Diary of a Bad Year (2007): Coetzee between essay and autofiction
In his ‘Australian’ phase (that is, after 2002) J.M. Coetzee seems to have taken a decidedly anti-narrative turn towards hybridization of non-fiction and auto-fiction. In particular, Diary of a Bad Year is marked by the polemic character of its social and political criticism, and by the author’s unusual willingness to acknowledge that analysis as his own, albeit in his typical oblique ways.
The work – which is neither an essay, nor a novel, and not even a diary but a mixture of the three, eluding any attempt to define its genre – dramatizes the difficulty of being a man and an intellectual in these times and at an old age, and settles it graphically by dividing the page in three horizontal sections in a Freudian and Dostoevskian succession. Freudian, because in the upper part one reads the ‘strong opinions’ (short pamphlets) by a certain ‘John C’ (a manifest alter ego for the author himself) whereas the lower sections tell about the solitude and shabbiness of the man writing those pamphlets, and of the infatuation that makes a caricature of him; Dostoevskian, because – as a real underground man – John C unveils a whole range of not always commendable motives prompting his activity as a writer and his life choices; and also because it is in the basement of his apartment block that he encounters the alluring young woman whom he will later offer a Dostoevskian job as a typist – whereas J.M. Coetzee has her perform the role of the implicit reader.
The partition of the page – which imposes a non-sequential reading, arduous even for expert readers – enables Coetzee to stage his abdication to authorial authority (because the ‘strong opinions’ in the upper part of the page are to be gradually influenced by the reader Anya, who will later be entrusted with the narratorial function) as well as to expose as fictional any attempt to draw novelistic and essayistic rhetoric apart.
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