Literary Spaces in the Selected Works of J.M. Coetzee

by Katarzyna Karwowska (Author)
©2014 Monographs V, 133 Pages


This book closely examines the processes governing the construction of literary spaces in the selected works of J.M. Coetzee, focusing in particular on the writer’s subversive and destructive treatment of traditional modes of representation which participated in the imperial enterprise and served to overcome the ontological insecurity of colonisers. This strategy results in the formation of heterogenous, fluid and open locations which can be deciphered along the postmodern spatial theories of Foucault, Augé, Deleuze and Guattari. The transformation of topographies not only cleanses them of the conventional residue in preparation for alternative spatial rearrangements, but also initiates processes which reverse the colonising project by breaching the gap between the other and the self.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: In the Heart of the Country: Spaces and Characters Resisting the Grip of Conventions
  • Chapter Two: Life and Times of Michael K: The Nomadic Smooth Space
  • Chapter Three: Age of Iron: Spaces of Crisis, Spaces of Awakening
  • Chapter Four: Disgrace: Places of Becoming
  • Coda
  • Works Cited

← VI | 1 →Introduction

John Maxwell Coetzee is a writer who, like his fiction, reaches beyond easy definitions and fixed categorisations. Born and raised in South Africa, he emigrated to Europe and America to continue his university education and launch a professional career. As a result of his involvement in anti-Vietnam War protests, he was forced to return to his homeland and finally, after retiring, settled in Australia. This brief biographical outline might already hint at the ambiguous status of the writer: Coetzee’s fiction is deeply indebted to European literary tradition,1 yet it grows out of a local cultural, historical and material reality. Significantly, Coetzee distances himself from politics and from the role of a writer who is a South African national. In one interview, he asks “whether it isn’t simply that vast and wholly ideological superstructure constituted by publishing, reviewing and criticism that has forced on [him] the fate of being a ‘South African novelist’” (Morphet qtd. in Stanton 61). Nevertheless, it does not immediately follow that Coetzee severs all links with his homeland, relieving himself of the ensuing obligations and responsibilities. To the contrary, he sets some of his novels in South Africa and engages them in a dialogue with regional literary discourse. “His novels retreat and roam; like Michael K, they root themselves ‘nowhere,’” notices T. Kai Norris Easton, who then hastens to add: “[b]ut the South African base is there – in Cape, from which his stories emigrate. […] Indeed, Coetzee’s work carries a double tendency towards the South African landscape: one which is currently removed and engaged” (585). Coetzee is writing from the position of being ‘in-between,’ which is also reflected in his inquisitiveness regarding his roots, his past and his family heritage. In the speech he delivered in response to receiving an honoris causa degree at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań in 2012, he related his efforts involved in tracing his ancestry to a Polish great-grandfather. Yet, in spite of this preoccupation with localities, he concludes: “There is only one world, and we all belong to it” (“Iohannes” 91). This response fittingly illustrates the balance which governs Coetzee’s works: he ← 1 | 2 →skilfully combines attention to the local and the global. As such he belongs to the class of writers whom Boehmer calls “extra territorial” (233). These “cultural travellers,” as the critic observes, produce “migrant text[s] [which are] hybridity writ large and in colour. It is a hybridity, too, which is form-giving” (Boehmer 233, 234). This book investigates how this hybridity permeates the strategies employed by Coetzee in the processes of constructing textual places.

The first full-length study of Coetzee’s fiction was Teresa Dovey’s The Novels of J.M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories published in 1988. Not only was it the first significant contribution to ‘Coetzee studies,’ but it also sparked an intellectual and ethical debate which has continued up to now. Dovey’s discussion is centred around the question: Can literature – specifically, Coetzee’s novels – which simultaneously foregrounds and undermines its own narrative techniques and resists direct political and historical judgement still be capable of expressing deep ethical concern and taking a definite stand on issues which trouble post-colonial societies? Dovey dismisses earlier charges against Coetzee’s insufficient commitment to the pressing concerns of his homeland, ravished by apartheid2, by stressing that various deconstructive strategies of his fiction do not automatically preclude its potential to stage resistance, but constitute “a strategy which deconstructs the position of mastery per se” (Dovey, Novels 50). Arguing that Coetzee’s novels may be interpreted as allegories of Jacques Lacan’s theories, she draws attention to the notion of the linguistic construction of the self, a notion which allows for the rooting of the subject in the political and social materiality of language. Dovey’s monograph was an impulse which lead to what David Attwell calls “a considerably oversimplified polarization between those registering the claims of political resistance and historical representation and, on the other hand those responsive to postmodernisms and poststructuralisms, to whom Coetzee […] seems to have much to provide” (Politics 2). Attwell himself considers Coetzee’s fiction in terms of ‘situational metafiction,’ which involves placing equal interpretative stress on the novels’ formal experimentalism and their social, political and cultural context. Later he argues: “Coetzee’s novels are located in the nexus of history and text, that is, they explore the tension between these polarities” (Attwell, Politics 2–3). By building his analysis around this tension, the critic is able to apply a developmental pattern to the subsequent works of the writer.3 He distinguishes three major shifts in Coetzee’s work. The first is centred on the issue of authority and involves a movement from “a combative, aggressive subversion of the authority ← 2 | 3 →of colonialism […] toward a point of self-conscious deference, marginality, even abnegation” (Atwell, Politics 118). The second reveals how an ideologically determined narrative can evolve into textual free play, while the third stages the process of the “rejection of liberal humanism” in favour of “reconstructed ethics” (Attwell, Politics 118–119). Similarly, also directed by the objective of paying equal attention to socio-political background and formal procedures, Dominic Head addresses various subjects: colonial and post-colonial identity structures, the ambivalent use of allegory, the textual construction of characters, intertextuality, canonicity and the “deconstruction of the novel’s evocation of deconstruction” (109). Derek Attridge’s response to the debate about the ethical aspect of Coetzee’s markedly self conscious and self-reflexive fiction is based on yet another assumption. The critic argues that the impulse to read Coetzee’s novels allegorically should not be followed without a second thought. Attridge advocates a close literal reading that might reveal the text’s ethical aspect by opening it to what a simple allegorical appropriation might obscure. Literature, Attridge argues, is the most appropriate medium which, unlike philosophy, theology or political discourse, allows for the most intense experience of the ethical. Furthermore, the critic concludes, “there is also a sense in which the formally innovative text, the one that most estranges itself from the reader, makes the strongest ethical claim” (11).4

Other critics limit their studies to selected research topics. Thus Sue Kossew’s Pen and Power examines Coetzee’s fiction in the light of post-colonial studies, focusing on themes which are essential for this strain of criticism: authorship; authority; the colonizing power of language; ambivalence and the silencing of voices; modes of construction of self and other; and dialogue with master narratives. Susan VanZanten Gallagher in turn comes close to historicist criticism, admitting that her aim is to “resituate Coetzee’s fictions in their discursive moments, to examine a variety of social, cultural, and rhetorical contexts from which his novels emerge and in which they participate” (ix-x). The emphasis in Gallagher’s research is placed on the novels’ ability to simultaneously lay bare, pervert and challenge national Afrikaner myths present in South African history and culture. More recently, the publication of a collection of essays under the common title J.M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual (2006) confirms that the issue of the author’s ethical standing and commitment is still pressing. The debate about social responsibilities is fuelled by ← 3 | 4 →Coetzee’s later publications – mainly Disgrace, The Lives of Animals and Elisabeth Costello – and revolves around the issues of feminism, female voices interrogating the authority of male speakers and human-animal relations.

Irrespective of the significant attentiveness to Coetzee’s roots in spatiotemporal, social and cultural circumstances, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the notions of place/space5 in his writing and the textual strategies of their construction. There is however a tendency to involve the allegorical dimension of the textual locations in the writer’s novels and his distrust of realistic codes of representation (Head; Dovey, Novels). In allegory-oriented analysis, places are interpreted as representative of a larger idea or as universal constructions capable of carrying the echoes of colonial and post-colonial socio-political circumstances. Other scholarly contributions focus on the dialogue between Coetzee’s narratives and Afrikaner literary culture and mythology, especially in relation to the strictly spatial local genre of plaasroman6 (Gallagher; Attwell, Politics; Kossew, Pen; Head; Barnard, Apartheid; Koch). Dominic Head traces those textual influences in character construction, while Sue Kossew analyses relations between power, language and place. Rita Barnard’s Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers ← 4 | 5 →and Politics of Place is distinct in being wholly dedicated to the issue of place in contemporary South African writing. Barnard focuses on the ideological and political meaning of place in times of transformation and devotes one lengthy chapter to the discussion of the “antimimetic and demystifactory” strategies contributing to the creation of textual locations in Coetzee’s novels (9). By attending to the often subversive dialogue between the writer and South African pastoral conventions, Barnard arrives at the conclusion that Coetzee’s aim is to expose the silences inherent in the colonial modes of land representation. Finally, her analysis of Disgrace allows her to claim that the post-apartheid times call for a “redefinition of social space” and “new ethical obligations,” which leave no place for pastoral writing, be it anti-pastoral or postcolonial pastoral (Barnard, “Apartheid” 10). Storyscapes: South African Perspectives on Literature, Space and Identity edited by Hein Viljoen and Chris N. Van der Merwe also addresses the subject of space in South African literature. This study relates Coetzee’s Disgrace and In the Heart of the Country to an appropriate stage in the evolution of the Afrikaans farm novel, considering it in terms of a parodic and critical revision of the genre.

The aim of this study is to fill in the lacunae which can be observed in criticism concerning textual strategies of space construction in a selection of novels by Coetzee. The analysis of spatial constructions and processes of spatial transformation sheds new light on Coetzee’s work and highlights certain as yet unexplored aspects. This analysis, which explains how particular literary locations come into being, allows for the discovery of yet another level of coherence and a sense of continuity within Coetzee’s work. Conclusions regarding the spatial dimension of the novels under discussion corroborate existing critical statements and confirm the integrity and totality of the author’s narrative endeavour. Thus one of the prevailing patterns followed by Coetzee in relation to the creation of literary spaces is the simultaneous application, subversion and destruction of older, well-established modes of spatial representation inherent in the colonial and master narratives of Western culture. The author’s distrust of the sanctioned orderings of place, whose origins can be traced to the Enlightenment idea of a perfectly ordered universe, renders his novels transparent in terms of conventionality. Coetzee exposes both the limitations of the spatial conventions and their devastating influence upon the colonial and post-colonial subject. This subversive potential remains one of the most frequently discussed features of Coetzee’s works, stressed by a whole range of critics including Head, Kossew, Gallagher, Dovey, Attridge and Attwell. Coetzee’s deconstructive strategies apply to master codes, genres, narrative strategies, national myths and a variety of discourses, often turning into parody but never into a simple reversal.

← 5 | 6 →This leads to another widely discussed hallmark of Coetzee’s fiction, i.e. its unresolved allusiveness, ambiguity and ambivalence (Head; Kossew, Pen;7 Gallagher). The author’s propensity to escape simple dichotomies and binarisms results in what Laura Wright rightly calls an “interregnum,” a state of stasis which coincides with “the moment after the dialogic question is asked but before an answer can be formulated” and constitutes “an illusive space outside of not only history, but outside all binary relationships” (10). The situation of ‘in-betweenness,’ an intermezzo which results from the destruction and questioning of master codes manifests itself – on the spatial level – in the erasure of dichotomies and thus in cleansing literary places of conventional residue. As conventions dissolve, places undergo a transformation: they become open, fluid, hybrid, heterogenous and indetermined. Those characteristic features derive from several influential postmodern/post-structuralist spatial theories. “The landscapes of postmodern fiction,” argues Brian Jarvis, are indeed the “ambivalent geographies, ones which simultaneously resist and reproduce the material conditions in which they are produced” (80). Among the locations discussed, it is possible to recognise Michel Foucault’s heterotopias, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s smooth space, Marc Augé’s non-places or otherwise spaces originating in the process of disintegration and transformation. Hence, these postmodern concepts of space form the theoretical backbone of this study. They guide the process of analysis and enable the recognition of features common to the spatial formations in a selection of novels including In the Heart of the Country, Life and Times of Michael K, Disgrace, Age of Iron and Dusklands.

The pattern pursued in most chapters involves a continually expanding reflection on space. This widening horizon involves a passage from purely literary spatial discriminations of various forms of pastoral to miscellaneous alternative topographies. At first, conventional genres and modes of representation can be easily recognised. Soon these traditional differentiations between the country and the city are questioned. The subversion and dissolution of long-established Eurocentric and colonising spatial models takes the dispute from the domain of literary studies into the territories of interdisciplinary research. Ecocriticism and postmodern concepts of space call for a truly interdisciplinary interpretative apparatus. Sociology, biology, anthropology, philosophy, psychology and literary criticism enter and intermingle in order to facilitate the transcendence of former fixed world categorisations. Finally, it seems that selected postmodern theories of space ← 6 | 7 →coming from assorted discursive fields can be regarded as most appropriate for the description of literary spaces in the novels under discussion. Coetzee’s fiction not only comments on but participates in postcolonial discourse and, as Boehmer observes, “postcolonial and postmodern critical approaches cross in their concern with marginality, ambiguity, disintegrating binaries, and all things parodied, piebald, dual, mimicked, borrowed, and second-hand” (244). Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari and Augé, whose academic contribution and scientific accomplishments have been variously categorised as postmodern, post-structural or included under the broad term of cultural geography, provide an adequate interpretative instrument for the discussion of Coetzee’s spatial strategies. To understand what distinguishes their postmodern spatial categorisations, it is necessary to place them in the context of earlier theories of space.


V, 133
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
Postmoderne Topographien plaasroman Kolonialliteratur Südafrika (lit.) räumliche Konventionen
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. VI, 133 pp.

Biographical notes

Katarzyna Karwowska (Author)

Katarzyna Karwowska studied English Language and Literature at the Wrocław University. Her main scholarly interests include postcolonial writing and theory, postmodern theories of space, cultural geography and environmental criticism.


Title: Literary Spaces in the Selected Works of J.M. Coetzee
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142 pages