Michelle Kelly: ‘J. M. Coetzee, Autobiography, and Confession’

For this term’s Life-Writing Lunch the Centre welcomed Michelle Kelly, departmental lecturer in World Literatures at the University of Oxford, who came to talk about ‘J. M. Coetzee, Autobiography and Confession’. Kelly, currently at work on a book about the idea of confession that engages with Coetzee’s work, gave a fascinating paper about the role of confession as a life-writing genre in Coetzee’s well known trilogy: Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009).

Kelly started her talk by quoting a 1992 interview with Coetzee, where he questioned how to write up his own career: “But which facts? All the facts? No. All the facts are too many facts.  You choose the facts insofar as they fall in with your evolving purpose”. Kelly’s research in the newly available archive of Coetzee papers at the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas brought her face to face with the problem of selection and choice in the presence of a vast collection of facts. Painstakingly recording countless details from his life, Coetzee had ordered and archived a veritable treasure trove for biographers and scholars. With the exception of his diaries, which are expected to be included after his death, this “monumental act of recording and documentation”, as Kelly noted, seems to “promise all the stories”. Having described “all writing is autobiography”, Coetzee’s act of collecting the paper trail of his life seems to reinstate his belief that “everything you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it”.

Kelly clearly stated that her work on confession and Coetzee does not intend to read Coetzee’s fiction as confessional. Instead, she aims to study how Coetzee uses the confessional in his work. Kelly is interested in confession as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a term simply interchangeable with life-writing: she sees it as a kind of language that can provide “force” to a text. Kelly identified the central contradiction of confession as a process that is highly ritualized and mechanical, while at the same time seen as a free, liberating force that suggests “unmediated expression”. Kelly is interested in the modulation between these two meanings and the implication they have for autobiography. Kelly discussed the authoritative value of confession for autobiography, referring to the fundamental history of the term in legal practice.

Focusing on Coetzee’s 1985 essay ‘Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky’ where he asked “how does one start confessing”, Kelly argued that Coetzee found completion or closure impossible. The process of confessing resulted, therefore, in endless self-confession. Kelly moved on to Coetzee’s highly autobiographical trilogy to trace how his understanding of confession worked itself into these books. Kelly gave a stimulating close reading of the texts, tracing how motifs of confession were activated. In Boyhood and Youth, Kelly addressed the idea of the “shameful secret” as the trigger for structured revelations in the books. Shameful secrets constituting, of course, the highest valued form of confession. Kelly linked these secrets to the role of Apartheid in the books, alluding to the public discourse of separation taking place in South Africa. Another prominent motif in the trilogy was writing itself as a source of shame: writing as something that needed to be confessed. Kelly quoted Coetzee’s description of writing as “spilling mere emotion on to the page”. Summertime was identified as a statement on confession, particularly with the problem of ending. From Coetzee’s notes in his archive, Kelly traced him speculating how to end the book from the moment he started it. While on the face of it, this may be read as a mere formal problem, Kelly interpreted it as a more fundamental engagement with the problem of ending a confession that Coetzee addressed in his 1985 essay.

Kelly’s stimulating talk was followed by some thought-provoking questions. Hermione Lee, interested in the relationship between confession and autobiography, asked if the revelation of sins, shame, secrets or apologies was a prerequisite for autobiographical writing. Kelly did not think this was necessary, but pointed out the different expectations in other contexts: in a legal framework, for example, confession has very specific consequences, and in a therapeutic sense the force of confession is a healing requirement. Another member of the audience, in a question about self-scrutiny, confession and style in Summertime, opened up a discussion about the interesting associations between self-forgiveness and self-advertisement, leaving us with the fascinating question: to what extend can confession in literature be read as exhibitionism?

 

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