To what extent does an author control the lives of his characters? This is the question at the heart of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel. But alongside it lies another, almost as intriguing: why is the Nobel Laureate’s writing so much easier to admire than to enjoy?
Slow Man begins with an accident in which Paul Rayment, a morose retired photographer living in Adelaide, is knocked offhis bicycle. He has no family, so when he returns from hospital with an amputated leg he requires a nurse-cum-housekeeper to look after him. This he finds in the shape of Marijana Jokic, a matronly, married Croatian with whom he falls in love.
But it is not just Marijana that attracts him – it is also her family, whose stability, ironically, he threatens. He realises that he has led an insignificant life, ‘sliding through the world’, and that he has gone against the natural order of things by failing to have children. When he meets Drago, Marijana’s handsome and gifted teenage son, he finds someone who can perhaps fulfil his craving for an heir: ‘a younger, stronger, better version of himself’. In an uncharacteristically impulsive moment, blurring desire and altruism, Paul declares his love for Marijana and offers to lend her and her husband the money to send Drago to naval college.
So the stage is set for an archetypal conflict. But at this point there is an unexpected intervention: a female novelist unknown to Paul arrives on his doorstep and berates him for disturbing Marijana’s universe. The woman is none other than Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist of Coetzee’s previous novel, and it soon becomes clear to us – though not to him – that she is Paul’s creator. ‘You occurred to me,’ she tells him – ‘a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion.’
What follows is a series of intellectual skirmishes between the two. Paul’s passion for Marijana, Elizabeth complains, was not her idea, and since he is responsible for the situation, he must resolve it: all she can do is make suggestions – for example, by arranging a mysterious sexual encounter with a blind woman. He accuses her of treating him like a puppet: ‘Drop me,’ he implores her; ‘let me get on with my life.’
Clearly, Elizabeth’s role is akin to that of Coetzee himself one wonders, in fact, why he does not come clean and knock on Paul’s door in person. The answer may be that there is also a great deal of Coetzee in Paul – or simply that an undisguised appearance would require too much engagement from a writer who is so determinedly detached.
Given Coetzee’s clinical sensibility, it is appropriate that the novel should start with a trip to hospital. He excels at describing the drugged patient’s distance from what is happening to him, and at taking a bird’s-eye view of human consciousness: ‘at a level far below the play and flicker of the intellect (Why not this? Why not that?) he, he, the he he sometimes calls you, sometimes I, is all too ready to embrace darkness, stillness, extinction.’
What one longs for is some warmth and vivacity. Such moments of intense emotion as there are bloom like roses in the desert: they are beautiful, but too few to make an appreciable difference.
Coetzee’s parsimony is even more apparent when it comes to humour. It isn’t that he can’t be funny: Paul imagines Marijana’s husband flying into ‘one of those elemental Balkan rages that give birth to clan feuds and epic poems’, and compares passion to ‘an unavoidable affliction like mumps, that one hopes to undergo while young in one of its milder, less ruinous varieties, so as not to catch it more seriously later on’. There is rich comic potential in the comings and goings in Paul’s flat, which are choreographed at times like a French farce, and in the way Paul turns the tables on his creator, trying to get her to muck in with her characters. But Coetzee never pushes these things as far as he might: he is content to let a smile play upon his lips, like a don enjoying a nice conceit.
Eventually, Paul achieves a kind of enlightenment, recognising the truth of what Elizabeth has told him: ‘We cannot love by an act of will ... That is why souls descend from their realm on high and submit to being born again: so that, as they grow up in our company, they can lead us along the hard road of loving.’ In such wisdom and elegance lies the strength of Slow Man; as for its shortcomings, it remains unclear how far Coetzee recognises Paul’s weaknesses as his own. ‘Remember, Paul,’ says Elizabeth, ‘it is passion that makes the world go round…Give it a whirl…’ In the same vein, one longs to say to Coetzee, ‘You’ve arrived – you’ve won the Nobel Prize. So lighten up! Loosen up! Enjoy!’