Lessons in Literature from J.M. Coetzee

Oct. 26, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

J. M. Coetzee knows how to work with silence. From the quiet tones of his characters waiting out the night to his short and stoic responses to interview questions, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature carefully weighs every statement he makes.

Coetzee’s Monday evening Ian Watt lecture was introduced by Stanford comparative literature doctoral candidate Lucy Alford, who described the award-winning author’s work as being full of “ethical quandaries,” issues that had impacted her deeply as she made her way through his collections of work. She described his style as a pair of invisible hands, guiding the reader carefully down a path of social and political questioning, an omnipresent force to remind his audience of what is truly important.

Coetzee lent himself a gentle and serious tenor by keeping his own introduction short, humorously presenting himself as “at most, an amateur,” even “a muddlehead” when it came to novels. He is widely known for his absence from the public eye, most notably, for his refusal to show up at ceremonies to accept some of his prestigious awards.

A reading like the one given at the Center for the Study of the Novel is rare, and Coetzee indicated that he was honored to receive the Ian Watt lecture for the year.

He presented an hour-long excerpt from his forthcoming novel, “The Childhood of Jesus,” due to be released in March, inducting the audience into the moving tale of a man who wanted to help a small child find his mother, but for whom every door was closed, literally and metaphorically. Perseverance in the face of hardship and aggravation in the face of injustice were evident throughout his tale, connecting not only with the themes of his other works, but also with themes that are explored in his own political engagements in human rights, animal rights and law.

Alford told the audience that Coetzee would teach them “how to engage politically in a human language,” whether that human language is the sigh of an old man’s back as he carries heavy sacks on and off a swaying boat or the gentle way that Coetzee read as he narrated this tale of a man who had so much to give.

In the conversation following the reading, Nancy Ruttenburg, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Literature in the English Department, reflected on the themes and constructions of Coetzee’s novels. She compared his style to that of J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth and James Baldwin, among others that she characterized as having a close, almost disorientating author-protagonist relationship.

Though his works are somewhat biographical, Coetzee insisted on a measure of space between author and protagonist, declaring in some cases that he was “not the right person to ask” about what his writing meant because the fiction took on its own life out of his hands.

Whether audience members came to hear the excerpt or to marvel at a discussion of whether Coetzee belonged to the Dostoevsky or Tolstoy camp of thought, each left with the sense that something significant had passed.

In parting, Alford said that “writers teach us more than they are aware of,” a note on which Coetzee, with his subtle dichotomy of narrative and biography, declined to comment.

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