J. M. Coetzee: ‘After many years of practice, I write good English sentences’

The South African Nobel laureate, a great connoisseur of Latin American literature, published the Spanish translation of his latest novel before releasing it in English. He says it is his way of counteracting Anglo cultural hegemony

The South African writer J. M. Coetzee, photographed in Madrid in 2018.
The South African writer J. M. Coetzee, photographed in Madrid in 2018.víctor sainz
Berna González Harbour

Dante Alighieri defined falling in love in his first known work, The New Life (1294) in such a lyrical and simple way that, centuries later, it continues to hold value.

“She appeared [to me]... I say truly that the vital spirit, which lives in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that I felt it fiercely… from then on I say that [love] governed my soul.”

This is just the appetizer of a text about Dante’s love for Beatrice. She accompanied the Italian poet to all the purgatories and paradises that he described.

J. M. Coetzee – who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 – has recreated and updated Dante’s passion for Beatrice, in the form of a relationship between a Polish pianist in his seventies and a forty-something woman from Barcelona. His latest novel is titled The Pole, published first in Spanish as El polaco by the Argentinian publishing house El Hilo de Ariadna.

“I have specifically published my three most recent novels in the Southern Hemisphere,” he explained to EL PAÍS via email. “They have appeared in Argentina and Australia before [being published] in Great Britain or the United States.”

- ”Are you happy with this decision?”

- ”I’m not sure that following this procedure has had any practical consequences. But the symbolism of publishing in the South before the North is important to me.”

The author, who was born in Cape Town in 1940, has never conformed or limited himself to the South African reality, whose description earned him the Nobel Prize. He has lived and been trained in multiple places and disciplines: he studied English Literature, but also mathematics and computing. He has lived in the United Kingdom, the United States and, currently, he resides in Australia. His work has travelled even farther, from those early novels depicting the narrow-mindedness and breadth of racism and apartheid to his latest story set in Spain.

In The Pole, the main character, Beatrice, has asked the pianist to give a concert in Barcelona. Later, as a courtesy – and without much enthusiasm – she takes him out to dinner. An older couple joins them, serving as a mirror for the reader to get to know the protagonists more deeply. For Beatrice, the relationship ends there – she hasn’t enjoyed the concert and doesn’t connect with the pianist’s supposed talent for playing Chopin’s oeuvre. For him, however, everything has just begun.

The Pole’s infatuation – his return to Catalonia to see her and the visit he makes to the island of Mallorca – gives the novel an inexhaustible palette of sensations, from blind love to compassion, from mistrust to loyalty. Coetzee’s many layers are tidily included in a trim work of 138 pages.

- In your novel, you talk about love, peace and compassion. It also describes good ways to love and bad ways to love, while recreating the myth of Dante and Beatrice. Do you believe in these forms of love?

- The type of love that is celebrated in Dante’s New Life – strongly influenced by the cult of courtly love, which in turn derived from the cult of the Virgin Mary – is already so distant in our present, [because of] its fusion between the erotic and the religious, [which] is practically incomprehensible. However, it is Beatrice who leads the poet Dante through Purgatory and Paradise towards his vision of the divine.

When asked about his experience of Spain, Coetzee recalls: “I’ve spent some time in Barcelona and Girona, but I can’t say I know them well.” And Mallorca? “Everything I know about the island comes from my reading. I have never been there.”

The core of the novel, he says, “comes from the time [that] the novelist George Sand and Frédéric Chopin spent together in Mallorca, where [Chopin] composed most of his preludes.” He is referring to 1838 and 1839, when the lovers spent a few months on the island. This episode is described in Sand’s autobiographical novel, A winter in Majorca, which gave Coetzee one of the main settings for The Pole. In one of the many layers of this book, there is even a debate about how to interpret Chopin.

“I hold Chopin in the highest regard as a composer. He strikes me as the strongest and most original talent of the post-Beethoven generation and has had a lasting influence on keyboard technique.”

Coetzee uses his protagonists to offer up – what we sense – are his own thoughts on music and poetry: “Why is it important?” the pianist asks. “Because it tells us about us. Of our wishes. That which is beyond us.” And Beatrice also reflects: “Music is good in and of itself, just as love is good, or charity, or beauty… [it’s] good for making people better people.”

- What is your experience with the Spanish language as a reader and as a writer?

- At high school, and then later at the University of Cape Town, I studied Latin. In class one day, someone asked our professor what was the point of learning Latin, since it was a dead language. He replied: “If you can master Latin grammar, you will find it easy to master the grammar of any of the modern Romance languages.” He also suggested that we use the Christian Gospels as our basic text, since the language was simple and we would all be familiar with the content (this was true back in the 1950s, maybe it is not so true any more). So I began to read the Gospels in Spanish, and indeed I did not find the language difficult. In the years that followed, I read a lot of Spanish-language poetry (I fell deeply under the spell of Pablo Neruda, as many young poets did in those days). As is my habit, I acquired a reading knowledge of the language without being able to speak it. I was already a middle-aged man when I visited a Spanish-speaking country for the first time. So the answer to your question is that I have a fairly wide-ranging (though somewhat out-of-date) acquaintance with Spanish-language literature, particularly of Latin America, but absolutely no competence as a writer.

- Why do you write?

- Ever since childhood I have had facility with the English language. This is somewhat strange, even to me, since I don’t come from British ancestry and received all my instruction at school from teachers to whom English was a second language. In my teenage years I began writing poems, mainly imitations of the English Romantic poets, and continued to write poetry through my twenties. It was only at the age of thirty that I recognized that I had no future as a poet, and switched to prose, which seemed to me then, and still seems now, second best.

- And how would you define your literature?

- After many years of practice I believe I write good, simple, economical English sentences, with sufficient syntactical flexibility to make them attractive enough, from a musical point of view, to hold the reader’s attention.

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