Emigration, literary celebrity, and the autobiographical turn in J.M. Coetzee's later fiction

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Whereas commentary on autobiography in Coetzee tends to focus on the dynamics of secular confession and the idea of self-writing as 'autre-biography,' this thesis, taking the experience of emigration and literary celebrity as thematic pivots, argues that the protagonists of Coetzee's later fiction (Youth through Summertime) occasion a form of authorial self-disclosure that is not an end in itself but, with a nominal anchorage on Coetzee himself, a means of localising questions about literary genre, political complicity, the relation between author and character, the intersection of personal and collective history, and the social responsibility of the acclaimed writer. It is argued that the slippage of focus from the authorial personas in these fictions to the questions and critical voices they provoke nonetheless conspires to reaffirm the authority of the name and literary oeuvre' Coetzee. 'The thesis begins by examining the link in Youth between the protagonist's crisis of ethnic and literary identity and Coetzee's narrative strategy of subjective displacement (Chapter 1). It is shown that the refractive zone of questions in that fiction constitutes the self-qualifying reflex that becomes increasingly pronounced in the authorial surrogates and fictions that follow. Coetzee's representation of the acclaimed writer as a doubting, fallible, unheroic figure becomes in the case of Elizabeth Costello a rejection of the idea of the writer as a spokesperson for a group or cause and instead an opening for the pressures and responsibilities of living among others to be embodied and negotiated (Chapter 2). It is argued that Coetzee's Nobel Lecture provides a further example of this reserve about the reach of the writer's authority in the public realm: the deferral of authority in this text highlights by indirection an inconsistency in the Swedish Academy's invitation to Coetzee to speak for his work on the occasion of an award that celebrates its universal interpretability, its resistance to authorial meta-interpretation (Chapter 3). It is shown that in Slow Man, where the familiar metafictional interplay between the one who writes and the one who is written is framed on an emigrant history that is implicitly Coetzee's, the characters' contest of interpretation over photographs highlights the instability of the historical record - a point that holds for the text of Coetzee's personal history (Chapter 4). Emphasis on the nominal alignment of the author Coetzee and his authorial surrogate in Diary of a Bad Year governs a consideration of how the author's name- his proper name and reputation - focuses the condition of complicity with others as a reader and citizen; the question of whether the character JC speaks for Coetzee is revealed to be secondary to what it means to be held accountable for actions committed in the name of a group to which one belongs or set of interests to which one subscribes (Chapter 5). The thesis tracks the qualified textualisation of Coetzee 's authorial personas and history to Summertime, where' John Coetzee' is written out of an entanglement of acts of emigration and recollection in voices inflected with other histories than his own (Chapter 6).

Includes bibliographical references.