RB: Your work has been consistently unpredictable, so that it’s impossible to think of you as committed to any doctrinaire position or formal constraint. Here and there in your books a character will come out with something that would seem, at the moment, to speak with the cogency and authority of John Coetzee, much though we know that it is a mistake to associate you too closely even with a character—like Elizabeth Costello—who is often impressively cogent, intellectually rigorous and provocative. I recall a public occasion in The Netherlands, twenty or more years ago, when Mario Vargas Llosa wished to pin you down to one or another statement issuing from the mouth of Mrs. Costello, and you responded, in effect, by insisting that only the work, the work alone, in its intricacies and inconsistencies, might tell us what you “really think” of this question or that. Exasperating, that insistence, apparently to Vargas Llosa. No doubt to others as well. And yet useful, important, that insistence. Still, I’m inclined to ask you to speak a bit more about things either you—in your own voice—or a character of yours, is moved to say, however straightforward or unambiguous the content of a given utterance. Elizabeth Costello, for example, says late in “her book” that she believes her books “are better put together than she is.” Is it absurd here to ask you to speak about that belief, about what it means to say that a book is “better put together than she is”? Does the word “better” in that formulation suggest only that the book is more entirely resistant to being reduced to a formula or a meaning or a position? That in a good book, a great book, there will be many things not accounted for?
JMC: Preliminary to responding to your question, I would like to mention that, when I am asked to explain the meaning of something I have written, I naturally interpret the question as an indication that despite my best efforts I have failed to make my meaning clear, and therefore failed as a writer. My best efforts have included poring over the text, sentence by sentence, word by word, asking myself whether there is any way in which I can make it clearer. So when I am asked to say what I meant, my impulse is to throw up my hands in despair. If despite the long labor of composition and the longer labor of revision I am still failing to be clear, what chance is there that, spontaneously, effortlessly, in the course of an interview, I will hit on the magic formula that will clear everything up? Having got that off my chest, let me respond to your question about Elizabeth’s sideways comment that her books (she is a novelist by profession) are better put together than she is. A well put together book, if we take our lead from Aristotle, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Human beings, on the other hand, can’t remember their beginnings (conception, birth) and prefer not to envisage their ends (death). Therefore Elizabeth cannot be as well put together as her books are. The joke is, of course, that Elizabeth is not a human being but a character in a book. Her beginning, middle, and end are not in her hands but in the hands of her creator, namely me, just as my own beginning, middle, and end lie not in my hands but in the hands of God (or fate).
RB: Very much in keeping with the previous question, there is a passage in which Mrs. Costello concedes that, if she is summoned, she will “speak for murderers” in her book, will allow them to speak “through” her. I take it that in this case, to be summoned is to feel that you must not refuse the obligation to do this thing—in which case I ask how you know that you have received that summons? Would the obligation be felt in the same way if it entailed not merely allowing the murderer to speak through you but also to speak through you in a way that persuasively justified the murder—the murder, for example, of an innocent child? A territory, as you well know, that takes us somewhat in the direction of a Dostoyevski, of his character Svidrigailov, in fact. Is it the case that the summons can never conceivably reach you, never be heard by you as a summons, if it goes too entirely against the grain of your own moral or emotional disposition?
JMC: A profound question – “How do you know?” – to which I have no ready answer. How do we know that the impulses of our heart come from God and not from the devil? Some people would say that at the profoundest, most instinctual level we must have an inkling, but I don’t believe that is true and I don’t believe Dostoyevsky did either. However, let me – at a tangent – bring in the figure of the reader. If I were deluded, and were writing in the service of evil while all the time I believed I was writing in the service of good, I would hope there would be readers clear-sighted enough to see into the heart of the book and put it aside as a work of the devil. Again tangentially, let me point out that “X is a murderer” is a different kind of assertion from “X is a student.” If you are a student, study is your occupation for years on end. To be a murderer, on the other hand, means that at some time in the past you committed an act, an act that was over in a flash, and was probably bitterly regretted in retrospect, but could never be undone. If you are a student today, you can become an ex-student tomorrow. If you are a murderer today, you go on being a murderer for the rest of your life. Being a murderer is thus a complex fate, and an exhausting fate too. It does not strike me as at all strange that a murderer should seek out some receptive soul to whom to pour out their confession.
RB: At one point, Mrs. Costello declares that she can do “an imitation of belief.” There is a sense in which we all know what those words mean. We can all pretend to believe something we don’t believe. And yet my sense is that the words spoken by Mrs. Costello imply something more, something more complicated. Are there novels—good novels—that provide “an imitation of belief”? I suppose that, if what I’m reading seems to me to offer merely an imitation, it won’t seem to me a successful novel. Perhaps. Is that, perhaps, what Elizabeth Costello herself does—an imitation of belief—when at one point in your novel she takes to task another writer named Paul West, who had, in her view, gone too far (“exceeded his commission”) in his novelistic depiction of the tortures suffered by certain men during the Nazi period? Was Mrs. Costello not there doing “an imitation of belief” when she declared that certain depictions of cruelty or suffering are “obscene” and therefore inexcusable? Or is this “imitation” perhaps acceptable to us, satisfying to us, because, in the course of playing it out Mrs. Costello is finally moved to acknowledge that she doesn’t know what she really thinks—thus, as it were, cancelling her “imitation”?
JMC: I don’t want to go into the psychology of Elizabeth Costello, who has a psychology only in the sense that the reader can cobble one together for her on the basis of things she thinks and says. plus the reader’s own experience of what goes on in the minds of real-life people who think and say such things. When Elizabeth offers to do an imitation of belief or love or despair or anything else, she is only echoing Aristotle on what actors – participants in dramatic or narrative fictions – do every day of the week: they do imitations of what real-life people might do if they found themselves in the situation being represented on the stage or in the book. You call these imitations “mere” imitations, but what else can they be? Is an actor a “mere” actor because he is pretending to be Oedipus? Must he really put his eyes out before he can cease to be “mere”?
RB: Well, Elizabeth Costello may be “only echoing Aristotle on what actors…do every day of the week,” but then EC’s suggestion is not quite an every day of the week sort of thing, is it? She does not, in fact, take herself—not at that moment in the book—to be merely an actor: in effect she is probing the authenticity of the so-called beliefs she purports to hold and to operate by. The charge she brings against Paul West rests upon a conviction that he has, in his novel, done something that is not to be done. In bringing that charge, in entertaining it and confronting West with it, she does not take herself to be merely doing what actors do. And in reading what you have written we cannot feel—though perhaps we should?—that you have made EC bring the charge in the spirit of a director prompting an actor to say what will move an audience whether or not the substance of her statement is or ought to be compelling. Your reader is engaged in the exchange not because it is merely an enactment of everyday moves actors make but because it is loaded with implications about what we are entitled to demand of one another as human beings. Sure, EC is an actor in the sense that she is your creation and thinks and speaks as you would have her do. But we do not take her to be doing merely an imitation of belief when she confronts West, or, for that matter, contends for her soul later in the book. And thus I can’t quite accept that we can dismiss the troubling implications generated in your great book by falling back on the “what actors do every day of the week” formulation. If you don’t wish to respond further to this—perhaps because my own response here seems foolish or willfully obtuse—then of course I must accept that and we can just move on to the next question.
JMC: I suspect the difference of outlook between the two of us here is substantial. Insofar as Elizabeth Costello is a character in a book, the question, What are her authentic beliefs? seems to me meaningless. All she can do, as a character in a book, is to follow the lead of what real people do when they are asked what their authentic beliefs are, namely, examine themselves in the deepest spirit of self-scrutiny. I don’t happen to believe that such self-scrutiny in real life can be trusted to yield the answers we are looking for, “true” answers, but that is a different matter. Elizabeth may or may not scrutinize herself as we real people do, she may or may not record for our benefit the processes of her self-scrutiny, but all that she does or doesn’t do remains an imitation of what real people do or don’t do. However, I insist: an imitation is not of necessity a “mere” imitation, just as a character in a work of fiction is not by definition a “mere” character. I seem to remember that in Book 2 of Don Quixote, published some years after Book 1, Quixote and Sancho come upon a puppet show in which their adventures are being played out to a crowd who are familiar with Book 1 and are therefore in a sense authorities on Quixote and Sancho in a way that the “real” Quixote and Sancho (i.e. the Book 2 pair) can never be. Cervantes’ ironies, doubled and redoubled, may be superficial, but to the student of fiction they carry a profound message.
RB: One further attempt to think “belief”: In a graduate course at The New School for Social Research several years ago, when I assigned students two of your books—Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace—a healthy debate developed about what—if anything– may legitimately be inferred about your “beliefs” from a reading of your novels. In the course of that debate other Coetzee novels were also invoked as “evidence” for this or that contention. Though we arrived at no binding consensus, we did more or less agree that we could identify “beliefs” that seemed to us to emerge from our several encounters with the books. Uncomfortable, for all of us, to speak of your beliefs when we were thinking only of what we felt we could infer from your novels. Examples: —You believe—so far as we could infer– that it is essential to keep in play, to take seriously, distinctions between what is and is not “obscene” and therefore to have recourse to the conviction that there are things NOT TO BE DONE. As example, from Waiting for the Barbarians, the idea that there can be no conceivable justification for the brutalities visited upon people by the regime of a Colonel Joll. Or, from Disgrace, that there can be no justification for a sexual encounter in which the sex is felt to be deeply unwanted by one of the participants, even if the sex was not actively resisted. —You believe that even in complex political circumstances it is legitimate to resort to a word like “ugly” to express one’s horror at what has been done—even if one has not been able to choose sides in an ongoing conflict, as between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Thus, when you write in your exchange of letters with Paul Auster that “There is only one word that will describe what has been done of late in Lebanon and Gaza,” you come up with “schrecklichkeit” and say that it is “an ugly, hard word—a Hitlerian word—for an ugly, hard, heartless way of treating people.” This may not be, strictly speaking, a political assessment in the standard way we use the term “political,” but you believe that it is legitimate to think this way about the behavior of nation states: “an ugly, hard, heartless way of treating people.” —Though you are, shall we say, amused at the continued existence, half-life, of certain conventions or notions—the notion that one must sooner or later “put one’s soul in order,” as your character says in the novel Slow Man—you believe that there is an important difference between a life in which “no significant harm is done” and a life in which one has done some “good.” Though there is, in your sense of things, no longer a “Great Judge of All” to pronounce ultimate judgments, there is no reason not to believe in “judgment” and in the necessity to “pronounce it” for oneself. Yes, you believe, such “quaint,” “positively antique” notions belong to “a bygone age,” and yet who—so you seem to declare– would want to come to the end of a life and think it all “A wasted chance”? And what is, in that sense, “a wasted chance”?
JMC: A lengthy question, to which I will try to respond briefly. What does it mean to believe X? As I see it, belief is an overall state of mind, a disposition or inclination of the entire self toward X, a disposition that may not be permanent but is not brief and transitory. This state of mind may arise as the consequence of some experience one has had, or some inner process of reasoning, or a process of spiritual maturation, or some powerful example, or may simply be a reflection of the Zeitgeist. As I see it, belief, as a state of mind or a disposition of the self, is much like a mood, if we are prepared to allow moods a certain dignity. Perhaps if one were to replace the all-purpose word mood with the German word Stimmung it would acquire that dignity. One falls into a certain mood, one inhabits that mood for a length of time, then perhaps one emerges from it. Beliefs, as moods, are not transitory but don’t have to be lifelong either. Also, it is not clear to us what triggers a change of mood. There are “moody” people who have lots of moods; there are “equable” people who are in the same mood most of the time. Beliefs are like moods or Stimmungen in the sense that one can begin to believe X, and continue to believe X for some time, but then emerge from believing X into some other state of mind. And (the important point) one finds it as difficult to answer questions about one’s beliefs as to answer questions about one’s moods. Why do I believe X (why am I in mood X)? Why did I stop believing X (why did I emerge from mood X)? All one can say is: Today I am in mood X, but as to what mood I will be in tomorrow I cannot say. Today I believe X, but I cannot guarantee I will still believe X tomorrow. A final observation on moods. Writing a book, a work of fiction in particular, requires that one occupy the same mood from beginning to end, at least when one is engaged in writing. Sustaining the same mood throughout is what gives the book its unity of style. This is an argument for not spending too much time on a book: sustaining the mood year after year becomes too exhausting. Now I turn to your main question, which is: What are my beliefs? At some point or another in our lives the question occurs to each one of us: Why is the universe as it is? Why does it behave – or seem to behave – in an orderly way, as if there are laws it unfailingly obeys, instead of being nothing but a chaos of whirling particles? To put the question in Aeschylean terms, does Dikē (order, fate, justice) rule the universe? Or, in even more provocative terms, is Dikē, as justice, woven into the stuff of the universe, into nature, including human nature? My response to this question depends on my mood, as defined above. In my present sanguine mood my answer is yes. I believe that nature is orderly, and that, being part of nature, human beings have intuitions of order, of what a just order (a just natural order, a just social order) will feel like. I believe that non-human animals have intuitions of justice too. Furthermore, I believe that through education our inborn sense of justice can be brought to consciousness, cultivated, and fortified, helping us to distinguish (most of the time, though not always) between right and wrong. There you have it: the sketch of a moral philosophy with an antique metaphysical grounding. When I am in the opposite kind of mood, on the other hand, I believe that the whole creaky philosophical edifice I have erected for myself is nonsense, and life is nothing but the struggle of all against all. The fictions I have written – to conclude my response to your question – are not blocks of thought that can be articulated one with another to constitute a coherent set of beliefs. They are essays, ventures, expressions of the moods that have possessed me at successive stages of my life.
RB: I’ve tried to take seriously the critique of “appropriation,” now so attractive to a great many ostensibly sophisticated people, and yet for the most part I have failed to find the critique persuasive. You know, of course, that this critique is all the rage in the United States and in other countries where many educated persons are forever sniffing around for violations of one sort or another, and like nothing more than to complain about the way a book or painting encroaches upon the territory ostensibly owned by another artist or group. And so I ask you what you make of this. After all, your own work is guilty of several different kinds of “appropriation.” In Foe, for example, where Robinson Crusoe is your more than obvious source text. Or in Waiting for the Barbarians, where Dino Buzzati’s novel The Tartar Steppe is a much less obvious source text. In later works dealing with the life of Jesus. In your Dostoyevski novel, The Master of Petersburg. In other works. I know that the word “appropriation” may seem, or be, misleading when a source text is used as the foundation for what is clearly a new (“original”) work. And yet at the present moment there is enormous agitation and confusion around this notion. And so I ask, first, what has seemed to you attractive about the act of appropriation? Are there dangers to which you have been alert in the course of working with an appropriated work? Limits to be observed? Is the critique of appropriation conceivably valid when the source works involved are the works of “marginalized” authors? Why should that particular condition affect our view of appropriation? Is not all we do as writers a species of appropriation, and is not the objection essentially philistine?
JMC: “Philistine” is not the first term that comes to my mind to describe critics of appropriation, though I do concede that in their eyes the aesthetic qualities of the writings they denounce do not seem to count for much. I would prefer the word “puritanical”: they have a keen eye for their neighbors’ transgressions, and resort readily to public shaming. The critique of appropriation belongs very much to identity politics, which contrasts knowledge from the interior of a group or class with knowledge from the exterior, the latter usually being wrapped up with objectification of the other and the exercise of power over them. It must be conceded that, even when the observer’s intentions are pure, knowing from the outside cannot be as authentic as knowing from the inside, from personal experience. When the observer’s intentions are more questionable, writing from the outside can indeed become a mode of capturing and controlling people. But the whole theory of appropriation has not been properly thought through. It ignores the empathetic powers of great art to cross boundaries of gender (think of Tolstoy’s Natasha Rostov) and of race (think of Faulkner’s Joe Christmas). Furthermore, the theory has no historical dimension. Who is entitled to write a novel set in Byzantium, for instance? No one, as far as I can see, since there are no Byzantines left. Finally, even if it is true that we can know ourselves only from the inside, how deep does such knowledge go? Is self-knowledge not extended when it is refracted through the gaze of the other (I am thinking here of the scenario of psychoanalysis)? (I am aware that critics of appropriation may raise an eyebrow at talk of “the empathetic powers of great art to cross boundaries of gender and race.” But the fact is that readers of Tolstoy or Faulkner (to name only these two) are commonly overwhelmed by the experience, and speak afterwards in terms of truth and illumination. Are they self-deceived? Must they be self-deceived? If they must be self-deceived, why must their critics not be self-deceived?) I would never have embarked on a career as a writer if I had been instructed at the beginning that I would have to restrict my explorations to the minds of middle-class colonial white males like myself. Too boring.
RB: About twenty years ago, when Philip Roth was asked what he thought of the film made from his novel The Human Stain, he said simply that “the check cleared.” Does Roth’s response more or less match up with your own feelings when it comes to film versions of your novels? In courses on “Fiction into Film” I’ve had students read In The Heart of the Country and Disgrace and then asked them to watch and talk about the films made from those books. Does this seem to you a useful enterprise? Why so? Why not? Of course there are films that are eminently superior to the novels on which they are based, or so it has seemed to me: for example, Bertrand Tavernier’s film The Clockmaker, made from the Simenon novel of that title. Or Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata, made from a good but by no means great novel by Tagore.
JMC: I don’t have much of interest to say on this subject. I have been involved in various film projects, most closely in the filming of Waiting for the Barbarians as directed by Ciro Guerra. Generally my sympathies lie with the filmmakers. Making a film is an adventure full of spectacular risks; by comparison, writing a book is a quiet, dogged little private enterprise. Having said that, I would add that complex novels rarely make good films: too much has to be left out or simplified.
RB: In your book of correspondence with Paul Auster—a book I’ve read and reread several times—you write: “Faced with a choice between reading a run-of-the-mill novel and raking leaves in the garden I think I would go for raking leaves.” You go on to say that “I get impatient with fiction that doesn’t try something that hasn’t been tried before, preferably with the medium itself.” As I think about this I can’t help wondering what the words “run-of-the-mill novel” suggest. If they mean “a novel which has no compelling features at all, no lively dialogic exchanges, no surprising insights, no stabs of heartbreak or humor, no felicities of expression,” well then I say yes, let’s rake the leaves or scramble an egg. But when I come to the sentence about your impatience with novels that don’t try anything new “with the medium itself,” I can’t help thinking that in the main your indifference is directed not only at pedestrian books but at a large proportion of the novels written even by ambitious authors who have no inclination for formal experimentation—essentially “realist” writers for whom the novel is merely an instrument for exploring reality and setting out the conditions under which most of us conduct our lives. Is it not the case that even most of our better novelists are not in the business of trying something that hasn’t been tried before—or not quite in the sense you suggest in the passage I’ve quoted? And is it not the case that in the latest stages of your career—no doubt a word you despise– you have been more determined than ever before to try new things, to experiment “with the medium itself”? Why would that be?
JMC: There are many, many ways in which one can try something new in the novel medium. I repeat: I have no appetite for novels in which the medium, so to speak, does the writing, and the writer is a mere operator stoking the fire and keeping the process chugging along. When I read a new book I look for evidence of an intelligence at work. The first mark of intelligence is dissatisfaction with the inherited medium, and an urge to improve on it.
RB: You say you have “no appetite for novels in which the medium, so to speak, does the writing, and the writer is a mere operator.” Agreed, entirely, but then I wonder whether we would agree that this particular novel, or that, would belong to that category. If the first mark of intelligence in a novel is dissatisfaction with the inherited medium, would we say that intelligence is somewhat lacking in Turgenev’s Fathers & Sons, or in Anna Karenina? I can’t feel that the medium is doing the writing in such books, but then neither can I feel that either of them betrays dissatisfaction with the inherited medium. Is my problem here a symptom of a failure to grasp what is meant by the words “a dissatisfaction with the inherited medium”?
JMC: Turgenev and Tolstoy (more the early Tolstoy) and Dostoyevsky and Gogol (Gogol most of all) were engaged in inventing the compendious vehicle we call the Russian Novel, taking over, developing, and discarding the Western model they had inherited but with which they were dissatisfied because it did not fit Russian realities, specifically the way that people related one to another across the social spectrum of imperial Russia. Dissatisfied, too, because the Western model was excessively concerned with manners, and fastidious about engaging with big ideas.
RB: Impossible, I think, to be alert to the impact on your work of the many writers and thinkers you have read. You acknowledge that Beckett’s prose must surely have affected your own prose, though in ways you choose not to pursue. When I read your essay on Robert Musil, I suppose, or imagine, that his project—"the evolving record of a confrontation between a man of supremely intelligent sensibility and the times that gave birth to him, times he would bitterly but justly call ‘accursed’“—, however vastly different from yours, must have affected your sense of what you hoped to accomplish. And hard also not to think that your deep familiarity with linguistic science and with European philosophy has had a profound impact on your work, perhaps in ways impossible to describe or explain. That you are a learned man is obvious to anyone who reads your books, and yet, if I may put it this way, in your fiction you do not seem to me to wear your learning on your sleeve—not even in a work like Elizabeth Costello, where the lecture format plays a dominant role in the conception of the book. All of which inspires me to ask whether you might speak about the degree to which your interest in linguistics, or in Walter Benjamin, or other thinkers, moved you—early or late—to write the kind of fiction you have written. At a panel discussion some years ago, when another speaker referred to your books as novels of ideas, I said that, however plausible that description seemed to me, it also seemed to me somehow misleading. Very misleading. In ways I did my best to explain. Now I’m not so sure, and I’d appreciate your help.
JMC: I don’t think I can help you, Robert. I am the way I am. Some things are important to me that aren’t important to other people. Some things that are important to other people aren’t important to me. That’s life.
RB: I should have known better than to ask such a question, I suppose, and I confess to having laughed out loud when I read your response to my quandary. In your 1987 Jerusalem Prize speech—long ago—you said that South African literature was "a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power, unable to move from elementary relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation…[I]t is exactly the kind of literature one would expect people to write from a prison.” The logic there seems to me compelling, and yet I must say that your sense of the literature does not at all accord with my own. I don’t find the relations of contestation “elementary” in your novel Age of Iron, or in Disgrace, and of course, if we were seated together now at a seminar table I’d have to cite and perhaps read out passages that seem to me to support my impression rather than yours. Not the moment here to do quite that. Not the moment either to debate our differences about the very South African novels and stories of Nadine Gordimer, who—so I believe—wrote “fully human” works deeply invested in “the torsions of power” and the experience of subjugation. When I read, and teach, Disgrace, or Michael K, I do have the sense that it might well have been written from a kind of prison, that is, by someone who has felt as if he were writing from a prison. And yet the result has never seemed to me “a less than fully human literature.” Nor have I felt that the preoccupation with power in your work was “unnatural,” which is to say, contrived, or ideologically determined. So that really I want to ask you to speak further about what you take to be the signs of a “less than fully human literature” in your own work, or in a novel like Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter.
JMC: We should take care to read documents – public speeches in particular – in the context of their place and time. The late 1980s were a terrible time in South Africa. The country was on the brink of economic collapse, on the brink of a military takeover, on the brink of civil war. It is not surprising that when I looked around me I saw only darkness. When in particular I looked at what was being written in South Africa at the time – an extensive body of work in a number of languages, not just Nadine Gordimer and myself – I saw what I called a “less than fully human” literature, and I think I was right. What would a fully human literature include, besides stories of domination and subjugation, of rage and hatred and guilt? To begin with, stories of love and passion and tenderness.
_ RB: You say “a fully human literature” would provide “stories of love and passion and tenderness.” Fair enough. But you must permit me to protest, again, that you do in fact provide such stories in the greatest of your novels, as also in the best of the novels of Nadine Gordimer. “Unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power,” to be sure. But then even in the darkest of novels, in Disgrace, for one, there is love and passion and tenderness. In David Lurie’s love for his daughter, his tenderness for the dogs near the end of the book. There and elsewhere in the novel he is fully human, is he not? By no means a fully attractive person, often cold—as in the mating of snakes to which you allude–, but fully human. As also in the Magistrate in your Waiting for the Barbarians, when he decides to undertake the arduous journey to return the “barbarian woman” to her people, or protests the beating of an elderly man. Fully human, I must argue.
JMC: [No comment]
RB:f Your novel Disgrace was attacked in your own country for its depiction of black on white rape. I’m sure you know that an ANC-commissioned Report on racism in the media cited Disgrace as an illustrative instance, presumably because—as one critic had it—"the incidence of rape, particularly of black women, is endemic and when a traumatized society is still coming to terms with its brutal past in a country where racist stereotypes of the black man as the natural rapist still prevail.“ Familiar as I am with the lunacies that pass for politically advanced discourse in the American scene, I was nonetheless stunned by the critique of Disgrace for its having dared to depict the rape of David Lurie’s daughter. And so I thought to ask you whether you too were initially surprised by that critique, and whether it seemed to you to mark a stage in the evolution of the culture where it would presumably be harder than ever before—perhaps impossible– to do your work as a writer engaging with the realities of your own society. Might it be—as more than one writer has suggested—that the aftermath of the publication of Disgrace precipitated your move from Capetown to Australia?
JMC: The denunciation of Disgrace that came down from official South African quarters when the novel came out was extensively publicized. What is less often noted is that in 2005, six years later, I received at the hands of then President Thabo Mbeki a not inconsiderable civic honor, which I took to be a signal – and a generous one – that the African National Congress had made its peace with me.
RB: You have said, on various occasions, in several different ways, that though you are a man of the left, or at least "sympathetic to the concerns of the left,” you are “alienated, when the crunch comes, by its language—by all political language, in fact.” As I share that sentiment, “when the crunch comes,” I yet wonder whether you might speak further about what there is in the language of the left that not only leaves you cold but alienated, perhaps even disgusted? Is that language of the left not more alienating and revolting than other kinds of political language because it is so often—at least ostensibly—in the service of goals you yourself embrace? No doubt there were many times, in the composition of your novels and essays, when you might yourself have resorted to “political language,” and so I ask whether your failure to do so entailed a considered, principled act of resistance or rather an aversion so deep-rooted as to make it impossible for you even to perform an imitation of standard political language, however noble or exemplary?
JMC: I did, in Age of Iron (1990), carry out some imitations of political language, of both right and left varieties, though I concede these are hardly the core of the novel. Anger is understandable, as a reaction to plain injustice, but I don’t like the cultivation and legitimation of anger. Whipped-up anger, disparagement of one’s opponents, the proclamation of certainties: three characteristics of modern-day political speech. When I hear that kind of language, I switch off.