Tomorrow's Books


J. M. Coetzee

    You would be hard pressed to find a more exasperating character than John, the hero of J. M. Coetzee’s follow-up to Disgrace.  ‘His sole talent,’ his creator tells us, ‘is for misery, dull, honest misery.’  Selfish, introverted and indecisive, he makes Hamlet look like Rudi Guliani, and Eeyore seem positively gung-ho.
     John is a mathematician by training, but longs to be a great writer, and everything he does is calculated to ignite ‘the sacred flame of art’.  (When he reads Ford Madox Ford praising Provençal cuisine, he cooks himself fish fingers for supper instead of chipolatas.)  If his calling is noble, however, his conduct is quite the reverse – particularly towards the women who climb with baffling regularity into his bed.  Bundling them out of the door, he tells himself callously that ‘without descending to the depths, one cannot become an artist’.
     The story – which it is tempting to read as autobiography – opens in South Africa in 1959, with John studying in Cape Town, and moves to London, where he finds a job as a computer programmer.  And that, pretty much, is it: the Sixties start to swing, and momentous political events – the Sharpeville massacre, the Cuban missile crisis – unfold in the background, but John remains determinedly on the sidelines, swotting in the British Museum or shivering in his bedsit.  As for his attempts at writing, you would find more of a divine spark in an empty Zippo lighter.
     This could have been a very funny book, but Coetzee prefers a deadpan narrative, largely focussing on John’s intellectual development. (His reading habits are exhaustively discussed). As a study of an extreme type, it is highly impressive, and it says much for Coetzee’s skill that even with such an unappealing character – and virtually no dialogue – he manages to keep you turning the pages.
     To call it enjoyable, though, would be an exaggeration.  The ending is inconclusive, and this seems a poor reward for the hours spent tolerating John’s company.  Youth has plenty of substance, but – like a doughnut with no jam in the middle – ultimately leaves you feeling hard done by.