UTS expert on J M Coetzee

ELSSA Research Officer and J M Coetzee expert, Dr Teresa Dovey, with a copy of Coetzee

When novelist J M Coetzee migrated to Australia recently, the news thrilled his local followers but disappointed Coetzee scholar, South African and UTS Lecturer Dr Teresa Dovey.

Dr Dovey's book, The Novels of J M Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories, was, in 1988, the first full-length critical study of the two-times Booker prizewinner. At Melbourne University she wrote a doctoral thesis on Coetzee and since then has monitored his literary oeuvre.

Dr Davey is a researcher and lecturer in the English Language Study Skills Assistance Centre (ELSSA), which sponsored her participation at a Coetzee conference held at Warwick University in the United Kingdom. ELSSA Director Alex Barthel said the Centre encouraged its staff to pursue their research interests, which enriched their teaching and benefited their students.

At the conference, she presented a paper titled "Somewhere at the end of the road: Responding in fiction to Coetzee's writing", an excerpt from the novel she is writing at present.

Given that Dr Dovey has immersed herself in Coetzee's works for almost two decades and places him firmly in the forefront of contemporary Western writers, why does she feel let down that he has relocated to Australia?

Dr Dovey believes that Coetzee's strengths as a writer have derived substantially from his acknowledgement of his responsibilities as a white writer in South Africa.

"It's difficult to describe but I was shocked and disappointed when I heard that he was moving to Australia. While I've come and gone over the past 20 years, I always just accepted that he was there - like a lodestone — knowing he was bringing out a book every two or three years I'd wait to see what his next commentary would be because every novel was his response to a particular historical moment.

"Until now his work has been so grounded in that historical context, he drew on it and brought his intellectual powers to bear on it and his commentary was incisive yet subtle, offering a sophisticated cultural critique in a literary form.

"He is a linguistics scholar and a literary theorist, a philosopher and an interpreter of culture. As a post-modernist writer in a post-colonial context, he was writing self-reflexively about what it meant to write as a white South African, so I think it's a great loss not to have him speaking out of that context."

Dr Dovey believes that in Coetzee's most recent novel, Elizabeth Costello, he turns away from these concerns to address the "big" philosophical issues, orchestrating debates on the nature and value of writing, the role of the humanities over the past centuries, the rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment, the relationship of humans as animals to their disempowered fellow animals, and "the embodied nature of the self".

"We are asked to dwell on the ageing body of Elizabeth Costello but the body of the narrative is skeletal, with the barest details about this character — an Australian novelist who delivers speeches in Europe and America and gives talks on a luxury cruiser where she is employed to entertain the rich and idle.

"In expounding directly upon her ideas, she does what Coetzee himself has refused to do on similar occasions. Instead he has made her his fictional vehicle.

"For me, the philosophising fails because the fictionalising fails. Elizabeth Costello is not convincingly embedded in an historical context in the way her earlier incarnation, Elizabeth in The Age of Iron, was embedded in South Africa in the late 1980s.

"She is not embedded and so, in the end, she is not adequately embodied either. But perhaps, on the grounds of Coetzee's own history as a writer, one should allow the claim made on his behalf by Elizabeth, in the closing passages of the book, for a view of the writer as seer, as ‘secretary of the invisible', possessing the power of revelation given to the insane."