Friday, 12 June 2009
The puppet man.
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.