The Telegraph
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Señor C
- At the gateway to oblivion

DIARY OF A BAD YEAR By J.M. Coetzee, Harvill Secker, £10.25


The structure is polyphonic — a tribute to Bach, “the spiritual father”; the plot secretly reworks James and recalls Kawabata; and the implied master-allusion is to Nabokov. Coetzee’s latest work is a bottomlessly clever feat of intellectual virtuosity and authorial legerdemain. Like Elizabeth Costello and unlike Slow Man, it is and is not just a novel. Most of its pages are divided initially into two, and then into three sections. Hence, the unfolding of Diary of a Bad Year is split into multiple, but simultaneous, levels or voices. Like an orchestral score, this music-haunted book demands to be read from left to right and from top to bottom. And the reader has to work out a way of holding it all together in the head.


The topmost layer presents “Strong Opinions”, a series of brief essays written between September 2005 and May 2006. The title is silently stolen from Nabokov’s similar collection of 1973. In Coetzee’s Diary, “Strong Opinions” gathers reflections on various aspects of the contemporary world, in a voice that is relentlessly cerebral and public as well as darkly private, moody, occasionally vatic. There are meditations on the origins of the state, terrorism, Guantanamo, Blair, Machiavelli, paedophilia, Kubrick’s Lolita, avian influenza, probability, the body, cursing, apologizing, how the history of music runs parallel to the history of feelings — and finally, written with magisterial humility, “On authority in fiction”, and with a logical rigour that is both elegiac and witty, “On the afterlife”.

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The irony of C’s self-professed “quietism”, “willed obscurity” and “inner emigration” becomes fully intelligible only in the light of the knowledge that his creator will not allow himself to look away from. The will to be ruled is inseparable from the will to rule, and together they lie at the heart of fiction, as they do at the heart of everything human and inhuman: “What the great authors are masters of is authority.”


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