Poetics of Self in J. M. Coetzee’s Fictionalized Memoirs

by Angela Müller (Author)
©2016 Thesis 286 Pages


This study explores the poetics and politics of self in J. M. Coetzee’s «autre»-biographical works «Scenes from Provincial Life». The author provides a detailed analysis of Coetzee’s conception of self in his fictionalized memoirs, as well as of philosophical, aesthetic and political implications of «autre»-biography. She reads these works as literary figurations of an estranged self, maintaining that they engage with deeply historical but also universal questions of the relation between self and power. Coetzee’s fictionalized memoirs, she argues, are thus not merely dramatizations of the inherent elusiveness of the self but a critique of systems and discourses of normativization and oppression.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • 1. He and His Men: J. M. Coetzee and Writing the Self
  • 1.1 Sort of Fiction: Introduction, Contextualization, Corpus
  • 1.2 Poetics of Self: Objective, Methodology, Structure
  • 2. Autre-Biography and Self: Theoretical Considerations
  • 2.1 Between Autos and Autre: The Ambiguity of Self
  • 2.1.1 Autre-Biography in Context
  • 2.1.2 Shifting Pronouns, Shifting Selves: The Displacement of the I
  • 2.1.3 Between Then and Now: The Fragmentarity of Self
  • 2.2 Politics of Belonging: The Alienness of Self
  • 2.2.1 “Outside Culture”?: Positioning the Self
  • 2.2.2 Intricate Relations: An Inventory of Self
  • 3. Boyhood: A Childhood (In)Between or Developing a Sense of Self
  • 3.1 “An Unnatural Family”: Relations as Predicament
  • 3.2 “A Burden of Imposture”: The Divided Self
  • 3.3 “An Uneasy Guest”: Intimations of (Un)Belonging
  • 3.4 “His Heart is Already Hurt”: Embodied Guilt
  • 3.5 Résumé: “Special” or “Set Apart?”
  • 4. Youth: A Youth Displaced or the (Un)Becoming of an Artist
  • 4.1 “Cut All Bonds”: Resigning from the Caste
  • 4.2 “Pretending to Be an Artist”: The (Un)True Self
  • 4.3 “Shut Out Forever”: Manifestations of (Un)Belonging
  • 4.4 “Lack of Heart”: The Cold Poet
  • 4.5 Résumé: “Graceless Colonial” or “Englishman”?
  • 5. Summertime: The Prodigal Son or a Narrative of Conciliation
  • 5.1 “Relations with Mr Coetzee”: The Self as Posthumous Other
  • 5.2 “A Better Son”: The Compassionate Self
  • 5.3 “Without a Homeland”: The Burden of (Un)Belonging
  • 5.4 “Wooden Man”: The (Dis)Embodied Self
  • 5.5 Résumé: “Finding his Feet as a Writer”!
  • 6. “Where One Goes From There”: Concluding Remarks
  • Works Cited

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1.  He and His Men: J. M. Coetzee and Writing the Self

Stockholm, December 7, 2003. The Nobel Lecture. Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, introduces the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2003: “An occasion like the Nobel Lecture,” says Engdahl, “inevitably puts the author in the centre as a public figure and a celebrity.” Directing “the attention away from oneself” at such an event, he continues, “may seem a hopeless undertaking.” “And yet,” Engdahl knowingly adumbrates, there might be ways which enable it, “literature being, after all, the third alternative to speaking and remaining silent.”1

The lecture that is delivered by the laureate, the South Africa-born writer and critic John Maxwell Coetzee, is just such an alternative: a literary miniature entitled “He and His Man.”2 The piece draws on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and on his own Robinsonade Foe (1986). In Coetzee’s lecture, Robinson Crusoe, by now an aged and solitary man living on the English coast, recounts reports seemingly sent to him by someone he calls “his man.” Insinuated, though not confirmed, is that this man is Daniel Defoe. He, Crusoe, so it seems in the tale, is the author; his man, Defoe, so it seems, is his creation. In switching and confusing the roles of Crusoe and Defoe, of character and author, historical self and writing self, Coetzee inquires into the nature of authorship, the relationship between writer and work, between author and character, and between the real and the fictional.3 The fictional creation gains authority while the author loses significance. And as Coetzee’s biographer J. C. Kannemeyer notes, ← 9 | 10 → “[u]ltimately it transpires that Coetzee’s lecture is not just about fictional characters. The third-person narrative is as little removed from his own experience as that in Boyhood and Youth” (2012: 562).

Like the lecture on Crusoe, Coetzee’s set of fictionalized memoirs,4 an autobiographical trilogy comprising the works Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and Summertime (2009), lately published in one volume under the title Scenes from Provincial Life (2011), directs the attention away from the author.5 The “splitting of selves” between historical self and the self of writing apparent in the lecture is also enacted in the memoirs (Attwell 2010: 170). Although they are autobiographical, on stage in these memoirs are fictional characters named John.6 These men, his men, are the author’s “former selves,” as the writer Per Wästberg says in the Nobel Award Ceremony Speech.7 Each memoir focuses on a different stage in the life of this ← 10 | 11 → young John. And just as Defoe hovers behind his own creation Crusoe, so the author Coetzee hovers behind his fictional creations, his men John.

1.1  Sort of Fiction: Introduction, Contextualization, Corpus

“‘Is it fiction?’

‘Sort of.’”

(Summertime 55)

In recent years, the conflation of fiction and reality, as well as of author and literary creation, has become a pervading concern in Coetzee’s writing. Yet the lines of demarcation between these poles have been blurry since his debut novel Dusklands (1974). Dusklands is in part a feigned historical and biographical documentary, in which a distant ancestor of Coetzee is involved, a “memoir of a kind,” as he writes in Doubling the Point (1992: 52).8 Moreover, deliberations on the predicament of how to recollect the life and the self in writing can be traced in the metafictional diary of Magda in In the Heart of the Country (1977), in the Magistrate’s failed attempt to record the events at the Empire’s frontier in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), and in Susan Barton’s auto/biographical endeavor in Foe (1986). Likewise, they are visible in the apologetic letters of the dying Mrs. Curren in Age of Iron (1990) and in The Master of Petersburg (1994), a fictional biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky, which is similarly engaged with the nature of confession.

In his later works, the nexus between self, author, and character becomes even more obscure. The protagonists of The Lives of Animals (1999), Elizabeth Costello (2003), Slow Man (2005), and Diary of a Bad Year (2007) self-reflexively incarnate the author John Coetzee and address the processes of literary creation. Through meta-reflections about fictional writing and authorship these texts expose the intricate relationship between the literary work and the persona of the writer and reflect on “the strange process of fictional writing” and “the uncertain origins of the words that one finds ← 11 | 12 → oneself writing” (Attridge 2005: 200). “Which comes first,” Coetzee therefore asks in the preamble before his Nobel Lecture, “he and his man or his man and he?”9 Which comes first: author or creation? “‘You came to me,’” says Paul Rayment, the fictional creation of the author figure Elizabeth Costello in Slow Man. She counters: “‘I came to you? You came to me!’” (Slow Man 85; original emphasis). The question of the authority over stories, which is implied in the notion of authorship, remains contested in the works of Coetzee.

Literature, as Engdahl observes, offers a way out of the dilemma of speaking about the self without speaking for oneself by speaking through literature. Coetzee apparently evades the authority that comes with taking a position of speaking and directs the attention away from himself through the fictional Nobel Lecture “He and His Man.” This is corroborated by his recent tendency to present speeches in the form of fictional stories, as is also exemplified by The Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello.10 David Attwell assumes that, among other things, “the fictional mode facilitates a certain self-protective and ironic detachment” (1999). Coetzee’s often-noted reluctance to assume a public role as writer and intellectual is owing to a sense of discomfort on his part to “speak the discourses of power” which he feels, as Attwell presumes, “is too high a price to pay” (2006: 26; cf. Poyner 2006). Self-conscious allegorical fiction of the kind of “He and His Man” becomes an alternative, which allows Coetzee to redirect the focus to more universal questions of literary writing and the role of the author rather than to himself.

The same is true for the research object of this study: the fictionalized memoirs. What may have seemed a paradox to parts of his readership, namely the exposure of such a seemingly reclusive author in an openly autobiographical work, is in fact a logical step, given his extended engagement with questions on the nature of authorship and writing and the ← 12 | 13 → self-reflexive gestures of his novels. In the memoirs, then, the voice of the authorial “I” is detached and transmuted into an impersonal “he.” They are narrated in the third person and focalized through their protagonists John. However, because the “I” of the author is not completely silent, the memoirs represent a third alternative to appraising the self between speaking and remaining silent.11

Coetzee’s memoirs cover the childhood, late youth, and early adulthood of their protagonists John in South Africa and London from 1949 until around 1977. They portray the boy’s coming-of-age in a linguistically, racially, and ethnically divided South Africa under apartheid, the conflictual relationship with his father, the ambivalent feelings for his mother, and the gradual estrangement from the violent politics in his country. The older John’s desire to leave South Africa behind and become a poet brings him to London. His life there, however, is marked by disappointments and failures and by a sense that he cannot “leave his South African self behind” (Youth 62). After an involuntary return to South Africa the young adult John publishes his first novel and reconciles with his father, yet he is still repelled by the regime that rules the country.

As far as the factual details of Coetzee’s life are concerned, they “correspond to a large degree with their rendering in Boyhood and Youth.” Summertime, on the other hand, proves to be “[t]he most elusive of the autobiographies.” Here above all, historical record is rearranged “with a view to arriving at a deeper account of the truth” (Kannemeyer 2012: 9–10). In all three cases, however, the factuality of dates and events recounted in the texts is intricately paired with the distanced perspective of fictional novels and elusive narrators and thus undermines the significance of factual accuracy in the thrust of the memoirs.12

In Boyhood and Youth these elusive narrators mediate the thoughts of the protagonists and focalizers John in the third person and in the present tense. In Summertime the protagonist is dead. Several interviewees recollect stories about him to a fictional biographer. The interviews are framed ← 13 | 14 → by two sets of fragmented notes composed by John and written in the vein of Boyhood and Youth. Whereas the displacement of the “I” and the use of the present tense conceal traces of retrospectiveness and autobiography, mentions of the author’s name or the use of the term “memoir” in the subtitle of Boyhood intimate that the narrated selves resemble, at least in part, the writing self.

While the memoirs are what Sue Kossew calls “a continuum in Coetzee’s life-writing” (2011: 9), Coetzee has addressed matters of life and self-writing exhaustively in his literary and critical writings throughout his career. Aside from the literary works listed above, the essay “Remembering Texas,” first published in the New York Times in 1984 under a different title,13 represents his initial engagement with self-representation, or as he writes, his “first foray into autobiography.” The “Texas” essay, to which he refers as “memoir,” is an ironic first-person recollection of his doctoral years at the University of Austin (Doubling 26). The inaugural lecture on “Truth in Autobiography” (1984) and the essay “Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky” (1985)14 followed shortly afterwards. Both interrogate the problematic relation between notions of self-reflection, confession, truth, and self-deception. His investment in auto/biography is also visible in the essays published in Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986–1999 (2001) and Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000–2005 (2007), where the majority of readings are biographical and some pieces discuss autobiographical texts.

The work Doubling the Point has a special significance within Coetzee’s critical encounter with autobiography. The collection of interviews and essays compiled in it has been described by the author “as part of a larger autobiographical text,” an intellectual autobiography of a sort as it traces the forces and processes of his theoretical endeavors (vii). The theme of autobiography frames the collection that opens and ends with Coetzee reflecting on the nature of “self-construction” (17), “self-writing” (18), and “the idea of the truth” (395), and dedicates a whole section to autobiography and confession. What Coetzee draws out of his engagement with this subject matter, and with Dostoevsky in particular, is that “the self cannot ← 14 | 15 → tell the truth of itself to itself and come to rest without the possibility of self-deception” (291). As Sheila Collingwood-Whittick neatly recounts, the self-centeredness so often inherent in autobiography “thwarts the realisation of the autobiographer’s desire to pin down and expose some final truth about himself.” Only a displacement or elimination of the “discursive, self-appraising, narcissistic ‘I’” can end the “vain and sterile soul-searching” and break the endless chain of self-deception (2001: 18).

Thus within the larger literary and critical engagement with notions of life- and self-writing delineated above, the fictionalized memoirs constitute a continuation yet, at the same time, inhabit a unique position. They depart from the author’s hitherto academic and essayistic approaches to the subject matter and use the medium of the novel – a trilogy of novels to be more precise – to explore the predicament of writing the self through a displacement of the “I”.

1.2  Poetics of Self: Objective, Methodology, Structure

“Who is to say that at each moment while the pen moves

he is truly himself? At one moment he might truly be himself,


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Selfhood Authorship Alienation Apartheid South Africa
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 286 pp.

Biographical notes

Angela Müller (Author)

Angela Müller studied German and English Literature at the Goethe University in Frankfurt and the University of Birmingham. She obtained her PhD in English Literary and Cultural Studies at both Gießen University and the Catholic University of Lisbon.


Title: «Autre»-Biography