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Unsuccessful attempts at the Berlin International Book Festival to understand how the reclusive JM Coetzee’s mind works

In JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, a central character, Simon, responds to a piece of well-meant advice by asking, ‘Is that the end of the sermon?’ A question that you, the reader, will also want to pose to Coetzee after reading his latest novel. Add to that another question: What in sweet Jesus’ name is this meandering drivel?

I thought that listening to Coetzee read from the book, at the Berlin International Book Festival on 9 September, would help me make sense of this dense allegorical tale. I thought that by noting his choice of chapters to be read (since he would by no means answer questions), I would have a moment of epiphany. Sadly, that was not to be. My frustration on reading the book was intensified on it being read out in German by Frank Arnold (albeit an expressive rendition) and Coetzee himself doing the English version in a beautifully measured manner. Coetzee and Arnold alternated between four chapters, two in English and two in German. One almost heard the first autumn leaf of the year sail softly down outside, such was the enraptured silence of the audience in the main hall of the Berliner Festspiele where the 11-day-long festival was taking place.

Were there others out there too trying to figure out the complex tale of The Childhood of Jesus, I wondered. If you thought the plot had anything to do with Jesus, you’re so wrong. The only Biblical allusion is the mention of grain and bread in the early chapters. The story revolves around middle-aged Simon, who arrives by boat with five-year-old David at the socialist Spanish city of Novilla. They met on the boat and Simon assumes guardianship of the lost boy. Simon then embarks on a quest to reunite David with his mother. The rest of the maddeningly cryptic story, interspersed with homilies and philosophical disputations, traces their life in this vaguely utopian setting. The book ends as abruptly as it begins and if it is meant to be provocative, it only provokes disbelief that the great Coetzee could have produced something so disappointing.

I have never understood the point of authors merely reading from their books sans a discussion. A die-hard devotee of Coetzee, though one feeling particularly angry at being short-changed at the end of the 277-page-long, nearly €14-priced The Childhood of Jesus, I nevertheless decided to listen to him read again the next day. This time, the readings were from Here and Now: Letters, 2008-2011, Paul Auster and JM Coetzee. Auster himself was not present for the epistolary banter. It would have been a treat to hear the rustling of letters being pulled out of their envelopes, the two literary giants making eye contact, possibly exchanging knowing looks and smiles as they read what they had written to each other over three years. Instead you had Coetzee reading the missives in English and readings in German by Samuel Finzi and Burghart Klaußner. What an unalloyed treat this evening was!

‘I realise I often respond to your remarks with stories about myself,’ writes Auster in a letter to Coetzee dated 2 February 2009. These delightful stories liven up the exchange between the two friends. Auster’s anecdotes work as chatty foils for Coetzee’s sombre ruminations on diverse themes, ranging from friendship, incest, cinema, sport and Israel-Palestine to language and, of course, writing.

The selection that the three gentlemen read was eclectic. Coetzee started with friendship: ‘Considering how important friendships are in social life, and how much they mean to us, particularly during childhood, it is surprising how little has been written on the subject.’ This was followed by Finzi reading from Auster’s brilliant observations on sport: ‘There is no question that games have a strong narrative component. We follow the twists and turns of the combat in order to learn the final outcome.’ Klaußner responded with Coetzee’s reply: ‘I continue to look out for moments of heroism, moments of nobility. In other words, the basis of my interest is ethical rather than aesthetic… Absurdly because modern professional sport has no interest in the ethical: it responds to our craving of the heroic only with the spectacle of the heroic.’

There are several humorous pieces of correspondence, but mostly from Auster. For instance, his regret at not having punched a critic who reviewed his work unfavourably: ‘I myself am too well-mannered to punch or spit, much as I have sometimes wanted to.’ As well as addressing Coetzee as ‘Gramps’ in his reply to the former’s meditations on growing old.

For someone who has always wondered why Coetzee will not talk but only read from his books, I am placated by this: ‘Interrogation is not a medium I do well in. I am too brief in my responses, where brevity (clippedness) is all too often misread as a sign of irritation or anger.’

The book of letters soothes the nerves after the jangling caused by The Childhood of Jesus. It’s a privilege to feel that one has been able to get into Coetzee’s mind, even though you know these letters were meant for publication and therefore Coetzee, the recluse, will not have revealed too much. Ironically, he says in a letter to Auster’s wife Siri Hustvedt: ‘I have been engaged to write a review of a new edition of Samuel Beckett’s letters of the years 1929-1940… the edition in question appears to be based on a sharp distinction between literary correspondence and his personal correspondence. None of the latter is included. The editors also seem determined not to say anything about Beckett’s private life. One consequence is that the reader of the letters has little idea of why Beckett keeps shuttling between Dublin and Paris and Hamburg and London (mostly,one suspects, eros is the spur).’

Touche! That’s what you feel when you read Coetzee’s letters. While Auster emerges as more three-dimensional, Coetzee remains inaccessible. Despite having read his majestic and deeply moving fictionalised memoir in three parts (Boyhood, Youth and Summertime) I find myself still craving to know more.

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