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JM Coetzee’s irresistible late style

‘The Pole’ is a masterpiece-in-miniature, dealing with mortality, language, ‘anti-nationalism’ and the frequently cruel nature of the artistic enterprise

Chopin Monument, Warsaw. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Chopin Monument, Warsaw. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The philosopher Edward Said wrote that “Late style is what happens when art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality”. Said was talking about late-career works by great artists who refused to let advancing years or impending death corner them into creating ‘timely’ or ‘age-appropriate’ art — no accumulated wisdom here, no reconciliation with ageing and infirmity, no neat tying up of thematic cul-de-sacs for a ‘peaceful’ resolution. For Said, “lateness” as a stylistic feature involves “a quarrel with time”; these works represent “Death in a refracted mode, as allegory”. Said would have loved J.M. Coetzee’s recently published novella The Pole, a masterpiece-in-miniature where nearly every page contains counter-intuitive truth-telling about mortality, language, ‘anti-nationalism’ and the frequently cruel nature of the artistic enterprise.

Divided into six chapters, the narrative follows the inception, conclusion and aftermath of a brief relationship between 70-year-old Polish pianist Witold and a Barcelona socialite called Beatriz, a married woman in her late 40s who has grown-up kids, an emotionally distant husband and “absolutely no time for word games, circumlocutions, veiled meanings”. She finds him vaguely irritating, but her good manners are mistaken for romantic interest and before long, he’s writing to her, declaring his love, inviting her on a beach holiday. Eventually, she “out of pity gave him his desire” but breaks it off soon after, not giving it another thought. Until one day, when she receives a manuscript that he has written, a series of poems in Polish dedicated to “Beatrice” (the poet Dante’s beloved), and is forced to confront her true feelings about the affair.

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From the beginning, the coming together of Witold and Beatriz involves the “quarrel with time” that Said spoke of. He’s 70, she’s not yet 50. He was born in a ravaged Poland in the middle of World War II, she has “never known hunger”. She struggles to contain her fluent Spanish for his benefit, while his stilted English presents an even bigger communication challenge. Everything is out of place, everything is “ill-timed”. When she politely asks him if his daughter follows him “in her passions” (meaning does she have musical interests like her father?) he replies that a daughter does not reveal her passions to her father. This prompts a bemused Beatriz to wonder: “What does he think the word means? Naked bodies on a summer night?”

Witold is “The Pole” of the book’s title, but he isn’t the only one. The other is the iconic 19th century Polish composer Frédéric Chopin; Witold is renowned as an iconoclastic interpreter of Chopin. His “hard, percussive” style is seen as a departure from conventional performances that present the maestro in a much softer light. This is one of several places in the novella where Coetzee lets the mask slip, revealing Witold’s career to be a referendum of sorts for Coetzee’s own past work. “She finds herself chilled by — what shall she call it? — the style, the approach, the mentality of the interpreter. So dry, so matter-of-fact! Each piece held up for inspection, examined, then, with the final chord, folded away and interred”.

'The Pole and Other Stories' by JM Coetzee. Published by Penguin Random House India
'The Pole and Other Stories' by JM Coetzee. Published by Penguin Random House India

Beatriz could have been talking about Coetzee’s own remarkably austere prose here. At another point in the book, Witold jokes about being mistaken for Max von Sydow at airports and you realise that the self-portrait is complete (Coetzee himself has more than a passing resemblance to the late Swedish actor).

Chopin hovering over the plot of the novel also gives Coetzee the perfect opportunity to attack nationalism and nationalist stereotyping in his calculated, word-precise style. Chopin, after all, left his homeland never to return and after his death, his remains were brought back to Poland (reportedly against his wishes). As Witold explains, to be a Pole means to love your home and hate your homeland; a perfectly normal attitude for the Polish. Similarly, when Witold invites Beatriz to a holiday in Brazil, she immediately thinks of the country in terms of two thoroughly stereotypical images: “bronzed bodies lazing on beaches of dazzling whiteness; and women with wailing babies sweating over gas stoves in leaky shacks.”

Coetzee’s prose has always had the disconcerting ability to probe away at the deepest recesses of the human heart. Perhaps more than any other writer, he understands the cold fury of repressed emotions, unexpressed ideologies and strategic silences. His characters have a passive-aggressive understanding of the fault lines of modernity — their reconciliation with the modern world is seldom peaceful. Beatriz, for instance, listens to music for “transport”, for escapism. She has little patience for what she sees as Witold’s over-intellectualized style, and she sees art in either commercial or acutely sentimental modes.

“Compared to Chopin, compared even to Witold his disciple, she does not of course count as a serious person. She knows that and accepts it. But surely she is entitled to know whether the hours she spends listening patiently to the tinkling of piano keys or the scraping of horsehair on gut, when she could be out on the streets feeding the poor, are not hours wasted but form part of a grander, richer design. Speak!she wants to say to the Pole. Justify your art!

The exhortation for Witold to “justify his art” is also a thinly-veiled scream into the ether for Coetzee, as is the novella’s critique of nationalism. In the 90s, after Nelson Mandela was freed and South Africa formally ended its apartheid era, the world looked to South African writers to “explain” this epochal moment to everybody else. But Coetzee, who was born in South Africa, educated in the American West and is now a naturalized Australian citizen, has always scoffed at this assumption of people being metonyms for their homelands. His big 90s novel, Master of Petersburg, had an all-Russian cast of characters instead. In fact, Coetzee’s characters seldom belong anywhere, in the strictest sense of the word — they are far more likely to be unmoored, looking, yearning, craving their rightful place in the world.

Which is also the case for the writer Elizabeth Costello, another old Coetzee stand-in and featured in three of the six short stories published alongside The Pole (the novella takes up over two-thirds of the pages here, nevertheless). Now retired and living with a small army of cats, Costello remains as fiercely intelligent and combative as ever. None of these six stories is at the rarefied level we expect from Coetzee, however. ‘The Dog’ can be read as a coda for Coetzee’s Booker-winning novel Disgrace, and presents some interesting observations on animals and our selective empathy towards them. The rest can be skipped, even, if you wish to proceed straight to The Pole. This novella shows us further signs of Coetzee’s irascible, irresistible “late style”, and it’s a book to be savoured slowly and deliberately.

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