TEXT review

‘An irregular book’

review by Jen Webb

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Elizabeth MacFarlane
Reading Coetzee
Editions Rodopi BV, Amsterdam & New York 2013
ISBN 9789042037014
Pb 191pp AUD64.75

This is the book I’ve been waiting for: one that takes a complex, mixed-up mode of writing – what is often called fictocriticism – and does something genuinely fresh with it. It is not a mode I love, generally, the interweaving of fiction and criticism often seeming to my eye rather laboured, rather contrived; but Elizabeth MacFarlane’s mix of critical and creative writing has captured me. Her prose is exemplary – poised, thoughtful and with felicity of expression – and her analysis is incisive, engaged and informed. She has selected a significant topic, Coetzee’s later works, and found a new angle on them; and the book performs its thesis rather than simply declaring it.

The thesis is the question of the value of literature; but it is no mere working-through of those theoretical positions most of us already know so well we could mutter them in our sleep. Rather, it is the creative application of ways of reading, writing, and thinking. MacFarlane’s work tells the story of the process of reading Coetzee (her own reading, and others’), and then exemplifies it in the form of her creative works that were informed or instigated by the critical work, producing what she calls, in the title of the first chapter, an ‘irregular’ book.


(adj):        contrary to rule or moral principle; abnormal
                uneven, disorderly, not inflected normally;
(noun):     not pertaining to regular army. (Turner 1987: 567)

Irregular: not ‘different’, but ‘non-compliant’. Rejecting the ‘laws of genre’; not conventionally balanced; not properly enlisted in the regular army of critical or creative writing. Because of these various refusals, it is a book that is thoroughly aligned with its subject: here is an author, writing about an author, both of whom mix up form and voice and content, author and protagonist and narrator, to achieve a complex patterning. Because of the (irregular) interleaving of essay, fiction and third-person autobiography, MacFarlane’s work refuses to present its findings in what are so often the only alternatives: either mind numbingly obfuscatory text, or else postmodern playfulness. Here, instead, is literary criticism that reads like a narrative, and is a constant reminder that behind the voice of the text is a human being who is reading, thinking, questioning, deliberating, and conversing.

It is a text, that is, which uses not the active, nor the passive, but the middle voice. MacFarlane spends some time on this point, because though it is at the heart of much of Coetzee’s writing, it is not well understood, or often met, in creative writing classes. Voice, in grammatical terms, is the relationship between the action of the verb and the participants. In English, the options are either that the subject performs the action of the verb (active voice), or receives the action of the verb (passive voice). Coetzee instead applies the middle voice, one that does not have a place in English, one that exists for most of us only in a shadowy, half-forgotten way. The subject of the middle voice is neither agent nor object precisely, but somewhere between, somewhere signaled by the reflexive pronoun.

Coetzee, drawing on Barthes’ analysis, identifies what this means, for an author:

To write (active) is to carry out the action without reference to the self, perhaps, though not necessarily, on behalf of someone else. To write (middle) is to carry out the action (or better, to do writing) with reference to the self… The field of writing, Barthes goes on to suggest, has today become nothing but writing itself, not as art for art’s sake, but as the only space there is for the one who writes. (Coetzee 1984: 94)

This is the space Coetzee inhabits, and it is a space where MacFarlane too sets up shop. She observes, with no small curiosity, that Coetzee has a stable of women protagonists whose initials are E.C.: Elizabeth Curren, from Age of Iron, the eponymous Elizabeth Costello, and Elizabeth, Lady Chandos (both from Elizabeth Costello). MacFarlane’s own initials fit this pattern – Elizabeth Catherine [MacFarlane]. As one who writes, Macfarlane finds a space in the middle ground, where she deploys the middle voice, exploring Coetzee’s anti-argument and the matter of writing with reference to the self writing.

Reading Coetzee is manifestly grounded on a sustained and close reading of Coetzee’s oeuvre – fiction, essay, and everything in between – and to this extent it is a valuable text for anyone interested in a critical engagement with the work of this difficult, barely categorisable author. But perhaps more importantly, it is also a meditation on the work of writing. MacFarlane not only addresses Coetzee’s own expressedly painful process, but takes up the difficulties and struggles of writing as expressed by so many writers: sad Maurice Blanchot; Roland Barthes and his depiction of the labour of writing; Gilles Deleuze seeking out lines of flight; Jacques Derrida doggedly insisting on the struggle between law and act. In this way, Reading Coetzee demonstrates the indeterminacy of writing or speaking, the impossibility of language, and it is thereby threaded through with wistfulness. If I cannot make meaning, why write at all? Or, as MacFarlane puts it, ‘if all speaking falls short, then why all these words?’ (38).

In the chapter titled ‘The ethics of embodiment’ there are hints of possible answers to these very valid questions. But no attempt is made to offer a final answer. All we are left with is the reminder that there is no certainly: we are always suspended between self and self, between self and other, between metaphor and analogy, reason and unreason. But in writing, and in reading, this poetic uncertainty allows points of ethical connection. In reading, we meet the fictional world,

and answer to this world just as a real person in the real world might. We reread it, with the idea of embodiment lingering in our minds and discover: our imagined selves are also answering to an imagined world; it is unreasonable, it is just as real. (121)

The fictional world thereby lays down a path, or a possibility of paths, on which more writing, and more ethical practice, can proceed.


Works cited


Jen Webb is Distinguished Professor of Creative Practice at the University of Canberra, and director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research. Her current research includes two major projects – the first investigates the relationship between art and critical social moments; the other explores the relationship between creative practice and knowledge, focusing particularly on the role of poetry in generating thought and the possibility of ‘knowing’.


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Vol 18 No 1 April 2014
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo