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the complete review - fiction
Diary of a Bad Year
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A- : nicely done -- though if anything not quite daring enough
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Diary of a Bad Year is a remarkable book full of passion and wisdom and constantly illuminated by the author's adherence to the truth that shines from the smallest situation or the touch of sensuality that trails from the margin of the most momentous thought.
It is a ravishingly beautiful book made up of the most ordinary things in the world (...) and makes them into a thing of music and magic that succeeds in disclosing a quite disarmingly grave and poignant apprehension of the mystery of life, but remains, at the same time, a comedy of human happenstance. It's the co-ordination of the different elements of this fiction that makes these fragments flow and complicate and interconnect so that this weird concoction of a novel that seems for all the world like a set of rejected drafts left to haphazardly infect each other is, in fact, more like the platonic idea of a work that is more than the sum of its parts." - Peter Craven, The Age
- "Coetzee's latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year, has much to say about the West and its shapeless war on terror, taking as its starting point the idea that the liberal democratic state, for all its valorization of representative politics, is as authoritarian a system as any (.....) Diary of a Bad Year may be his most successful diagnosis yet of what we are suffering from, one that even offers hope in the form of resistance, critical thought, and the odd, imperfect humanity that emerges in the story of Anya and Señor C. In other writers, such hope would appear trite, but we know that Coetzee is no sentimentalist." - Siddhartha Deb, Bookforum
- "As in all his fiction, though, the didactic strain is predominant. (...) Whether or not one enjoys his editorialising (...) rather depends on one's point of view. (...) And despite the clunky jump cuts, and a general absence of jokes, there is no doubt that Diary of a Bad Year is, if not a masterpiece, then at least the work of a master." - Lewis Jones, Daily Telegraph
- "It is a testament to Coetzee’s skill as a writer that the philosophical study that comprises half of this new novel has a recognisably academic voice, but this is also the voice of a living, compelling character. Coetzee’s talent is to discover character in the play of apparently dry theory." - Daniel Swift, Financial Times
- "The story runs on parallel tracks, divided into three sections on each page, a device that effectively fractures and diffuses reader concentration. (...) The problem is that none of the three characters' lives is quite compelling enough to merit Coetzee's talent Diary of a Bad Year is a little too slight and a little too pastiche to do justice to its subject or rise above its fragmented format; the love triangle is not ultimately much more than the sum of its parts: strong beginning, tepid middle, disappointing end." - Lydia Millet, Globe & Mail
- "The ensuing comedy of conflicting perspectives, of high rhetoric and low aims, is an amazingly strange thing for Coetzee to have decided to write. (...) (T)his isn't a book you'd press on someone new to this great writer. But it's much more than an exercise in letting off some steam inside a tricky fictional frame. Funnier than anything else he's written, if sometimes in a rather donnish way, it eventually becomes unexpectedly moving, offering surprises while avoiding a final thunderclap with the restraint that Coetzee's readers have learned to expect." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian
- "So each page comes split into three stacked levels, with the axioms at the top qualified in two voices by emotion, anecdote and intrigue. This hypertextual polyphony becomes a source of poignancy, even pleasure, as human factors messily revise all the dogmas booming out above. (...) At first, Diary of a Bad Year feels as if Coetzee has thrown off that weight in favour of a stately ramble through big ideas, pegged to proper fiction by the slenderest of threads. Yet the human drama does take hold." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
- "The structure of the book is intriguing and very deftly handled (.....) It is a revealing book, a wonderful book of essays, a subtle and touching near love story, and an autobiography, an extraordinary account of John Coetzee's deepest preoccupations and beliefs. (...) If you are interested in literature, ideas and the reach of art deep into the heart of humanity, you must read this book." - Justin Cartwright, Independent on Sunday
- "Ainsi, on pourrait paradoxalement lire Journal d’une année noire comme un texte engagé contre la littérature engagée. Mais ce serait méconnaître son caractère romanesque qui devient plus prégnant au fil des pages. L’émotion que dégage le texte vient de ce qu’il s’agit d’un roman sur la déchéance, physique, intellectuelle." - Mathieu Lindon, Libération
- "Contemporizing and extemporizing in ways that make Diary of a Bad Year feel very unlike a novel and more like diffuse commentary, Coetzee has created a clever superstructure filled with philosophical self-interrogation on questions of political, artistic and erotic moralities. (...) The most rewarding way to read this novel is to complete each layer by layer." - Art Winslow, The Los Angeles Times
- "Coetzee en "gourou", Coetzee en témoin de son temps, en romancier virtuose, en mélomane, en lecteur, en diariste déguisé : c'est toutes ces facettes que l'on discerne dans le Journal d'une année noire. Pas étonnant que le livre se termine par un cri d'amour à Jean-Sébastien Bach. La musique, encore et toujours. Des lignes mélodiques qui se croisent, des variations à foison: un subtil art de la fugue." - Florence Noiville, Le Monde
- "At first, each layer is self-contained within its page, but as desires become more exigent and narrative momentum builds, Coetzee starts to violate the integrity of the structure, running first paragraphs and then sentences across the page break, forcing us to read out of sequence, make our own unsatisfying choices. A temporal friction also develops. (...) The scenario, like the prose, is mercilessly spare: two wills face to face, scraping together like metal against metal. In the normal course of things, the white protagonist is inexorably stripped of every comfort and dignity, the bare bones of the human situation exposed with an allegorical directness reminiscent of Beckett. But here, Coetzee gives us a soft landing. Instead of humiliation and suffering, compassion and communion. He seems to be mellowing with age." - William Deresiewicz, The Nation
- "Aber halt. Solche Naivität und Traulichkeit ist ungefähr das Letzte, was man dem äusserst reservierten und verschlossenen Coetzee zuschreiben dürfte. Statt, wie es die (auch vom Autor gesteuerte) Versuchung nur allzu nahe legt, das Buch als weitgehend ungefilterte und auf dem Satinkissen einer Liebes- und Eifersuchtsgeschichte präsentierte Kollektion von Meinungsäusserungen des Nobelpreisträgers zu lesen, wird man das Augenmerk auch auf die sichtbaren Brechungen und diskreten Fissuren lenken müssen, die dem Roman eingeschrieben sind." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "I enjoyed it, and I admired it, but I was aware as I was reading it that this kind of novel is an acquired taste only a small minority will be interested in acquiring. (...) Diary of a Bad Year is writerly in the extreme. On every page it forces the reader to make choices, to be active. Mr. Coetzee provides three strands of a story and invites us to braid them in any way we see fit." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer
- "Has a white space ever worked so hard? In the gap one falls between worlds. Above, the intellectual life; below, the affective life. Strength above, weakness below. Above, the grand generalization; below, the particular itch of a feeble body, not yet ready to give up the ghost of bodily desire. (...) Coetzee has written a great deal about the perplexities, shifts, and accommodations of a writer's life, but never so cogently as in Diary of a Bad Year. (...) The Diary, by contrast -- and in great contrast to Coetzee's last novel, Slow Man -- is nimble, at times frisky, as it keeps its reader's attention on the move, above and below and between the lines, in and out of different frames of reference." - Hilary Mantel, The New York Review of Books
- "Here's a novel that can be read three different ways, none of them wholly satisfying. You can't read any one part without becoming aware that you're ignoring the others. If you tried to read them all at once, you'd go nuts. (...) For all his emphasis on free will, Mr. Coetzee often suggests that human beings, left unchecked, are like higher carnivores who play with their prey before consuming it. Suggestion, though, is as far as he goes. Precisely because it's impossible to read three parts simultaneously, or hear them without succumbing to a confused babble of voices, Diary of a Bad Year suggests that no work of literature can do complete justice to the multiple experiences it evokes and represents; it can only gesture to them, leaving us to assemble the pieces." - Marco Roth, The New York Sun
- "J.M.Coetzee's novel Diary of a Bad Year is something of a self-managed funeral, but a lavish one: mordant, funny and wise." - Richard Eder, The New York Times
- "Diary of a Bad Year coerces us to harden what Coleridge identified as "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith" into a willed suspension of disbelief, an act that is conscious, purposeful and informed. To want to be told a story built up "out of nothing," to have our edification with a spoonful of fiction, would seem to be an old-fashioned, even prelapsarian desire. This novel’s fall from the grace of a purely imagined world is a matter of self-conscious nakedness, of insisting we see undisguised rhetorical tricks we might prefer cloaked with artifice." - Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review
- "Coetzee explicitly complicates the question of his paternity, so that these books read less like confessions than like books about confession. Lest that sound dry, it should be said that Diary of a Bad Year is an involving, argumentative, moving novel: if not quite "great-souled," then deep-souled. (...) These essays are always interesting, and some are dazzling. (...) Coetzee wants to interrupt the usual smoothness because, in part, he wants to remind us of the provisionality, the unfinishedness, of ideas as we encounter them in novelistic form. The diary excerpts in the lower parts of the page function as the rebellious downstairs of this intellectual mansion (...) In truth, one reads the top section of each page with mounting excitement, and the bottom two sections rather dutifully." - James Wood, The New Yorker
- "Its ambitions to three-dimensional status are fitful -- it bears the same relationship to a novel as a hologram does to a sculpture. (...) The resulting hybrid text is more readable than it sounds, even when an incident in one of the personal narratives carries on over the chapter break between essays. But how seriously are we meant to take the philosophical speculations in the essays ? (...) It's hard to engage in logical combat and to surrender imaginatively on the same page." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer
- "The parallel texts are in some ways the best thing about the book. Coetzee pulls off the contrapuntal threading quite skillfully. It is not the least difficult to follow. Still, there are problems -- though of a subtler nature." - Frank Wilson, Philadelphia Inquirer
- "As this unfolds, the triptych narrative never ceases to call attention to itself, inviting the reader to note the continuous interplay between C's essay and his diary and Anya's own earthy take. But as sentences start running unfinished from one section to the next, Coetzee also tempts us to flip ahead, to read each narrative separately, to undermine his own complicated structure. What all this amounts to is intriguing but increasingly peculiar: A sharply unconventional story about a novelist who can no longer tell a story, and who seems to closely resemble the author." - Megan Harlan, San Francisco Chronicle
- "In some ways Diary of a Bad Year feels like Disgrace all over again, but in a different register: this time self-reflective, political, literary. It is much the inferior book, but it remains a fascinating piece of writing. (...) These Brechtian tactics certainly keep us on our toes. But just occasionally the tap dance becomes tedious." - Sebastian Smee, The Spectator
- "Do not miss this book, which reads almost like a man saying goodbye, restlessly surveying his work and thanking the artists who have given him pleasure (.....) Diary of a Bad Year is a brilliant piece of writing, probably his best since Disgrace (.....) Despite its grave theme, this is a high-spirited and even a happy book." - Maggie Gee, Sunday Times
- "Inevitably, all this raises again the question of how to read the three strands vying for space on these pages. The sensible thing to do, I think, is to read each independently, and then to read them again. That is the only way, it seems to me, of capturing even an impression of the complex interplay among the strands and the fragile relationship between the doddering writer and the young woman who emerges in the two narratives. (...) My first reaction to this book was largely unfavourable. It smacked of a gimmicky attempt to dress up some fragments and occasional pieces. Subsequent readings revealed an unexpected perspective. The interplay of the three voices allows for rich possibilities of meaning, implication and feeling, the kind of writing that Coetzee's alter-ego admires so much. In short, this is a very peculiar book, but more substantial and rewarding, I think, than a mere jeu d'esprit." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald
- "Diary of a Bad Year offers a complex and ultimately moving portrait of the writer wrestling with thoughts that he recognises to be self-hamstrung, and with opinions that he knows are already outdated (.....) It is a thoroughly unselfpitying portrayal of loneliness: of an old man, stranded in a foreign country and left behind by the tides of change" - Caroline Moore, The Telegraph
- "Never less than an uncompromisingly cerebral delight, this book offers manifold exaltations, one of which is the ways in which the three strands braid with each other, some of the linkages metaphorical, some gradually illustrative in oblique ways, others musical in how they pick up tones, variations and themes. But this is no game: the quietly melancholic meditation on ageing and mortality and the way that it inflects the interaction between J.C. and Anya could break your heart." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times
- "Diary of a Bad Year proves that Coetzee remains the master of the brutal, the unpoetic, the relentlessly real, in the modern sense, unfailingly setting up an equation between the form of the prose itself and the desolation of the experience it describes. (...) In its skilful deployment of characters who have a rich significance beyond their individual function, its wry exploration of the failures of reciprocity between the self and the other, and its examination of philosophies of community, atonement and sacrifice, this generic cross-breed stands up well next to Coetzee’s previous books. (...) Diary of a Bad Year offers us a far more interesting, and provocative, handling of the material covered in Coetzee’s real-life critical and discursive essays than the latter themselves do." - Elizabeth Lowry, Times Literary Supplement
- "Diary of a Bad Year is his most technically ambitious work yet, a three-tiered concoction that attempts to meld essay, fiction, and confessional memoir. (...) The elements that compose Diary of a Bad Year are so compelling that it's not easy to pin down precisely why they don't come together as a whole. Coetzee's technique isn't a gimmick, but the way it's used here sometimes seems that way. There's an odd mismatch in this self-consciously postmodernist presentation of obviously anti-postmodernist ideas, which include Coetzee's loathing for the coarsening of language and music in the modern world." - Allen Barra, The Village Voice
- "Diary of a Bad Year is an ingenious work that rivets the reader's attention, and it cannot have been easy to write. (...) So it turns out in the end that Coetzee has written a sometimes sentimental love story that plays out nicely to the legato accompaniment of his pronouncements, political and cultural, some of which hit the bull's eye while some come to the verge of pomposity." - Louis Begley, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Diary of a Bad Year looks like a challenge to the novel-form, presented with the pages divided into first two and then three parts, each a different narrative.
In fact, it is fairly straightforward.
The top part of the page is given over to essayistic pieces, the book's main character, an author, having been invited to contribute to a German book of Strong Opinions: "Six eminent writers pronounce on what is wrong with today's world".
(Even in just describing the project Coetzee is able to make his small points: "The French rights are already sold, but not the English, as far as I know.")
The first part of the book is dominated by these 31 short thought-pieces, on everything from bird flu to intelligent design, Guantanamo Bay to paedophilia.
A second, shorter part, called 'Second Diary' continues in the same vein, though a bit more personally and generally, as if the author wanted to continue with this exercise even after he had completed the project he had signed on for.
Below these non-fiction pieces on each page comes the author's first-person account, concurrent with the pieces but on an entirely different track.
It begins with him finding himself attracted to a neighbour, Anya, who lives with an investment consultant, Alan, and convincing her to do some secretarial work for him -- to type up the 'Strong Opinions'.
As Alan later tells him: "You're a bit of a dreamer, Juan. A dreamer but a schemer too", and that combination is hard at work here, the old man letting himself get distracted by this attractive woman, dreaming and scheming (fairly effectively) how to make her part of his pretty sorry life.
She knows the score, of course, but she's willing to go along with it.
Once Anya plays along and starts working for him her voice is added to the mix, a third narrative, more closely tied to the second as we are given his and hers perspectives.
As if that weren't quite enough, Coetzee gives considerable amount of her space over to Alan and what he has to say about the whole thing, and, while everything Alan says is filtered through her, when it comes to what amounts to the central confrontation it's almost all his words.
The are interesting dynamics at work here, and the reader, privy to both the author and Anya's thoughts throughout, without intermediation, gets a very direct view of the goings-on.
The somewhat menacing figure of Alan, who goes so far as to install spyware on the author's computer and proves himself a schemer too in suggesting he take over the author's finances (without his knowledge) to everyone's benefit, shapes it all into an odd three-way relationship; it's Alan, too -- the figure not directly allowed his own voice -- who is at fault when all the ties are ultimately broken (or look to be broken).
The author is a Coetzee-like figure, slightly older (born in 1934, rather than 1940), but also from South Africa and now living in Australia, and also the author of a novel titled Waiting for the Barbarians.
Anya generally refers to him as Señor C; " calling me Señor or perhaps Senior" is how he hears it, and, as in Coetzee's most recent novels, old-age preoccupations are again a prominent part of the book.
It is the essays that make up the bulk of the novel.
The personal notes of the author and Anya rarely amount to more than a few lines each on each page.
So what is Coetzee after ?
"Why is it so hard to say anything about politics from outside politics ?" the author wonders at the end of the first piece.
"Why can there be no discourse about politics that is not itself political ?"
That certainly seems part of what Coetzee is wrestling with -- and soon enough he has Anya complaining:
Write about cricket, I suggest.
Write your memoirs.
Anything but politics.
The kind of writing you do doesn't work with politics.
She thinks he should: "Write about the world around you".
He doesn't disagree, of course, not entirely, but he's not sure how to go about it -- and certainly not sure about letting politics go.
Write about cricket ?
"The fifth and last cricket test between England and Australia ended yesterday", he begins one of the pieces in the second part of the book -- the essays not meant for the German collection.
It's a much more self-revealing piece -- confessional, even -- yet the political -- in this case specifically the contrast between the masses and individual (and his inability to be part of the masses, whether in celebrating a cricket victory or, of course, its more political manifestations) -- remains inescapable.
Indeed, even as he stands apart from almost all of society, even as he stands very much alone and just makes these grand pronouncements and judgements on democracy and the events of the day and everything else he is painfully aware of his role as artist and individual, and constantly fighting feelings of inadequacy and futility in these roles.
Anya asks him why he doesn't write another novel -- "Isn't that what you are good at, novels ?"
Tellingly it is in her section that this exchange is conveyed; on the same pages the author recounts his conversation with her about her use of birth control and having children.
He claims not to have the endurance for novel-writing any longer: "It is too much for me as I am today."
Anya thinks it's the better approach:
Still, I said, we have all got opinions, especially about politics.
If you tell a story at least people will shut up and listen to you.
A story or a joke.
Of course, Coetzee has it both ways here, propping up his opinions, as it were, with a story, offering a foundation which he might hope would get people to shut up and listen but also getting across his opinions without having to dress them up in fiction.
Oddly, it's the story that turns out to be the novel's greater weakness.
The old man's lust for the young woman and the way she plays along are fine but not sustained enough; the Alan-complications work well for a while -- yet another critical interpretation of the author -- but then veer off into the almost sensationally-simplistic.
The opinions themselves are often interesting and well-expressed, with Coetzee also short-circuiting criticism by having Anya and/or Alan raise objections, but it's an odd-lot collection that doesn't really add up to a whole.
It's also hard not to read a certain condescension into them, especially as so much of the book seems preoccupied by the question of 'why bother ?' trying to explain and reason.
His first audience, Anya, is intelligent but the appeal she has for the author is largely physical, and it's easy for him to essentially ignore her opinions.
Yes, he's bothered by an inability to convey 'politics' etc, but what can he expect from her and the likes of her ?
The distant, language-removed German audience might still be up to it, but Anya ?
What benefit she derived from that international schooling is not clear.
She speaks French with an accent the French probably find charming but has not heard of Voltaire.
She thinks Kyoto is a misspelling of Tokyo.
But Coetzee doesn't take himself too seriously, having some fun with how Anja sees it too:
Señor C has opinions about God and the universe and everything else.
He records his opinions (drone drone) which I dutifully type out (clickety clack) and somewhere down the line the Germans buy his book and pore over it (ja ja).
And Coetzee does also have her wonder: "But what about me ? Who listens to my opinions ?", another variation of that fundamental question of his novel, of what matters (and who matters, and how voices can be heard and counted).
The very looseness of the essay-pieces -- fifty-five short essays that cover a broad range of subjects (even if certain themes do dominate)
-- also make the disconnect with the author's (and Anya's) day-to-day lives (and relationship) seem more pronounced.
This almost fragmentary presentation -- rather than one or a few sustained pieces -- underlines some of what is Coetzee is trying to convey, and certainly adds to the feel of the impossibility of getting an easy grasp on these questions, but it also lessens the impact of much of what Coetzee is arguing; inevitably the pieces feel more casual than they are.
The Anya-figure is also somewhat troubling, her voice at times seeming too much of a ventriloquist act.
Coetzee's voice is meant to be behind the author's, but it's also sometimes hard not to see his as Anya's as well -- her account in fact his wishful thinking.
Even when she sounds harshest about the author, it's hard not to get the creepy feeling that Coetzee is chastising himself, such as when he has Anya imagine:
There is a pair of panties of mine he pinched from the dryer, I'm sure of it.
My guess is he unbuttons himself when I am gone and wraps himself in my undies and closes his eyes and summons up visions of my divine behind and makes himself come.
And then buttons up and gets back to John Howard and George Bush, what villains they are.
There's also that conclusion, Anya having left Alan (and the author) but holding out the promise of a return and specifically that he won't die alone -- not holding it out to the author, who she doesn't want told about her plans, but, it seems, to Coetzee.
(That this is also a book about dying also seems clear from the one essay which appears entirely on its own, the pages it appears on doing without either the author or Anya's accounts, 'On the afterlife'.)
Diary of a Bad Year is (somewhat surprisingly) a gripping read.
The three-part presentation isn't an undue burden on the reader; the book can't be read like your usual novel, but it doesn't require that much more concentration or contortions to keep track of everything.
Diary of a Bad Year is a novel of ideas, and the fictional threads running below the essays keep Coetzee's opinions from coming across as too much in-your-face, or forced onto the reader.
And there is some overlap: the underlying story does add to the essay-opinions, even when Coetzee uses it to point out their weaknesses.
He is not entirely successful, but it is one technique for trying to turn a writer's usual monologue into a dialogue.
If anything, Coetzee could have been more daring about it, pushing all parts of the novel harder than he does.
Still, even as is Diary of a Bad Year stands easily above most of the fiction of the day, thought-provoking and entertaining both.
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Diary of a Bad Year:
Other books by J.M.Coetzee under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
John M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940.
He has won many literary prizes, and was the 2003 Nobel laureate in literature.
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© 2007-2011 the complete review
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