Portrait of young woman bandaging head of wounded young man in refugee shelter, copy space

Coetzee’s Survival Tactics: A Closer Look at JML 46.2

By Lynda Ng and Paul Sheehan, editors of special guest cluster “Precarious Times: J.M. Coetzee and the Politics of Survival” and authors of “Introduction: Caring to Survive,” from Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 46, no.2, now a read-for-free feature on Project MUSE.

Ever since the Victorians expanded and redefined its parameters, the novel has been regarded as a, if not the, major literary form. Its resilience is self-evident, having weathered the counter-realist intrusions of modernism and postmodernism, and more recent challenges to its sovereignty by digital forms of publishing and distribution. Yet for the writer J.M. Coetzee, who has published fifteen novels to date, this resilience is a kind of barrier to be overcome, if not eliminated. Throughout his career, he has insistently brought to the novel form elements of the minor—characters, in the first instance, but also narrative elements, cultural practices, and even particular locales—as if to dislodge or expel the major elements that seem so vital to novelistic identity. Coetzee’s novels do not lack drama, but their focus is nearly always on the margins, on those people who exist just out of sight, and the uncertain and contingent lives that they live.

Coetzee gained international prominence as one of South Africa’s most trenchant and clear-sighted authors, signified by his unflinching willingness to document—in fictional form, of course—the cruelty and barbarism of the Apartheid system. It therefore came as a surprise when, at the advanced age of 62, Coetzee left his home country and migrated to Australia. For this second stage of life and career, he began to publish novels with distinctly Australian settings. Most recently, though, in his last few novels—the Spanish-inflected Jesus trilogy and the novella, El Polaco (The Pole, 2022)—Coetzee has stretched his purview still further, questioning the bases of any and all national boundaries. The cluster of essays that we have brought together in “Precarious Times: Coetzee and the Politics of Survival” addresses these shifting locales. It brings new voices and interdisciplinary perspectives to Coetzee studies, reading the author beyond the South African context to reveal a broader, more outward-facing perspective in his work than hitherto thought. This, in turn, also goes some way toward explaining why his books travel so easily across national borders.  

In the novelistic tradition described above, the status and priority of the individual is extolled, simply by dint of its centrality to the plot and, in terms of page-space, its occupying a significant portion of the text. The novel’s protagonist is the hero of the story, the one with agency who undergoes changes, and, therefore, the one able to make life-altering decisions. Across the last century, the literary field also witnessed the rise of the anti-hero—often an alienated loner plagued by doubt and indecision, silently warring with an invisible enemy. By contrast, Coetzee’s marginal protagonists (a paradoxical formulation, if ever there was one!) are, as we show, minor and peripheral, denied even the anti-hero’s residual heroism. In a Coetzee tale, the individual lacks the command to drive the story to its resolution, because inextricable from wider social (and geopolitical) frames.

Lack of command is also tied up with the fact that, as the Swedish Academy astutely observed, “[Coetzee’s] protagonists are overwhelmed by the urge to sink but paradoxically derive strength from being stripped of all external dignity.” The key to survival, in a world without heroism or dignity, and only limited individual agency, is care. Coetzee’s oeuvre highlights the increased importance that care takes, as an ethical counterweight to the neoliberal emphasis on self-responsibility. The rapid spread of COVID-19 worldwide demonstrated how fragile and uncertain, how precarious, is the social infrastructure that braces contemporary life. In our introduction to the guest cluster, “Caring to Survive,” we show how care is closely bound up with a politics of survival, and how the stability of the social fabric depends on the protection of its weaker members. From Michael K’s care for his mother to the conscientiousness with which David Lurie in Disgrace handles the bodies of euthanised dogs, and thence to Marijana Jokić’s expert ministration of the amputee Paul Rayment in Slow Man, Coetzee’s characters are defined above all by their acts of care for others. 

The prevalence of care gives us pause to consider how it might figure in Coetzee criticism, beyond the interpersonal bonds that tie “minor” characters together. Environmental studies, for example, advances a broader and more impersonal kind of concern: caring for the environment in the face of a climate crisis that shows no signs of abating. Yet Coetzee’s enduring resistance to neoliberal orthodoxies suggests already-existing lines of inquiry, as Andrew Gibson’s recent study shows, which could be extended into new and auspicious areas. To date, such an undertaking has focused mainly on non-human animals and their fates; in addition to this, new environmental perspectives have the potential to resituate Coetzee’s work beyond the politics of race or nation, and to reflect on how neoliberal processes aggrandize the individual in ways detrimental to our very existence.  

Works Cited

Lynda Ng is an honorary associate with the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney, and also an adjunct fellow with the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University.  She is the editor of Indigenous Transnationalism: Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (Giramondo Press, 2018).

Paul Sheehan is an associate professor of literature at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of Modernism and the Aesthetics of Violence (Cambridge UP, 2013)and co-editor of “The Literary Image,” a special issue of Textual Practice (2021).

Seventyfour photo courtesy of Adobe Stock Images