Today we have an event summary of the recent “Coetzee’s Lives” Colloquium at OCLW. This summary was written by English DPhil students Eleni Philippou and Erica Lombard with Professor Elleke Boehmer.
The airy and finely crafted Leonard Woolf Auditorium was the perfect setting for the OCLW colloquium, the last of the year, on that arch artist, J.M. Coetzee, the South African (and now Australian) novelist and 2003 Nobel Laureate for Literature. Following on from a reading that J.M. Coetzee himself gave at Wolfson the evening before, the 13 June 2014 colloquium, entitled “Coetzee’s Lives”, sought through a discussion of Coetzee’s often self-reflexive work, to highlight questions of how we represent a life: how life might be used as material for fiction, and how life-writing takes fictional forms.
Organised by OCLW’s Deputy Director Professor Elleke Boehmer, together with English DPhil students Eleni Philippou and Erica Lombard, the afternoon began with a keynote address delivered by Professor David Attwell of the University of York, entitled “The Life of Writing in J.M. Coetzee: Autobiography into Fiction”. One of the world’s leading Coetzee scholars, Attwell shared with the audience some central observations from his forthcoming book, Face to Face With Time: the Authorship of J.M. Coetzee (2014), concerning how Coetzee has consistently, across his oeuvre, transmuted personal dilemmas and concerns into fiction. Based on his research into Coetzee’s newly available archive at the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas in Austin, USA, itself a highly crafted artefact, Attwell gave the audience a fascinating glimpse into the author’s writing process, revealing how Coetzee’s detached prose belies the deeply autobiographical and existential roots of his novels. Leading us on a deftly curated journey through the successive drafts of the novel that became Life & Times of Michael K (1983), Attwell detailed how Coetzee’s sparse, impersonal style is the end result of a long, painstaking, and sometimes painful, process by which Coetzee writes himself out of his work. In manuscript after manuscript, his life can be seen to give way or give up to fiction.
Attwell’s keynote address was followed by a panel discussion between Professor Elleke Boehmer, Professor Patrick Hayes, Dr Michelle Kelly, and Professor Peter D. McDonald, all members of the English Faculty here at Oxford who have worked on Coetzee. The panellists’ responses to the keynote centred, firstly, on the implications of Coetzee’s archive as a curated “life”, with Boehmer suggesting that we might consider the archive, the work, and the life as three mutually illuminating aspects of Coetzee’s literary life. Secondly, the discussion turned to what Attwell’s research suggests about the location of the writing self in Coetzee’s work, and the critic’s desire to uncover the traces that remain despite Coetzee’s self-effacing process of writing.
The final section of the colloquium comprised a series of short papers presented by six early career researchers, including four current Oxford DPhil students. Each paper interpreted the colloquium’s theme “Coetzee’s Lives” in rich and innovative ways, and, indeed, covered the gamut of human life from motherhood and childhood to death and decomposition. The first speaker, Eleni Philippou, presented a paper entitled “‘Sons and Lovers Mothers’: Coetzee on Motherhood”, which highlighted the surprising resonances between the complex mother-son relationships in Coetzee’s memoir Boyhood and D.H. Lawrence’s autobiographical Sons and Lovers. Alicia Broggi followed with “Demythologizing Discourse ‘to make writing possible’: Calvinism in Dusklands”, a fascinating exploration of the ways in which Coetzee contends with and works out Calvinism, one of the shaping forces of his own Afrikaner history, in his first novel, Dusklands.
“Coetzee on Criticism; Coetzee and Criticism”, Andrew Dean’s paper, investigated Coetzee’s deep investment in exploring the limits of critical discourse, and how this impacts the formal aspects of his texts. Dean’s paper fitted perfectly with “‘Not poetry, economy’: J.M. Coetzee and Authorship”, Charlotta Salmi’s eloquent piece that considered Coetzee as a skilled craftsman, carefully balancing the act of personal confession with the reserve involved in the calculated crafting of words in fiction.
Jarad Zimbler’s paper, “Death Writing: An Essay in Decomposition”, followed. Conceived of as a kind of farewell as Zimbler prepares to move beyond Coetzee in his own work, this poetic experimental paper was an emotionally and semantically rich exploration of remains in Coetzee’s oeuvre. The colloquium ended on a lighter note with Erica Lombard’s “Making Fun of Coetzee”, a tongue-in-cheek yet itself in part autobiographical exploration of how Coetzee’s very serious, even godlike, status in South African literature makes the very act of criticism fraught for those wishing to speak about him in less-than-reverential tones.
Its title part-riffing on one of Coetzee’s own titles, The Lives of Animals, the colloquium in several ways embodied new “lives” for Coetzee criticism, and articulated a new boldness in approaching the links between life and fiction in his work. Wolfson President Professor Dame Hermione Lee ended the afternoon’s events by asking the senior Coetzee scholars where they thought the future of Coetzee criticism was headed, and how this had changed from when they had first started writing about Coetzee. Not only were these critics clear that they felt the “Australian” Coetzee provided critics with worthwhile avenues of research, but they also asserted that their current encounter with the new cohort of aspirant literary critics at the colloquium boded well for future work. If the OCLW colloquium could be held to offer a taste of where future discussion of the multivalent “lives” of Coetzee is going, then it would seem that various fascinating critical and representational possibilities are to come.