Displaced romanticism: searching for the self in J.M.Coetzee's autobiographical fiction

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis is a literary critical investigation into the strategies of self-definition at work in the autobiographical fiction of J.M. Coetzee. My focus falls on those of his novels that have a more-or less explicit autobiographical resonance (Boyhood, Youth, Elizabeth Costello, Diary of a Bad Year, Summertime), with supplementary forays into two additional books (Age of Iron and The Childhood of Jesus). My argument centres on the observation that Coetzee's work derives its affective force from the conflict he stages, time and again, between the desire for a transcendent sense of being, Romantic in origin, and the realization that being derives its co-ordinates from the discursive formations - ideological, socio-historical, philosophical, linguistic - that provide the structure of meaning for self-expression in writing. I introduce my argument by situating Coetzee's work according to a post-structuralist critical framework that emphasizes his strategies of subjective displacement. Our reading of his work, I then suggest, might benefit from a more considered evaluation of the persistent influence of a Romantic ideal concerning the primacy of subjective experience. In the first chapter I explore the conceptual tension that derives from these contrasting points of view by considering Coetzee's engagement with the tradition of confessional writing, arguing that he foregrounds the textual subject as the locus in which the truth of the self is to be sought. The second chapter examines the central role of the Karoo farm in the formation of the autobiographical subject in Coetzee's writing, and links it to a Romantic model of identification between the self and nature. In the third chapter I argue that Coetzee's awareness of socio-political realities inhibits the Romantic yearning for an authentic sense of self, even while he reformulates the idea of authentic voice as the expression of a politically and historically compromised subjectivity. Finally, in the last chapter I turn my attention to the authorial imprint that derives from the consistency of Coetzee's depiction of conflict between transcendent and contextual realities, and conclude by tracing the afterlife of this dynamic in his most recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus.

Includes bibliographical references.