosha, land as overbearing hints at the Dostoevsky influence at work.)

Such discourse is pretty dry material, even by this author’s formidable standards of dryness. I’m a Coetzee booster of long standing, but I’ll admit there were times, reading both of these books, when it felt like I was working my way through a 12-course tasting menu, prepared by a multiple Michelin-starred chef, composed solely of ingeniously arranged crackers. The staple diet in the arid utopia that is Simón and Davíd’s new home seems to be bean paste on bread, which, in the first book, Simón professes to finding a little samey—a self-reflexive joke on Coetzee’s part, perhaps, albeit one so dry you might find yourself lunging for a glass of water.

I did occasionally find myself wrong-footed by moments of outright humor in The Schooldays of Jesus. There’s an impromptu parent-teacher meeting, for instance, that somehow happens on a nudist beach, in which the fact that Simón encounters the school principal for the first time while both men are balls naked only exacerbates the formality of their exchange. (There’s an equally absurd scene in Childhood, where Simón is driven by loneliness and desire to visit a brothel in Novilla but is so overwhelmed by the paperwork necessary to become a member that he gives up in despair.)

The book’s structuring opposition between reason and passion is never resolved into any kind of satisfying synthesis but plays itself out as an ongoing exchange of points and counterpoints. There’s a moving moment toward the end in which Simón admits to himself that he is “not on close terms with his soul.” Unable to see it, he thinks, “he has not questioned what people tell him about it: that it is a dry soul, deficient in passion. His own, obscure intuition––that, far from lacking in passion, his soul aches with longing for it knows not what––he treats skeptically as just the kind of story that someone with a dry, rational, deficient soul will tell himself to maintain his self-respect.” The manner in which his thinking briefly gives way to a quiet swell of yearning, before quickly foreclosing against the possibilities of that yearning, is sad and quietly moving. And it offers, too, a kind of miniature representation of Coetzee’s strange and frequently confounding fictional project, with its ceaseless negotiation of countervoices.

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee. Viking.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.