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Paul Klee, mystery man

Some highlights the Sunday Times Book Review:

A new biography about Arthur Koestler, The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, by Michael Scammell made the cover. Koestler’s work, The Sleepwalkers, was one of the books that launched me during adolescence into a lifelong interest in the philosophy and history of science. (Koestler’s book led me in turn to one of the most seminal books of my teenage years, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn.) Based on the review by Christopher Caldwell, Koestler’s personal life falls into that oft-encountered category of I-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-acknowledge-that-a-brilliant-person-is-a-flaming-jerk-in-real-life (and there are oh so many artists who are cohabiting in that particular domain.)

Here’s a taste:

Scammell’s is an authorized biography and a sympathetic one. But the Koestler he depicts is consistently repugnant — humorless, megalomaniac, violent. Like many people concerned about “humanity,” he was contemptuous of actual humans. He ignored and snubbed his mother (who had pawned her last diamond to pay for his passage to Palestine), and he rebuffed every attempt to arrange a meeting between him and his illegitimate daughter. What made him such a creep? Perhaps alcohol — Koestler threw tables in restaurants and was arrested for drunken driving on many occasions. Perhaps insecurity — he was tormented by his shortness (barely 5 feet 6 inches) and used to stand on tippy-toe at cocktail parties. “We all have inferiority complexes of various sizes,” Koestler’s Communist editor Otto Katz once told him. “But yours isn’t a complex — it’s a cathedral.”

That’s a great line, one that I’ll use again: “Yours isn’t a complex — it’s a cathedral.”

Continuing on a theme of the great ones who aren’t so great in real life: John Simon has reviewed The Bauhaus Group, Six Masters of Modernism by Nicholas Fox Weber. Highlighting the lives of Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef and Anni Albers, Weber spends time exposing the personality quirks of Klee:

While helpfully discussing the work of Paul Klee, Weber also makes hay of the painter’s eccentricity. Klee was more involved in communicating with birds and plants than with human beings. He never in his life thought of concealing what was either childlikeness or schizophrenia, and blithely expressed it in his art. His upscale marriage to Lily Stumpf, a doctor’s daughter, provided him not only with an accompanist for his violin playing, but also with her income as a piano teacher when she was not being treated for “nervous disorders.” Paradoxically, this very modern painter seems to have played only Haydn, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.

Although he was the chief nurturer of their only child, Felix, and passionately involved in cooking, Klee was almost as devoted to Fritz, his beloved cat, to whom “he always sent greetings” in his letters home. “Laundry is the household task I haven’t tried yet,” he once wrote. “If I could take it on, I’d be more universal than Goethe.” Whereas in his favored park walks he would stop to talk to a snake, his class lectures were often incoherent balderdash. But his epistolary accounts of what he cooked or ate were clear and explicit.

Weber dwells on Klee’s sexual ambivalence. His subjects included cross-­dressing and hermaphroditism, dominatrixes and evil androgynes. As he wrote, “When girls wept I thought of pudenda weeping in unison.” In his lectures, he mostly discussed natural phenomena; his first lesson was: draw a tree.

To him, Ravel’s music was coarse, and his friend Hindemith’s “stark.” He ate “more cauliflower than anyone else in history,” considered Americans the only ones ignorant of how to live, frequently spoke a single word instead of a sentence and conducted to the gramophone records the Gropiuses played. Klee’s eyes, Weber writes, “usually were looking upward, as if connecting with the heavenly sphere.” And despite his “belonging to the obscure reaches of the cosmos, two of the essentials of his life — food and art — were of a piece.”

A final debunking of public vs private image, and this one done by the artist himself: Jonathan Dee’s review of J. M. Coetzee third “autobiographical” installment/novel, Summertime. Coetzee lingers in that zone between truth and fiction, personal aggrandizement and self-abnegation, inviting the reader to ask difficult questions.

The vandalism Coetzee commits upon the easily checked facts of his own life ultimately serves to sharpen a question that does seem genuine, and genuinely self-­indicting: Doesn’t being a great artist demand, or at least imply, a certain greatness of spirit as well?

“Consider,” says Julia. “Here we have a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect, or can connect only briefly, intermittently. Yet how does he make his living? He makes his living writing reports, expert reports, on intimate human experience. Because that is what novels are about — isn’t it? — intimate experience. . . . Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

Yes and no. The gap between the life we live and the one of our imagination can be gynormous. Not a requirement for genius but certainly a common (and very human) shortfall.



J. M. Coetzee. I am in awe of his work, even though its textures, angles and palettes are so different from my own creative matrix. In a very readable New Yorker review by James Wood of Coetzee’s new book Diary of a Bad Year, I found a few passages that are just too good to keep to myself.

Coetzee is interested in how we profess ideas, both in life and in novels. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually stable, the oaken pile of principle driven reassuringly deep into the ground. All the Presidential-campaign cant about “values” testifies to this; to flip-flop is to flop. But what if our ideas are, rather, as Virginia Woolf imagined consciousness: a constant flicker of different and self-cancelling perceptions, entertained for a moment and then exchanged for other ones?

My point of view exactly. I have never understood the high value placed on unrelenting (and unenlightening) consistency.

Unlike the philosopher, the novelist may take an idea beyond its rational terminus, to the point where the tracks start breaking up. One name of this tendency is the religious, the realm where faith replaces wisdom.

In the last entry of this novel [Diary of a Bad Year], “On Dostoevsky,” Senor C writes:

“I read again last night the fifth chapter of the second part of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, the chapter in which Ivan hands back his ticket of admission to the universe God has created, and found myself sobbing uncontrollably.”

It is not the force of Ivan’s reasoning, he says, that carries him along but “the accents of the anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world.” We can hear the same note of personal anguish in Coetzee’s fiction, even as that fiction insists that it is offering not a confession but only the staging of a confession. His books make all the right postmodern noises, but their energy lies in their besotted relationship to an older, Dostoyevskian tradition, in which we feel the desperate impress of the confessing author, however recessed and veiled.

Coetzee is SO Dostoyevskian, something I had not named until Wood stated it so clearly. And such a rarity for a writer at this point in our history.