“FROM THE WINNER OF THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE” – there it was, in big fat caps, right across the front of the dust jacket. While I haven’t picked up many books purely for that kind of endorsement, when reading something with a grabbing announcement like that I would hope I could trust that it’s a piece of writing with some merit. At least, a little more merit than a random airport novel. I can put some faith in the fact that it will have an effect on me. Unfortunately, this faith was entirely misplaced in JM Coetzee’s “Diary of a Bad Year”.
Published in 2007, four years after Coetzee received the Nobel Prize for Literature, “Diary of a Bad Year” is a story told through three narrative strands, which run alongside one another throughout the book. Each page, for the most part of the novel, is divided into three parts. Each part is dedicated to a different narrative voice: one is comprised of the essays of a “fictional” writer (referred to as J.C – what a coincidence! How meta!) who is writing for a German collection of essays by writers; the next voice is that of J.C himself, as told to his private diary; the last is the account told by the woman he hires to type up the manuscript of the above essays. The typist influences what the writers considers in his essays, and in his diary he reflects on his relationship with her. She talks about her relationship with her partner, who conspires against the writer.
The blurb on my copy of this book promises “three dynamic and charged voices”, and a book “about how we choose to read”. I was also promised by the jacket an “original” book. I feel cheated on all these points apart from one, and even then it loses its power by seemingly being the only point of the book.
Nabokov said that “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter”. The great authors, according to Nabokov, are those who can combine all three of these things successfully.
Was I enchanted by “Diary of a Bad Year”? No. Not at all, and this was deeply disappointing. I’ve been entirely enchanted by post-modern writings by other people – Italo Calvino, Borges, Georges Perec. I don’t think post-modern writing is past its best-before date at all: Mark Z Danielewski and Dave Eggers are prime examples of well executed recent post-modernist writing. It can still be done, and done well, in new and surprising ways. They play with form and expectations, they jump into your head and fuck shit up and leave you screaming “WOAH!”. JM Coetzee did not enchant me in this way at all.
What about a good storyteller, then? No, not that either. The three narrative voices of “Diary of a Bad Year” are very one-dimensional, very slim offerings. The essayist’s voice stands alone easily as it is from another genre. The voice of Anya (the typist) however, mingles with J.C’s voice in such a way that it’s entirely inconsistent and unconvincing. Coetzee has tried to give Anya a distinctive voice by way of her word-play and flippancy:
“At first I was just supposed to be his segretaria, his secret aria, his scary fairy, in fact not even that, just his typist, his tipitista, his clackadackia…” (pp25-6).
While this creates a very strong voice in places, Anya’s inconsistency as a character means that she dissolves into something more like J.C’s voice, and this doesn’t seem intentional on Coetzee’s part. At the start of her account, Anya is concerned with the effect her “delicious behind”, but later considers the wider implications of the existence of an individual dimension. In the incredibly small space given to each character, Coetzee fails to tell a story that readers invest in. I didn’t care what the writer’s essays discussed, I didn’t care if the writer got it on with Anya, and I didn’t care whether Anya’s partner ripped the writer off or not. I just wasn’t affected by the story at all.
This leaves one more of Nabokov’s traits of a great writer – being a great teacher. Roland Barthes talked about the “writerly text”, which enlists collaboration between writer and reader. “Diary of a Bad Year” certainly does that – readers must work. However, Bathes talked about such texts producing what he called “jouissance” – “bliss”. The only feeling this book provided for me was frustration. As the blurb promised, it is a “book about how we choose to read”. So the point of “Diary of a Bad Year” seems to be simply to teach. As an academic, this might be expected of Coetzee. As a winner of the Nobel Prize, he now has the space to publish experimental work and actually find a market for it. I could forgive all this, if the book actually taught me something, or engaged me in some way. It did not.
I feel like the pitch for “Diary of a Bad Year” would have been enough to impart all the wisdom this book had to offer. The tricksy, clever, post-modern gimmick just isn’t enough to make the book good. It’s a good idea in terms of exploring an interesting point, but badly executed and altogether uninteresting to read, offering little to nothing in terms of storytelling and enchantment.