I've just written a wee review of Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year over on The Book Depository:

In J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year an ageing writer, J.C., who strongly resembles Coetzee himself, finds himself inappropriately drawn to his young amanuensis Anya. Her partner, Alan, is none too happy about Anya's working relationship with J.C.. Anya is untroubled by what she knows to be going through J.C.'s head, but is somewhat perturbed by some of the things that he has written and that she has to type up for him.

With Elizabeth Costello, and with Slow Man, Coetzee, one of the most brilliant novelists writing today, has shown himself to have a profound interest in the novel's form. Elizabeth Costello is a collection of philosophical essays just about holding together as a novel, as the essays we read are, nominally, Costello's own writings. In Slow Man, Costello arrives on the scene again to tell the principal protagonist, Paul Rayment, that she has invented him: a third of the way through what seems a (wonderfully written) conventional novel and Coetzee gets up to all sorts of destabilizing, metafictional tricks.

In Diary of a Bad Year, the tricks aren't as disturbing, but the interest in playing with form is still highly evident. Most of the pages of Diary of a Bad Year are split into three horizontally demarcated sections: we read J.C.'s non-fictional essays; Anya's take on their relationship; and then J.C.s take on his deepening involvement with Anya and Alan.

This clever structure, however, doesn't stop the novel being unsatisfying in a number of ways: J.C.'s essays aren't fully developed enough entirely to convince; and the accompanying story of the bizarre love triangle is too thin a fare fully ever to engage the reader. Coetzee's brilliance is never in doubt and this is, certainly, a must-read book (it should be read to see what Coetzee, a world-class practitioner, is trying to do with the novel), but it is, at times, an infuriating and frustrating read.

Readers Comments

  1. This review is "unsatisfying in numbers of ways."

    Coetzee deserves to be read with care. This review is evidence of a certain lack of care. I'll give only one example. (Although there are many)

    It's in the first sentence: "In J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year" and ageing writer, J.C., who strongly resembles Coetzee himself. finds himself inappropriately drawn to his young amanuesis Anya."

    "Inappropriately drawn."

    I cannot begin to express how this misreads and does profound disservice to the relation of Anya and J.C.

    More than half way through this deeply complex and engaging work, there is an opinion on English usage wherein the use of the modish word "inappropriate" is critiqued as part of the disintegration of judgement -part of the general series of disintegrations the ageing novelist rails against over the course of the novel. The word "inappropriate" has come to be used, today. as a means of expressing disapproval without seeming to express a moral judgement. In this age of hyper-positivity and happy clappy enthusiasm it is no longer good to be seen as "judgemental". Indeed, judgement is "inappropriate."

    This review has made no effort whatsoever to engage with the work at hand. Its depressing to read. It reads as if it were written by "Alan" - the pugnacious, matter-of-fact, unreflective character who abuses and belittles J.C. toward the end of the book. Its written in the manner of those against whom the book is written. It is entirely lacking in sensitivity.


  2. Hi Roland,

    You know, I don't much disagree with you at all! This capsule review of mine is most certainly unsatisfactory. It is a very quick overview of a complex novel that requires much more attention and thought. But that is the nature of such small reviews ...

    It isn't the first time I've written about it -- and it won't be the last. (One of the reasons that this review isn't actually on ReadySteadyBook is that it is so brief a response.)

    However, I do think that "inappropriately drawn" adequately sums up something about JC's relationship to Anya: he is older than her, and quite different from her, engages her in a job because of his incipient feelings for her, and is conflicted about his actions throughout. Both Anya and the boorish Alan think that the "relationship" is "inappropriate" for different reasons and on different levels too ... As a two-word overview of their relationship -- which of course the novel investigates over its length -- I stand by it.

    Further -- becuase I think it is this that you are also taking exception to -- I do think that "Diary of a Bad Year" is a failure. It is an exceptional book, and one I'd commend to anyone. It is better than most any of the novels I've read this year. But it is still a failure. And the last paragraph of my review (above) sketches out very quickly some of the lines of enquiry that need to be taken up by any sensitive reader as to why it fails.

  3. Roland Kapferer Sunday 30 September 2007

    Ah but I disagree with you, Mark. Sometimes. I like some of the things you write. It IS good to see what Coetzee is doing with the novel - "world class" or otherwise. But you're not getting my point. I took issue with your use of the fashionable word "inappropriate" for good reason. Your description of Anya and J.C.'s relationship in the very terms that this relation undercuts and problematizes reveals you're missing something about the novel as a whole. In a way, you're missing everything.

    Harsh, very harsh, too harsh to call the book a "failure." Again, I suppose this is what the character Alan would say. With his dog eat dog, law of the jungle world - failures and successes, winners and losers...

    You say: "J.C.'s essays aren't fully developed enough to convince" Surely this is not the point? Convincing or not, they are an intimate part of the structure of the novel. They weave all the strands together. They change. They contradict each other. They develop. They are boring. They are half thought. They are called opinions. Not knowledge. Not philosophical arguments. They're not about convincing. They are something else... something much more than a "convincing argument" and perhaps less.

    You say: "The accompanying story of the bizarre love triangle is too thin to engage the reader." Again with the reductions and the minimizations! Its not an "accompanying story." It's not some little tryst or cliched "bizarre love triangle." It IS the story. I, "the reader," was fully engaged. Engaged by the increasingly complex transitions between the strands, the differences. And moved. How could one not be moved by that fantastic moment when J.C. and Anya say goodbye to each other? Standing on the threshold. He for her and her for him. Differently. Impossibly. The old man and the young vibrant woman Just as in Lampadeusa's "Leopard." Or Visconti's. The eternal, gateway moment. The eternal turning away - Dante and Beatrice.

    No, Mark, this is an engaging story. You're just not reading it yet.


  4. Roland Kapferer Sunday 30 September 2007

    LAMPEDUSA, "THE Leopard" Sorry. Writing too fast...


  5. Very quickly, as I don't want this to become interminable!

    "Inappropriate" still seems, to me, a perfectly acceptable shorthand to suggest the outward appearance of a relationship which, of course, as I said above, the "novel investigates over its length." More, the novel presents this relation as inappropriate and needs to develop it -- undercut and problematize it -- to help us question that very word/notion. There would only be something to undercut and problematize if the "inappropriateness" was the first thing we see. (Something has to be before it can be deconstructed!) This isn't my moral judgement -- this is what the book investigates. However -- your third point -- I don't think the novel develops JC and Anya nearly enough and nor do I think the investigation is as profound as it promises to be.

    This is a novel so you are right that the essays don't have to convince the way a book of non-fiction essays should. But they don't convince within the terms of the novel itself.

    The fact that the love triangle story accompanies the essays -- it does! -- doesn't mean that it is not integral to the novel -- of course it is. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. On is point of fact about the structure, the other tells us about what is going on in the novel.

    "Again with the reductions and the minimizations!" you say. As I pointed out -- again -- above: this is "a very quick overview of a complex novel that requires much more attention and thought."

    So, lets think about it together some more -- but lets not be rude or boorish.

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