Monday, October 05, 2009

On the nature of "Strong Opinions": Diary of a Bad Year

J.M. Coetzee's new book, the quasi-autobiographical novel Summertime, a follow-up of sorts to his earlier semi-memoirs, Boyhood and Youth, has been receiving near-unanimous praise in the UK, including being shortlisted for what would be Coetzee's third Booker prize. Adding to this chorus in recent weeks have been three excellent bloggers, John Self, Mark Thwaite, and Stephen Mitchelmore. Since I have not yet read the book--it isn't published in the United States until after Christmas--I want to take the opportunity to finally deliver my long-gestating inquiry into certain aspects of Coetzee's last book, Diary of a Bad Year.

I note that in his review of Summertime, Stephen observes of its widespread adulation, that "The consensus is a conspicuous reversal" of the general critical response to Diary of a Bad Year. In this novel, an elderly author, "JC", writes a series of short essays for inclusion in a volume to be called "Strong Opinions". JC encounters a woman, Anya, who he hires to type the essays. The book is structured such that the top of the page features the text of the various mini-essays, the bottom JC's account of his encounters with Anya. After some time, the page splits further, with Anya's thoughts intruding on the page, including her relations with her husband, Alan. Midway through the book, the top of the page shifts to more personal essays, under the heading "Second Diary".

These "Strong Opinions" made many readers unhappy, not just professional reviewers. It seems to me that many readers have become impatient with Coetzee; for example, in the comments to John Self's review, readers are evidently on balance happier with the Coetzee of Disgrace and earlier, one commenter calling his intervening books--including Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, along with Diary of a Bad Year--evidence of a writer "bored with fiction". Such readers have seemed to look on Summertime with considerable relief. The formal restlessness of these three books has, perhaps, ironically pushed readers to focus on the arguments generated by the characters in them. As with the whole of Elizabeth Costello, many readers of Diary of a Bad Year have insisted on reading the pieces appearing in the "Strong Opinions" portion of the book at face value, as essays with which we are supposed to agree or disagree on their merits. It is often further assumed that the quality of the novel depends in some way on the effectiveness of these pieces, as essays. To do this is to, again, assume that the "Strong Opinions" reflect the thinking of J.M. Coetzee himself. In fairness, Coetzee playfully encourages some of this. Asked to contribute an essay or a talk on a certain topic, he has, for example, instead presented fictions featuring Elizabeth Costello and her arguments, which may or may not resemble Coetzee's own. He publishes excerpts of his work in the The New York Review of Books, a venue known for focusing on ideas in fiction.

But Coetzee gives us a variety of signals that this is not the way to read these books, signals that help point the way toward what the books are doing, why they are written the way they are. One of these signals is the quality of many of the opinions themselves. That is, much of what JC writes in his "Strong Opinions" is nonsense. Mr. Waggish has made this point more consistently than anyone else:
[A]ny comparison of the "Strong Opinions" to his real opinions in his thoughtful, careful essays makes the difference blindingly apparent. (It does take something approaching guts for a Nobel Laureate to write something so profoundly trite and irritating and attribute it to his own ostensible fictional proxy.) As with many literary intellectuals, J.C.'s excursions into math and science are particularly stupid. By the time J.C. writes, "I continue to find evolution by random mutation and natural selection not just unconvincing but preposterous as an account of how complex organisms come into being" and invokes Heisenberg without knowing what uncertainty even is, it's obvious that Coetzee has no wish even to defend these opinions; he is making them transparently foolish so that readers examine the rhetoric rather than the opinions. Underneath the sanctimonious white male liberal pablum, including defenses of pornography, Adorno-esque cultural snobbery in indictments of rock music, latent sexism (captured especially well, complete with tired attack on Catherine MacKinnon), and sympathy with enemies of whom he knows nothing, there bleeds the personality that is revealed in J.C.'s internal voice lower on the page. With most would-be political commentators in the literati, it is not quite so obvious, but in J.C., Coetzee gives us tools for easily making the connection.
Again, Coetzee plays with these readers: the author of the "Strong Opinions" is called only "JC" and bears certain obvious resemblances to Coetzee. Excerpts, again, were printed in The New York Review of Books--for example, the piece dealing with the film The Seven Samurai, which is a fairly silly piece taken on its own, but which is leant gravity by appearing in the NYRB, appears to be serious (and, in fact, was taken seriously by the excellent and usually perceptive Helen DeWitt, who knows quite a bit about that particular film, here). Whether readers assume these essays contain the considered positions of J.M. Coetzee is secondary to the fact that they consider them worthy of consideration on their own, independent of the form in which they appear.

Another signal is the tone of the essays. Where Elizabeth Costello was an often obnoxious presence on the page, in both Elizabeth Costello and, especially, Slow Man, JC more closely resembles Coetzee ("except dumber", per Waggish), yet his tone in his essays is just as offputting. This point is made fairly blatantly in the novel itself, by Anya when she says:
OK. This may sound brutal, but it isn't meant that way. There is a tone--I don't know the best word to describe it--a tone that really turns people off. A know-it-all tone. Everything is cut and dried: I am the one with all the answers, here is how it is, don't argue, it won't get you anywhere. I know that isn't how you are in real life, but that is how you come across, and it is not what you want. I wish you would cut it out. If you positively have to write about the world and how you see it, I wish you could find a better way.
As Stephen Mitchelmore has observed (scroll to the comments), these essays thus call into question the "commanding spirit of the writer - his mastery over the world in the form of a book".

I believe this tone is intimately tied in with what I see as the third signal on how to read these essays: the very words "Strong Opinions". Most readers will probably know that Strong Opinions is the title of a collection of Vladimir Nabokov's non-fiction ephemera: reviews, interviews, articles, letters, and so on. When Diary of a Bad Year was still forthcoming, there was some blog-talk about the Nabokov connection, but I don't recall seeing any reviews that mentioned it.

Why does Coetzee call these items "Strong Opinions"? Is it just a throwaway title, a convenient name? Coetzee is too meticulous a writer for that. I believe that Coetzee intentionally names these essays "Strong Opinions" to draw attention to them, with Nabokov being a kind of target. Not Nabokov the writer, but Nabokov the literary persona, or the kind of authority so often invested in such an out-sized persona--that is, the authority we too often invest in it, whether or not it is claimed by the writer in question. This is, I think, reinforced by the end of Diary of a Bad Year, with JC's short tributes to Tolstoy and, most pertinent for my argument, Dostoevsky. Of Dostoevsky, he writes, in part:
Far more powerful than the substance of his argument, which is not strong, are the accents of anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world. It is the voice of Ivan, as realized by Dostoevsky, not his reasoning, that sweeps me along.
To again quote Waggish on this section, this
is one of the most straightforward passages in any of Coetzee's books, so heartfelt and elegant that it shames the "Strong Opinions" even further. Having achieved some rapprochement with Anya, J.C. stands in relation to Dostoevsky and his books and not to the world, leaving those connections to those more qualified to make them.
In addition, these words, which are analogous to the argument that holds that the old great philosophers, though perhaps "proven wrong" in some particulars, nevertheless remain worth reading for the flow of their argument and the rhetorical power of their writing, also serve as a gentle rebuke to Nabokov, with his famous animus towards the fiction of Dostoevksy, an animus, I have argued elsewhere, the repetitiveness and virulence of which had more to do with maintaining his literary persona upon arrival in the United States, than with the actual target itself.

Nabokov was one of the great writers of fiction, but his book called Strong Opinions, though not without its charm or entertainment value, is not itself a valuable book. Is it not one of Nabokov's worst books? Though we can profitably read his Lectures on Literature, Nabokov was not much of a critic, in that he didn't really write criticism. Critical remarks, however, are everywhere. And the opinions in Strong Opinions are tonally more akin to his many jabs in his prefaces and introductions to his own novels, where he frequently takes the time to attack Freud or Sartre or whomever. I'm not going to quote from the book Strong Opinions; I own most of Nabokov's books, but I don't own that, and I read it years ago. But read the introductory remarks to just about any one of his novels and you will find something like what I'm talking about. (The ones that were written originally in Russian, such as Despair or Invitation to a Beheading, are perhaps the best places to look, since he is self-consciously "introducing" them or framing them for an American audience previously unfamiliar with them.) (But I should give at least a little flavor, shouldn't I? I can't remember whether the text of the interview Rake linked to here--which seems to no longer be available--is reproduced in Strong Opinions, but the remarks found there are typical of what I'm talking about, where he dismisses both Freud--"I think he's medieval, and I don't want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me"--and Faulkner--a writer of "corncob chronicles".) Whether his targets deserve scorn is irrelevant; it's the nature of the attack that counts here. While it's true that writers, in their offhand way in diaries and journals, are often more interesting critics than the critics themselves (witness Kafka on Dickens, for but one example that Gabriel Josipovici is fond of pointing out), with Nabokov this is rarely the case. He was such a guarded figure that his offhand remarks were never really offhand, the dismissive tone calculated for effect, their authority resting entirely on his own fame, the only reason he's being asked in the first place. Nabokov was such an out-sized figure, a dominant literary master with a personal history that intersected tragically with History itself, that one is seduced by him, one wants to give him credit. I know when I was knee-deep in my early Nabokov fixation, I took him seriously on virtually everything, even when I already knew enough to disagree, as I did on political matters and, say, Faulkner. You want to measure up to his greatness, even defer to it. It took me a long time to realize how unsatisfactory I found his rigid approach to translation, though I still take his side in his battle with the generally pompous Edmund Wilson over Eugene Onegin.

Nabokov's stature and his history likely inclined people, journalists in particular, to want to ask him all kinds of questions, literary or otherwise, even though there should be no particular reason why Vladimir Nabokov's opinions on Vietnam, or communism, carry any special weight, except that he's Vladimir Nabokov. If his opinions on such matters evinced carefully thought out positions and actually added anything, that would be different. Similarly, there is no reason why anyone should care what Diary of a Bad Year's JC has to say about evolution, or about mathematics, or feminism, or any number of other topics. He might have something valuable to say about them, but such essays would need to be approached more in the spirit of his "Second Diary" entries, pieces which show evidence of meaning more to their author than did the perfunctory, obnoxious "Strong Opinions" themselves. The latter exist because he is asked to write them, solely based on his position as Famous Author. Their authority relies on this and this alone, and they are written as if he believed that authority to be thus earned. It is not.

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Blogger waggish said...

Thanks for the shout-out, and for this excellent post on Bad Year. Your point about Nabokov is very well-taken. I think the title coincidence struck me at some point but I didn't think twice about it. I'm glad you did, since it's clearly intentional and reinforces your interpretation of the book. (Okay, and mine as well!) Strong Opinions is certainly Nabokov at his worst (though I find it entertaining in sort of a guilty-pleasure way), while I still find his insights in the Lectures to be valuable examples of close reading.

I'm still surprised people take Coetzee at face value in these things--one glance at his own published essays reveals the blatant differences. Costello's lectures on animals have been enshrined as a straightforward animal rights polemic, rather than as an exploration of what it is to have and express those ideas.

December 03, 2009 11:07 AM  
Blogger Steven Augustine said...

My "problem" with DOABY was the shallow, stock, televisionosity of the narratives paralleling the essays; the book felt like a spark, from the bonfire of Roth's The Counterlife, landing on a pile of damp leaves. I bought the book with high hopes (not quite rich enough to do otherwise) and was disappointed; I read the thing twice to be sure.

December 05, 2009 8:33 AM  
Blogger nicole said...

Thanks for pointing me here; this is a great post. "he didn't really write criticism. Critical remarks, however, are everywhere" -- so true!

I have read very little Coetzee but this intrigues me and puts these titles much higher up my mental list.

February 24, 2010 12:21 PM  
Blogger Amma Aestaeron said...

I too, think that this is a great post.

I've always struggled with the weakness of the arguments of the protagonists in Diary... and more pointedly, Elizabeth Costello when I know Coetzee to share similar sentiments himself (but hopefully stronger).

It did feel a little like Coetzee was setting up a "false wall": protagonists that defend arguments which the writer can distance himself from (and retain some sort of artistic self-respect); yet that he lacked the, so to speak, genius (of someone like Dostoevsky) to make them convincing.

I didn't pick up the possible reference to Nabokov (whose criticism I have always hated, and whose fiction I have only recently learnt to appreciate).

Another thing in Coeztee which has annoyed me, is that I have tended to find the psychology of his characters to be his own (I mean this regardless of the self-referential names). Reading The Childhood of Jesus recently, was the first time I haven't felt that way about his novels. But this may just be me.

December 23, 2013 7:29 PM  
Blogger Amma Aestaeron said...

Wish I could edit that comment.

I would change 'convincing' in the second paragraph to formidable, and add that I really enjoy Coeztee's books.

I thought I should also add that I basically agreed with the protagonist's comment in Diary about evolution being preposterous. While I appreciate the elegance of Darwinian evolution and accept it, to some extent, on an intellectual level but moreso on a literally common-sense level, there's a sense in which I find it absolutely preposterous: this is a dogma which is almost universally accepted by 'thinking men' in the western world, and everyone sensible who is beneath them and yet, who can explain accurately, a step by step "reconstruction" of the evolution of a "simple" creature such as an ant?

December 24, 2013 1:17 AM  

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