“A life lived in cages”: strategies of containment in J.M. Coetzee’s Age of iron, Life & times of Michael K, Elizabeth Costello: eight lessons and “The poetics of reciprocity”

Van Heerden, Imke (2009-12)

Thesis (MA (English))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: In its conversations with four texts by J.M. Coetzee – Age of Iron (1990), Life & Times of Michael K (1983), Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (2003) as well as the critical essays published in Doubling the Point, “The Poetics of Reciprocity” (1992) – this thesis will demonstrate the manner in which the singularities of each of these texts prompt, expand and challenge the framework that sustains its reading of Coetzee’s fiction. Whereas some critical methodologies seek to eliminate the characteristic indeterminacy of Coetzee’s fiction, imprisoning his novels in a contextual cage, this thesis demonstrates an allegiance to the primacy of the literary text together with a concern with the ethics of reading. The thesis proposes – in both content and form – an inductive ‘style of reading’ concerned with the continuous modification of its own strategies according to the ‘internal logics of the text’. I first encountered the term, ‘confinement’, in relation to Coetzee in an unpublished conference paper by Lucy Graham, “‘It is hard to keep out of the camps’: Areas of confinement in the fiction of J.M. Coetzee”. Graham’s paper focuses on the different camps, the ‘different circles of hell’, in Life & Times of Michael K especially, mentioning that ‘images of the camp resonate throughout Coetzee’s most recent fiction’. Although this thesis considers a variety of concrete and conceptual camps as well, it rather places predominant emphasis on the relationship between reader and literary text, which is examined in terms of two forms of delimitation, confinement and containment. This study identifies its style of reading as a ‘containment’ rather than a ‘confinement’. The term is intended to evoke an adaptable, constructive delineation of Coetzee’s fiction that involves a reciprocal relationship between reader and/or critic and text. As the thesis’s primary conceptual tool, one that I will argue is both solicited and thematised in Coetzee’s fiction, containment refers not only to a style of reading, but also to any reciprocal relationship, any mutual exchange. It applies to the relationship between genres (realism and metafiction) and ‘reality’ in Age of Iron; between text and reader in Life & Times of Michael K; between self and other in Elizabeth Costello; and between text and critic in “The Poetics of Reciprocity”. The notion of containment accepts the critical challenge posed by Coetzee’s fiction to engage with what Derek Attridge would call each ‘singular event’ or ‘act of literature’ on its own terms.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: In die tesis se gesprek met vier tekste deur J.M. Coetzee – Age of Iron (1990), Life and Times of Michael K (1983), Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (2003) asook die kritiese tekste wat in Doubling the Point, “The Poetics of Reciprocity” (1992) gepubliseer is – sal dit toon hoe die sonderlinghede van elk van hierdie tekste die raamwerk wat my interpretasie van Coetzee se fiksie ondersteun, uitbrei en uitdaag. Waar sekere kritiese metodologieë probeer om die kenmerkende onbepaaldheid van Coetzee se fiksie te elimineer en sy romans in ’n konstekstuele hok te beperk, demonstreer hierdie tesis ’n getrouheid aan die voorrang wat die literêre teks moet geniet, insluitend ’n gemoeidheid met die etiek van lees. Die tesis stel, ten opsigte van sowel inhoud as vorm, ’n induktiewe ‘leesstyl’ voor wat gemoeid is met die deurentydse aanpassing van sy eie strategieë volgens ‘die interne logikas van die teks’. Ek het die term ‘beperking’ vir die eerste keer teëgekom in ’n ongepubliseerde referaat deur Lucy Graham, “‘It is hard to keep out of the camps’: Areas of confinement in the fiction of J.M. Coetzee”. Hierdie voordrag fokus op die onderskeie kampe in spesifiek Life & Times of Michael K. Graham wys daarop dat ‘die kamp-beeld in resente Coetzee-werke resoneer’. Alhoewel hierdie tesis ook variante van konkrete en konsepsuele kampe bekyk, gaan dit verder om by voorkeur die klem te laat val op die verhouding tussen leser en literêre teks. Dit word ondersoek in terme van twee vorme van afbakening en ontperking, naamlik beperking en inperking. Hierdie studie definieer sy eie leesstyl as ‘inperking’, in teenstelling tot ‘beperking’. Die bedoeling met die term is om `n aanpasbare, konstruktiewe afbakening van Coetzee se fiksie te ontlok wat ’n wedersydse verhouding tussen leser en/of kritikus en teks behels. As die tesis se primêre konsepsuele instrument, waarvan ek sal aanvoer dat dit in Coetzee se fiksie aangevra en getematiseer word, verwys ‘inperking’ nie net na leesstyl nie, maar ook na enige wederkerige verhouding, enige wedersydse uitruiling. Dit geld vir die verhouding tussen genres (realisme en metafiksie) en realiteit in Age of Iron; tussen teks en leser in Life and Times of Michael K; tussen die self en die ander in Elizabeth Costello; en tussen teks en kritikus in “The Poetics of Reciprocity”. Die begrip ‘inperking’ aanvaar die kritiese uitdaging wat deur Coetzee se fiksie gestel word om wat Derek Attridge elke ‘sonderlinge geleentheid’ of ‘literatuurdaad’ sou noem, op sy eie terme te benader.

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