How do bitter and twisted, lonely, emotionally crippled older men start out? Men whose relationships, if any, have always soured early, men whose jobs are all that sustain them, mediocre jobs with colleagues who never become friends. Men whose strict weekend routines stop loneliness from being more than an uneasy feeling which never quite comes to the surface. Never quite acknowledged.
They start out as bitter and twisted Youth. In this novel by Coetzee, we see the establishment of such a being, a young man who thinks somehow that his cold alienating ways will make him a poet. When it turns out that he has nothing more in him than the capacity to be a computer programmer, and an undistinguished one of those, he sees his future as a hollow meaningless thing. We do not find out if his life remained the mean and nasty existence he portended.
Enter Nagasaki. Here we meet a man who might be the person Youth foresaw. Towards the end of his nondescript career he is alone, as far as we know he has never had a meaningful relationship with anybody, including his relations. When not at work he is at home, when at home, the person he talks to is himself. He has no friends, no interests, nothing about him justifies his carbon footprint. Like Youth, he is given the opportunity to live, to behave with largesse, to give. Like Youth he cannot do that. Both of them experience discomfort, unease at their utter meanness of spirit, but neither is capable of being a new person.
Is this inevitable? Enter Mr Stone of Mr Stone and the Knights Companion. Mr Stone is also a person all alone in the world, mediocre career, disappointment kept at bay by routine. Unlike the others, however, he surprises himself and the reader by getting married on the eve of his retirement. To be clear, there is no notion of love in this act, indeed, he feels trapped, smothered, imprisoned and perhaps even tricked into this state by the solicitous woman whom he impetuously brought into his life. But there is habit, company, some idea that something previously missing is now part of his life. He cannot imagine how he got into this state, but he can’t quite imagine getting out of it either, however angry it makes him feel from time to time.
Mr Stone does something even more extraordinary, having an idea that his company’s boss likes and agrees he can implement which could raise him above the sorry existences of the men in Youth and Nagasaki. It is well-motivated but is dissipated, diverted and corrupted by the process of its implementation.
Much as he has done a couple of seemingly momentous things late in his working life, things we might expect to be life-changing, somehow, they are not, even though they change his life. The story ends, Mr Stone is as disappointed, emotionally stunted, as pointless a carbon footprint as our other protagonists.
A trio of novels which fit well together in their portrayals of a certain type of man. It’s a coincidence that I’ve read them in a row, picking them from my to-read-shelves to take on a trip. but maybe the coincidence is less than I think. I bought all of them at a church sale a week earlier. Were they all donated by the same person? Somebody who had reason to read this sort of story? What sort of sadness did it induce in them? Regret that they tell the story of his own life? Determination not to become this person? Recognition that it is inevitable? As a female, I find myself at the window looking in on a scene which is alien, a female would never be like these men.
Poor fucking bastards.
Later: Gillian Dooley pointed me to a paper she has written on these authors and the relationship of their subject to diaspora: Alien and adrift : the diasporic sensibility in V. S Naipaul’s Half a Life and J. M Coetzee’s Youth She ends:
Thus neither book suggests any solutions to political or racial problems, offering only flight. But this is a part of the condition of both these young men. They have no allegiance to a group, a race, a class, or a nation….The traditions of a culture or society are absent for both, even though both grew up with their families in countries where they had lived for some generations….they are each as alien and adrift – as displaced and ambivalent – as any member of a diasporic population.
I wonder if this is a trait of young men, not young men of a certain background and literary bent. Classically The Outsider comes to mind. In real life, the migrations in the form of flight taking place from parts of the world at the moment, the majority being young men. True there are reasons why there will be this imbalance – the precarious nature of the flight favours young men most obviously. But my next example indicates that there are other factors at work: the experience of Barefoot College. Bunker Roy takes villagers from around the world to come to India to learn to be ‘solar engineers’. Poor villages gain the massive improvement of power, and the individuals who are trained gain personal empowerment. Roy learned from experience not to take young men, because young men don’t go back. They never want to go back. Women, on the other hand, see the ties to their village in a meaningful way. So Roy populates the world with female solar engineers.
Young men. Alien and adrift.
For a learned consideration of Naipaul’s Mr Stone see Naipaul’s ‘Fraudulent’ London Novel: Mr Stone and the Knights Companion. I read The Mimic Men so long ago I recall not a thing about it. It is on my to read list, but only in a queue of hundreds.