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.