Authors: J. M. Coetzee
I've never asked: What did you study? Psychology?
No, far from it. I studied German literature. As a preparation for my life as housewife and mother I read Novalis and Gottfried Benn. I graduated in literature, after which, for two decades, until Christina grew up and left home, I was – how shall I put it? – intellectually dormant. Then I went back to college. This was in Montreal. I started from scratch with basic science, followed by medical studies, followed by training as a therapist. A long road.
Would relations with Coetzee have been any different, do you think, if you had been trained in psychology rather than in literature?
What a curious question! The answer is no. If I had studied psychology in the South Africa of the 1960s I would have had to immerse myself in the neurological processes of rats and octopi, and John wasn't a rat or an octopus.
What kind of animal was he?
What odd questions you ask! He wasn't any kind of animal, and for a very specific reason: his mental capacities, and specifically his ideational faculties, were overdeveloped, at the cost of his animal self. He was
, or even
Homo sapiens sapiens
Which leads me back to
. As a piece of writing I don't say
is lacking in passion, but the passion behind it is obscure. I read it as a book about cruelty, an exposé of the cruelty involved in various forms of conquest. But what is the actual source of that cruelty? Its locus, it seems to me, lies within the author himself. The best interpretation I can give the book is that writing it was a project in self-administered therapy. Which casts a certain light back over our time together, our conjoint time.
I am not sure I understand. Can you say more?
What don't you understand?
Are you saying he took out his cruelty on you?
No, not at all. John never behaved toward me with anything but the utmost gentleness. He was what I would call a gentle person, a gentleperson. That was part of his problem. His life project was to be gentle. Let me start again. In
you must recall how much killing there is – killing not only of human beings but of animals. Well, at about the time the book appeared, John announced to me he was becoming a vegetarian. I don't know how long he persisted in it, but I interpreted the vegetarian move as part of a larger project of self-reformation. He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.
How much of this was visible to you at the time, and how much do you owe to later insights as a therapist?
I saw it all – it was on the surface, you didn't need to dig – but at that time I did not have the language to describe it. Besides, I was having an affair with the man. You can't be too analytic in the middle of a love affair.
A love affair. You haven't used that expression before.
Then let me correct myself. An erotic entanglement. Because, young and self-centred as I was then, it would have been hard for me to love, really love, someone as radically incomplete as John. So: I was in the midst of an erotic entanglement with two men, in one of whom I had made a deep investment – I had married him, he was the father of my child – and in the other of whom I had made no investment at all.
Why I made no deeper investment in John has much to do, I now suspect, with his project of turning himself into what I described to you, a gentle man, the kind of man who would do no harm, not even to dumb animals, not even to a woman. I should have been clearer with him, I now think:
If for some reason you are holding yourself back, don't, there is no need!
If I had told him that, if he had taken it to heart, if he had allowed himself to be a little more impetuous, a little more imperious, a little less
then he might actually have yanked me out of a marriage that was bad for me then and would become worse later. He might actually have saved me, or saved the best years of my life for me, which, as it turned out, were wasted.
I've lost track. What were we talking about?
. A word of caution. That book was actually written before he met me. Check the chronology. So don't be tempted to read it as about the two of us.
The thought did not cross my mind.
I remember asking John, after
, what new project he had on the go. His answer was vague. 'There is always something or other I am working on,' he said. 'If I yielded to the seduction of not working, what would I do with myself? What would there be to live for? I would have to shoot myself.'
That surprised me – his need to write, I mean. I knew hardly anything about his habits, about how he spent his time, but he had never struck me as an obsessive worker.
'Do you mean that?' I said.
'I get depressed if I am not writing,' he replied.
'Then why the endless house repairs?' I said. 'You could pay someone else to do the repairs, and devote the time you saved to writing.'
'You don't understand,' he said. 'Even if I had the money to employ a builder, which I don't, I would still feel the need to spend X hours a day digging in the garden or moving rocks or mixing concrete.' And he launched into another of his speeches about the need to overthrow the taboo on manual labour.
I wondered whether there might not be some criticism of myself hanging in the air: that the paid labour of my black domestic set me free to have idle affairs with strange men, for instance. But I let it pass. 'Well,' I said, 'you certainly don't understand economics. The first principle of economics is that if we all insisted on spinning our own thread and milking our own cows rather than employing other people to do it for us, we would be stuck for ever in the Stone Age. That is why we have invented an economy based on exchange, which has in turn made possible our long history of material progress. You pay someone else to lay the concrete, and in exchange you get the time to write the book that will justify your leisure and give meaning to your life. That may even give meaning to the life of the workman laying the concrete for you. So that we all prosper.'
'Do you really believe that?' he said.'That books give meaning to our lives?'
'Yes.' I said. 'A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us. What else should it be?'
'A gesture of refusal in the face of time. A bid for immortality.'
'No one is immortal. Books are not immortal. The entire globe on which we stand is going to be sucked into the sun and burnt to a cinder. After which the universe itself will implode and disappear down a black hole. Nothing is going to survive, not me, not you, and certainly not minority-interest books about imaginary frontiersmen in eighteenth-century South Africa.'
'I didn't mean immortal in the sense of existing outside time. I mean surviving beyond one's physical demise.'
'You want people to read you after you are dead?'
'It affords me some consolation to cling to that prospect.'
'Even if you won't be around to witness it?'
'Even if I won't be around to witness it.'
'But why should the people of the future bother to read the book you write if it doesn't speak to them, if it doesn't help them find meaning in their lives?'
'Perhaps they will still like to read books that are well written.'
'That's silly. It's like saying that if I build a good enough gramradio then people will still be using it in the twenty-fifth century. But they won't. Because gram-radios, however well made, will be obsolete by then. They won't speak to twenty-fifth-century people.'
'Perhaps in the twenty-fifth century there will still be a minority curious to hear what a late-twentieth-century gramradio sounded like.'
'Collectors. Hobbyists. Is that how you intend to spend your life: sitting at your desk handcrafting an object that might or might not be preserved as a curiosity?'
He shrugged. 'Have you a better idea?'
You think I am showing off. I can see that. You think I make up dialogue to show how smart I am. But that is how they were at times, conversations between John and myself. They were fun. I enjoyed them; I missed them afterwards, after I stopped seeing him. In fact our conversations were probably what I missed most. He was the only man I knew who would let me beat him in an honest argument, who wouldn't bluster or obfuscate or go off in a huff when he saw he was losing. And I always beat him, or nearly always.
The reason was simple. It wasn't that he couldn't argue; but he ran his life according to principles, whereas I was a pragma- tist. Pragmatism always beats principles; that is just the way things are. The universe moves, the ground changes under our feet; principles are always a step behind. Principles are the stuff of comedy. Comedy is what you get when principles bump into reality. I know he had a reputation for being dour, but John Coetzee was actually quite funny. A figure of comedy. Dour comedy. Which, in an obscure way, he knew, even accepted. That is why I still look back on him with affection. If you want to know.
I was always good at arguing. At school everyone used to be nervous around me, even my teachers.
A tongue like a knife
, my mother used to say half-reprovingly.
A girl should not argue like that, a girl should learn to be more soft
. But at other times she would say:
A girl like you should be a lawyer
. She was proud of me, of my spirit, of my sharp tongue. She came from a generation when a daughter was still married from the father's home straight into the husband's, or the father-in-law's.
Anyway, 'Have you a better idea,' John said – 'a better idea for how to use one's life than writing books?'
'No. But I have an idea that might shake you up and help give direction to your life.'
'What is that?'
'Find yourself a good woman and marry her.'
He looked at me strangely. 'Are you making me a proposal?' he said.
I laughed. 'No,' I said, 'I am already married, thank you. Find a woman better suited to you, someone who will take you out of yourself.'
I am already married, therefore marriage to you would constitute bigamy
: that was the unspoken part. Yet what was wrong with bigamy, come to think of it, aside from it being against the law? What made bigamy a crime when adultery was only a sin, or a recreation? I was already an adulteress; why should I not be a bigamist or
too? This was Africa, after all. If no African man was going to be hauled before a court for having two wives, why should I be forbidden to have two spouses, a public one and a private one?
'This is not, emphatically not, a proposal,' I repeated, 'but – just hypothetically – if I were free, would you marry me?'
It was only an inquiry, an idle inquiry. Nevertheless, without a word, he took me in his arms and held me so tight that I could not breathe. It was the first act of his I could recollect that seemed to come straight from the heart. Certainly I had seen him worked on by animal desire – we did not spend our time in bed discussing Aristotle – but never before had I seen him in the grip of emotion.
I asked myself in some wonderment,
does this cold fish have feelings after all?
'What's up?' I said, disengaging myself from his grasp.'Is there something you want to tell me?'
He was silent. Was he crying? I switched on the bedside lamp and inspected him. No tears, but he did wear a look of stricken mournfulness. 'If you can't tell me what's up,' I said, 'I can't help you.'