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Friday, 12 June 2009

The puppet man.

Sheldonian Theatre with a bad case of dandruff.


I did something exhilarating yesterday. I went and saw J.M. Coetzee read an extract from his latest work-in-progress at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.

I know this may not knock everybody's socks off but it sure did it for me. Excuse the nerdfest that is to follow.

I have read and studied some of the man's books, and while I can't say I
enjoyed or liked them, they were mesmerising none the less. He manages to create a starkness that is striking, and his books never fail to give me a really uncomfortable feeling. The mark of true genius, I reckon.

I am a bit in awe of him, after all he won the Nobel Prize and is probably South Africa's greatest literary export.

I still kick myself when I think that he was lecturing in English at my University back when I was struggling to decide whether to study English or Biology. At the time I chose Biology because I though it would be easier to find a job. Ha I laugh in scorn. If only I had known the twisted and convoluted system that is research Science, perhaps I would have been tutored by the great J.M Coetzee instead.

I think I underestimated the nature of this event somewhat. I pictured it to be small, intimate. I expected a reserved, polite, perhaps slightly bored audience. I did not think that that many people read his books or were interested in him. This was a tad idiotic in hindsight.

I was not prepared for the magnitude of it all. The theatre is not that big, but it does have balcony seating, and it was packed to the max and the audience were buzzing. I suppose there is no better place for this kind of event than Oxford. The room was full of highly educated people who know far more than me about Coetzee's novels and their inner workings, and they were visibly excited to see the man.

It was great to be surrounded by such a receptive audience, it felt as if we were about to see a rockstar. The anticipation was tangible. When he came in I could barely stay seated I was so excited.

He read us some excerpts from the final instalment in his fictional autobiography series, called
Summertime. In it, the fictional Coetzee is dead, and people are being interviewed about their impressions of the man.

It was a fascinating way for him to present his ideas of himself, and the ideas he possibly feels that others have of him. Or it is all made up. Only he knows.

In the book a lady describes Coetzee as a puppet man, detached from life, merely going through the motions. Someone who could never be considered a great man because he was a man without fire, a man who could not dance.

Afterwards as I was standing in the looong queue to get my worn copy of Disgrace signed, I may have engaged in one of those fantasies, you know, you must have had these (maybe it is with a rockstar or an actor, or a world-renowned Immunologist, whatever) where your idol sees something in you, something special, and takes you aside, whereupon you instantly connect and engage in deep and meaningful philosophical debate, or discuss white blood cells, as it may be. Come on, admit it, I cannot be the only one?

Anyway, I was imagining I could probe his mind a bit. Did he feel like he was a puppet man, and how did he feel about the fact that in the eyes of all of us he is indeed a great man? Does it unsettle him, does he feel like a fraud? Is it exhausting to have to pretend to be genial and sign our books when he wants to be away from our conceptions of him?

But what I really wanted to ask him were surprisingly mundane things. Does he miss South Africa now that he is an Australian citizen? Does he feel alienated, does he feel like he belongs nowhere, does he know who he is now, did he ever? Does he love Australia, and never look back? What does he think about identity, and what shapes it? Does he feel a strange burden in being a white South African, a redundancy? Or does he think all that is a load of bollocks and just get on with life?

I guess I just want to talk to someone about these things but cannot find anyone who is receptive. Most people seem to want to talk about crime or sport or weather or politics or nookie. I feel like he is someone who would have had answers for me.

But maybe he would have talked about how much he misses Ouma rusks. Who knows?

As it was I managed to say hello, smile at him and say thank you before I had to move on for the next person.


And that will definitely do.

UPDATE: review here.

15 comments:

Tamara said...

I know exactly what you mean about JM Coetzee's books. I find them awful, uncomfortable and disturbing but brilliant. The complexity and the layers... they are usually over my head, but I admire them anyway ;-)

I once went to a music festival thingey in Pretoria where a bunch of bands were playing. There was one called Eminent Child. I LOVED their music and was definitely the only one in the crowd singing along to every song (most of the other people had no clue who these guys were let alone their song lyrics). Afterwards, little me - aspirant-drummer and gushing fan - got to meet the band. And the drummer, who had broken a stick while playing, bestowed the autographed item upon ME!

Today I am a bit sad that I squandered that fantasy moment when your idol sees something in you on some random semi-ok band from PE. JM Coetzee would be far more impressive ;-)

LadyFi said...

Oh my goodness - that man IS a literary rock star!! My tongue is hanging out here - oh, how I would love to hear him talk!!!!

He probably has a website -why not write to him with your questions?

Being Brazen said...

so cool that you got to hear him talk

po said...

Tamara: I think his books are over my head too, but yes, admiration is a good word for what I feel.

I think it is a great thing you used your fantasy moment on the band, because at least it got realised, whereas my chance of confabulating with Mr Coetzee was zero.

Ladyfi: strange because as far as I know he is a very reclusive man. I wonder how he feels about being so famous. From what I have heard of him I very much doubt he has a website. I would love to hear what his ex-students have to say.

BB: It was really special

Helen said...

He is one of those authors where you read his work and it's powerful, but not pleasant. It's hard to explain. I'd love to hear him though! I'm so glad you got the opportunity!

angel said...

I have never read any of his work... I think its time I did.

Rox said...

I haven't read him either, but been wanting to.

Awesome that you got to meet someone who inspires you, regardless of what you did or didn't get to say.

Ches said...

Thats so cool Po.

I got lost on the way back from Kenton once and ended up in 'the home of Ouma rusks'...I turned around at the sign.

DT said...

Oh I am jealous! I read the Life and Times of Michael K years ago and I am still haunted by his words and that man, his wheelbarrow and pumpkins! A brilliant writer indeed.

cybersass said...

not to burst your bubble or anything, but the eminent mr coetzee was one of my lecturers at uct and a more dour, unsociable, insular person would be hard to find. yes, i have immense respect and admiration for the man's work (have yet to read "disgrace" though), but he's not the guy who's gonna hang out and shoot the breeze. maybe that's what makes him such a great novelist.

po said...

cybersass: he was your lecturer!!!

I don't care about his manner on the outside, what I care about is what is on the inside. I really admire his mind, he kind of radiates intelligence and interesting ideas.

Maybe I just wish I could have been in close proximity to his mind :)

Spear The Almighty said...

These questions you wish to ask him is things I struggle with on a daily basis.

Lopz said...

Wow, what a cool experience! I've also never read any of his books - not that I can remember anyway. But I'm definitely inspired now.

6000 said...

Still love his earlier stuff.

Peter Pan is a classic.

Betty said...

I am very jealous.