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

Angela Müller

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.

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


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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...

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