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Discover J.M. Coetzee

Nobel Prize recipient J.M. Coetzee is a legendary member of the literary community. As a teacher, writer and literary critic, Coetzee's intimate relationship with the written word has only grown stronger since his first book came out over thirty years ago. His novels are concise, but his material is rich and deeply satisfying to readers.

In Inner Workings, we are exposed to Coetzee's illuminating literary criticism as he examines the works of great 20th century writers. The excerpt below highlights some of Coetzee's theories on Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.

But first we get a glimpse into the life of Coetzee himself. Youth is a fictionalized memoir that accounts Coetzee's own struggles as a young man trying to make it as a writer in South Africa and London.

Youth

Youth

In England girls pay no attention to him, perhaps because there still lingers about his person an air of colonial gaucherie, perhaps simply because his clothes are not right. When he is not dressed up in one of his IBM suits, he has only the grey flannels and green sports jacket he brought from him from Cape Town. The young men he sees in the trains and the streets, in contrast, wear narrow black trousers, pointed shoes, tight, boxlike jackets with many buttons. They also wear their hair long, hanging over their foreheads and ears, while he still has the short back and sides and the neat parting impressed on him in his childhood by country-town barbers and approved of by IBM. In the trains the eyes of girls slide over him or glaze with disdain.

There is something not quite fair in his plight: he would protest if he only knew where and to whom. What kind of jobs do his rivals have that allow them to dress as they please? And why should he be compelled to follow fashion anyway? Do inner qualities count for nothing?

The sensible thing would be to buy himself an outfit like theirs and wear it at weekends. But when he imagines dressing up in such clothes, clothes that seem to him not only alien to his character but Latin rather than English, he feels his resistance stiffening. He cannot do it: it would be like giving himself up to a charade, an act.

London is full of beautiful girls. They come from all over the world: as au pairs, as language students, simply as tourists. They wear their hair in wings over their cheekbones; their eyes are dark-shadowed; they have an air of suave mystery. The most beautiful are the tall, honey-skinned Swedes; but the Italians, almond-eyed and petite, have their own allure. Italian lovemaking, he images, will be sharp and hot quite different from Swedish, which will be smiling and languorous. But will he ever get a chance to find out for himself? If he could ever pluck up the courage to speak to one of these beautiful foreigners, what would he say? Would it be a lie if he introduced himself as a mathematician rather than just a computer programmer? Would the attentions of a mathematician impress a girl from Europe, or would it be better to tell her that, despite his dull exterior, he is a poet?

He carries a book of poetry around with him in his pocket, sometimes Holderlin, sometimes Rilke, sometimes Vallejo. In the trains he ostentatiously brings forth his book and absorbs himself in it. It is a test. Only an exceptional girl will appreciate what he is reading and recognize in him an exceptional spirit too. But none of the girls on the trains pay him any attention. That seems to be one of the first things girls learn when they arrive in England: to pay no attention to signals from men.

What we call beauty is simply a first intimation of terror, Rilke tells him. We prostrate ourselves before beauty to thank it for disdaining to destroy us. Would they destroy him if he ventured too close, these beautiful creatures from other worlds, these angels, or would they find him too negligible for that?

In a poetry magazine—Ambit perhaps, or Agenda—he finds an announcement for a weekly workshop run by the Poetry Society for the benefit of young, unpublished writers. He turns up at the advertised time and place wearing his black suit. The woman at the door inspects him suspiciously, demands his age. 'Twenty-one,' he says. It is a lie: he is twenty-two.

Sitting around in leather armchairs, his fellow poets eye him, nod distantly. They seem to know one another; he is the only newcomer. They are younger than he, teenagers in fact, except for a middle-aged man with a limp who is something in the Poetry Society. They are younger than he, teenagers in fact, except for a middle-aged man with a limp who is something in the Poetry Society. They take turns to read out their latest poems. The poem he himself reads ends with the words 'the furious waves of my incontinence.' The man with the limp deems his word-choice unfortunate. To anyone who has worked in a hospital, he says, incontinence means urinary incontinence or worse.

He turns up again he next week, and after the session has coffee with a girl who has read out a poem about the death of a friend in a car accident, a good poem in its way, quiet, unpretentious. When she is not writing poetry, the girl informs him, she is a student at King's College, London; she dresses with appropriate severity in dark skirt and black stockings. They arrange to meet again.

They meet at Leicester Square on a Saturday afternoon. They had half agreed to go to a film; but as poets they have a duty to life at its fullest, so they repair to her room off Gower Street instead, where she allows him to undress her. He marvels at the shapeliness of her naked body, the ivory whiteness of her skin. Are all Englishwomen as beautiful when their clothes are off, he wonders?

Naked they lie in each other's arms, but there is no warmth between them; and warmth, it becomes clear, will not grow. At last the girl withdraws, folds her arms across her breasts, pushes his hands away, shakes her head mutely.

He could try to persuade her, induce her, seduce her; he might even succeed; but he lacks the spirit for it. She is not only a woman, after all, with a woman's intuitions, but an artist too. What he is trying to draw her into is not the real thing—she must know that.

In silence they get dressed. 'I'm sorry,' she says. He shrugs. He is not cross. He does blame her. He is not without intuitions of his own. The verdict she has delivered on him would be his verdict too.

After this episode he stops going to the Poetry Society. He has never felt welcome there anyway.

He has no further luck with English girls. There are English girls enough at IBM, secretaries and punch operators, and opportunities to chat to them. But from them he feels a certain resistance, as if they are not sure who he is, what his motives might be, what he is doing in their country. He watches them with other men. Other men flirt with them in a jolly, coaxing English way. They respond to be flirted with, he can see that: they open like flowers. But flirting is not something he has learned to do. He is not even sure he approves of it. And anyhow, he cannot let it become known among the IBM girls that he is a poet. They would giggle among themselves, they would spread the story all over the building.

Inner Workings

Graham Greene, Brighton Rock

To the wider world, Brighton of the 1930s presented the face of an attractive seaside resort. But behind that face lay another Brighton: tracts of shoddily built houses, dreary shopping areas, and desolate industrial suburbs. This 'other' Brighton bred disaffection and criminality, much of the latter concentrated on the race-track and its lucrative pickings.

Graham Greene made a number of trips to Brighton with the purpose of soaking in its atmosphere and gathering material for his fiction. This research was first drawn on in A Gun for Sale (1936), a novel in which Battling Kite, leader of a gang that extorts money from bookmakers in return for protection, has his throat slit by the rival Colleoni gang.

Out of the murder of Kite grows the action of Brighton Rock (1938), which was initially planned as just another crime novel of kind that might easily be adapted for the screen. The book starts with the hunting down of Fred Hale, a reporter used by Colleoni as an informer, by the Kite gang. In an act that is not described, Kite's lieutenant, a youth named Pinkie Brown, kills Hale, perhaps by pushing a stick of the hard red-and-white candy known as Brighton Rock down his throat. The body is unmarked: the doctor who conducts the post modern concludes that Hale died of a heart attack.

But for Ida Arnold, an easygoing demi-mondaine whom Hale meets on the last day of his life, and but for Rose, the young waitress who unwittingly reveals the flaw in Pinkie's alibi, the case would be closed. The action of the novel thus moves in two converging lines: Pinkie's attempts to ensure Rose's silence, first by marrying her, then by talking her into a suicide pact; and Ida's quest, first to get to the bottom of the mystery of Hale's sudden death, then to save Rose from pinkie's machinations.

Pinkie is a product of the 'other' Brighton. His parents are dead; the schoolyard, with its hierarchies of power and its causal sadism, rather than the schoolroom, has afforded him his education. The gangster Kite has been his adopted father or big brother, Kite's gang his surrogate family. Of the world beyond Brighton he is utterly ignorant.

Amoral, charmless, prim, seething with resentment against 'them' and against the 'bogies' (police) used by 'them' to keep him down, Pinkie is a chilling figure. He distrusts women, who in his view have nothing on their minds but marriage and babies. The very thought of sex revolts him: he is haunted by memories of his own parents' Saturday night tussle under the bedclothes, to which he had to listen from his own bed. While the men he commands now that Kite is dead have transitory relationships with women, he is locked into a virginity of which he is ashamed but from which has no idea of how to escape.

Into his life comes Rose, a plain, timid girl ready to worship any boy who takes notice of her. The story of Pinkie and Rose is the story, on Pinkie's side, of a struggle to bar the entry of love into his heart, on Rose's of dogged persistence in loving her man in defiance of all prudence. To preclude her from testifying against him if he is ever brought to trial, Pinkie marries Rose in a civil ceremony that both know to be an offence against the Holy Ghost. Not only does Pinkie marry Rose, he grimly goes through with the ordeal of consummating the marriage; and, before the veil of misogynistic hatred and contempt once again descends, finds that lovemaking is not at all that bad, that he can look back on it with a kind of pleasure, a kind of pride.

Only one more time does pinkie have to repulse the batterings of redemption upon his walled-in heart. As he drives Rose to the lonely spot where, if his plan works, she will shoot herself, he feels 'an enormous emotion... like something trying to get in; the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass...If the glass broke, if the beast—whatever it was—got in, God knows what it would do.'

What holds Pinkie and Rose together is the fact that they are both 'Romans', children of the True Church, of whose teachings they have the merest mattering but which gives them nevertheless an unshakable sense of inner superiority. The teaching on which level they rely most heavily is the doctrine of grace, summed up in an anonymous poem that has impressed itself on the memories of both:

My friend judge not me,
Thou seest I judge not thee:
Betwixt the stirrup and the ground,
Mercy I asked, mercy I found.

God's grace, in Catholic teaching, is unknowable, unpredictable, mysterious; to rely on it for salvation—to propose repentance until the moment between the stirrup and the ground—is a deep sin, a sin of pride and presumption. One of Greene's achievements in Brighton Rock is to raise his unlikely lovers, teenage hoodlum and anxious child bride, to moments of comical yet awful Luciferian pride.

Read more books by J.M. Coetzee