Novelists seldom grow old gracefully. ‘All writers go off,’ as the late Martin Amis once put it, and while they are hardly unique in that respect, when writers go off the consequences can be dire. A late run of mediocrity has a way of souring a literary legacy, which is one reason why new books by distinguished writers make reviewers nervous. Have they finally gone off? Happily, J M Coetzee seems to be one of the rare exceptions; rather than running out of steam, he has slipped comfortably into a late style. The stories in The Pole reflect on the relationship between ageing and artistry, touching on many of Coetzee’s characteristic preoccupations: self-knowledge and self-deception; suffering and empathy; the rights of the vulnerable. Together they might be said to constitute his portrait of the artist as an old man.
Or an old woman. Four of the six stories collected here revisit Coetzee’s fictional avatar, the writer Elizabeth Costello, at intervals in her own late life. Although Costello remains as appealingly spiky as ever, these stories trace her gradual decline from spry intellectual in her early seventies, complaining self-deprecatingly about the shortcomings of modern civilisation and brushing aside offers of hospitality from her concerned children, to near-recluse living in the hills of rural Catalonia, sharing her draughty cottage with a clowder of stray cats and suffering from the early effects of dementia.
‘The Pole’, which occupies two-thirds of the book, is a stranger and more contemplative work. Beatriz, a Spanish socialite and banker’s wife, agrees to play host to Witold, a renowned Polish pianist who is visiting Barcelona to give a recital to her music society. Despite their age difference – she is in her forties, he in his seventies – Witold develops an infatuation with Beatriz, who, after mounting a rather half-hearted resistance, briefly accepts him as a lover. Some time later Beatriz learns of the Pole’s death and receives a small legacy: a collection of love poems addressed to her. The rest of the story recounts Beatriz’s attempts to have the poems translated and to come to some understanding of what they might mean to her beyond the plain words on the page.
Having appeared last year as a standalone novel in a Spanish translation by Mariana Dimópoulos, ‘The Pole’ continues Coetzee’s recent preference for publishing first in languages other than English, as do three more of the six stories collected here (the two exceptions are the Elizabeth Costello story ‘As a Woman Grows Older’ and the brief concluding tale ‘The Dog’, a minimalist piece that amplifies a theme from 1999’s Disgrace). Late in life, Coetzee has emerged as a self-consciously global novelist, whose disquiet at the dominance of the English language in which he writes has profoundly affected the ethical as well as the aesthetic dimensions of his fiction. Appropriately, then, ‘The Pole’ is a story about the difficulties of communicating across the barriers between languages, sexes, generations – and across the hard gap that divides the dead from the living. It’s also a story about legacies, both personal and literary, and Coetzee alludes liberally to his own earlier work as well as that of other writers. The elegant, self-regarding Beatriz seems a distant relation not only of her namesake in Dante (another banker’s wife), but also of those society women who, in T S Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’, flock ‘to hear the latest Pole/Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and finger-tips’.
Witold, too, is a dramatic interpreter of Chopin, yet the two descriptions of his style that appear in the story are contradictory. In one, his reputation is that of an ‘austere’, ‘dry’ and ‘severe’ modernist; in the other, an English reviewer praises his ‘soft-toned and Italianate’ Romanticism. Coetzee’s oblique late works often seem wilfully, if subtly, to resist readers’ instinctive search for the clarity of objective fact; instead, they insist that acts of interpretation – whether literary, linguistic or musical – are always open to revision or contradiction. Beatriz, who at the beginning of her story has ‘no time for … circumlocutions, word games, veiled meanings’, ends it by dedicating herself to an intimate interpretative project with no possible conclusion. Costello, meanwhile, already knows that neither novels nor lives are merely ‘a succession of problems presented to the intellect to be solved’. She too pursues an interpretative project without end in trying to imagine and understand the lives of animals.
These stories are tinged with mourning – for the artist on his or her way out of the world, for the missed opportunities for connection and communication, and ultimately for the waning of the life force that Coetzee, like his alter ego, understands as the common inheritance of non-human species as well as human beings. But they are also touched with a moral intensity which, despite the ruses of fiction, is never quite separable from the voice of the author. Among the fruits of Costello’s wild imagination is a half-serious plan to construct a transparent model slaughterhouse so that the public might be introduced to the shocking reality of animal slaughter: ‘It occurred to me that if there were an abattoir operating in the middle of the city, where everyone could see and smell and hear what goes on inside it, people might change their ways.’ Idealistic, perhaps, but it’s a striking image: a transparent model inviting onlookers to bear witness to the suffering that sustains our common life. You get the feeling that Coetzee would like his fiction to serve a similar purpose.