Book Of A Lifetime: Life and Times of Michael K, JM Coetzee

Julia Leigh
Friday 09 May 2008 00:00
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In 1994 I was studying law and philosophy, having made a conscious decision not to formally study literature lest my own "so-called creativity" fall victim to scholarly vivisection (a view I no longer hold: writing and criticism/ analysis are not always mortal foe).

I wanted to be a writer, and browsing in a tiny second-hand bookstore I spied What Henry James Knew by Cynthia Ozick. We'd studied Henry James at high school – he was a writer, I wanted to be a writer – so what did he know? I bought the book: a collection of literary essays. Ozick's essay entitled "The Sister Melons of JM Coetzee" served as my introduction to the Booker-Prize winning novel, Life and Times of Michael K (1984). What she wrote was so compelling that I immediately went to the university library, Aladdin's den, and borrowed the work.

I read it – and it made its deep impression on me. It is set in a place like South Africa – but not a real South Africa. It is a time of civil strife: there is a collapsing administration, roaming guerrillas. Michael K is a simple man, simple in the sense of simple-minded. A gardener, he endeavours to return his ailing mother to the countryside; she dies; he wanders on, constantly evading the authorities. At an abandoned farm he carefully grows food, tends his melons. He is taken prisoner by soldiers. And then – very late in the narrative – the authorial voice switches and we have the first-person notes of the prison-camp doctor who ministers to the starving prisoner. By switching voice the text cleverly evades authority. In the final short section we return to the third-person authorial voice, and we are once again with Michael K, who has managed to slip out of the prison and hopes to return to the countryside.

The ending left me in tears: here was something! This is what books were for! Looking back, I think I responded to Michael K's resolve, to his steadiness, his modest and determined way of being. And since that reading experience I've tried to read as much of Coetzee's oeuvre as I can.

Of course I'm not alone in admiring Coetzee: he has the Nobel Prize. Here are some examples of how others reacted to his work: the Irish Times called the first volume of his memoirs, Boyhood (1997), "intense and austere"; The Daily Telegraph thought it "as spare and lean as the Karoo flatlands which form its backdrop". The Independent thought the prose of Disgrace (1999) "chaste and lyrical".

None of these words has been used to describe Coetzee's style: baroque, dizzying, colourful, giddy, exuberant, hyperbolic, hyperreal, fantastic, picaresque, tragicomic, sprawling, sassy or snappy. Apples and oranges: through our reading we elect our affinities.

Julia Leigh's 'Disquiet' is published by Faber & Faber

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