Slow Man by JM Coetzee

Having been alienated by the end of Foe, I nonetheless plugged on with another Coetzee, bought at Antiquariaat Klikspaan in Leiden. It’s a shop with an excellent range of interesting literature, I picked up lots of books on spec.

Some complain of the tedious nature of the Costello woman but I think that Coetzee is being ruthlessly honest. Writers are self-centered bores with their own ends at heart. Dispensing bits of wisdom to their captive audience at will – and who is more captive than one’s own invention? The writing process not going smoothly today? She drama queens it – she’s going to die, her heart, sleeping in the rough, all that. She doesn’t give a rats about Paul. She wants her story to work, but Paul is not prepared to help her out as she would wish to be. Isn’t this the writer’s life? Characters not behaving themselves. Doing things that the writer disapproves of, or is uneasy about, or can’t see the path of, pages crossed out, files erased, paragraphs blocked and deleted. And in this case in the end, realising that it isn’t possible to change the character. He is what he is.

I love the way his stubbornness is up to hers. Presumably Coetzee himself is both of them.

I did find his portrayal of Paul as being ‘old’ rather odd, given that he is only sixty. The book itself isn’t old enough for that to make sense. That is to say, in 2005, when the book was published, ‘sixty’ was not old. Probably not ‘seventy’ either. My father (also ‘Paul’) was having cancer treatment in 2009 when he was seventy. We all told him he was old because he wanted to be that, he wanted to die ‘old’ and he explicitly corrected us when we called him otherwise.

Given that we are supposed to consider the central character ‘old’, the difficulties he has with that are handled in the way an observant and impartial writer might write of himself. As the book came out in 2005 when he was 65, I guess that it is very personal, this idea he has of his age and how others see him. How he is treated at the hospital. The way in which he is patronised. The way in which aloneness seems to become loneliness. The way which his being physically crippled makes him aware of that he may be emotionally so as well. And all this makes him think he wants children, though I suspect this is just the old person’s regret that a lack of investment in them earlier is now revealing a price. Children could move him around, keep him company. Make him whole again. Justify his existence.

It’s beautifully written. I’m impressed at  how Australian it is too, he captures Adelaide on the page, the migrant experience, the questions and doubts about home and what that is, despite the fact that his own migrant experience was to say the least unique and easy. He fell in love with Adelaide on a visit and migrated there, taking on Australian citizenship, as  Nobel-prize winning novelist. I imagine that such a person never has a difficult time whatever path he wants to take. He is, like Paul, reclusive, and no doubt Adelaide is a good place to practise that habit. We are very tolerant and accepting, we Adelaideans. Want to be a solitary, perhaps even crotchetty Nobel-prize winner? Righto. We’ll leave you to it, but give us a shout if you need anything.


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