Summer Reading Tips – J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007)

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Summer has arrived – sorry – you have arrived at summer, and with summer you’ve presumably reached freedom. You leave a year of university behind you; another year of musty academia that simultaneously bore and excite you; another year of consuming dense and authoritative ‘researches’, ‘considerations’, ‘analyses’ – half of which end in a proclamation of what basically amounts to “well we haven’t quite gotten our answer but we’ve had just the greatest time thinking about this”. And now you get to leave all that behind you for a little while.

Except you don’t! Because I’m gonna recommend J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of A Bad Year to you! Which is mostly very academically written! Whoo, double whammy!

I can wholeheartedlystate that this novel is the bees knees, and I will back up that statement with an exciting overview, starting now. Diary of A Bad Year consists of two parts, the whole of which is about an esteemed, aging writer – only referred to as Señor C – who is commissioned by a Very Serious German publisher to make his contribution to a Very Serious Academic essay collection, aptly named Strong Opinions.

The first part of the novel concerns the contents and the writing process surrounding C’s contributions to the Strong Opinions, and the second part contains a completely different set of essays of his own called Soft Opinions2. Determined to make a last fiery mark on the world before his steadily worsening parkinson’s disease renders him unable to write, before fades into obscurity, C. fervently discusses a wide variety of topics in Strong Opinions, ranging from the concept of national responsibility and shame, Machiavelli, vegetarian philosophy to the guidance systems of missiles in the 1960s, avian influenza and ‘Australia’s way of handling refugees’. He spends his days writing in his dingy, dark, musky flat, while his neighbour Ana types up his writing for him. He worsens, worries, desperately tries to hold onto and reaffirm the sense of academic authority he’s lost through the years, and meanwhile coy, no-nonsense Ana and her frosty partner Alan discuss and ponder the old man’s work and offer their own perspectives.

In the meantime, one of the most interesting things about the book is the narrative structure: we are at all times privy to three distinct narrative voices on each page – namely, C’s essays themselves at the top, the private thoughts and experiences of C in the middle and the private thoughts and experiences of others on the bottom. These voices at different times intersect and, contradict or affirm each other, and make for a very fun and very confusing reading experience. At any time a voice may pause, fall back, jump forward, become more or less prominent, or in any other way weave closer to or further from the other two voices. On the one hand this means that there are endless orders in which we can read the novel, and on the other hand this confusion functions as a question mark – how does one narrative correlate with and/or influence the others? This question also figures in a more human context, as we as readers can increasingly see how C’s private flaws, struggles and insecurity express themselves in his seemingly stoic and authoritative work, and how Ana’s and Alan’s criticisms effect his ongoing inner life – both on an academic as well as on a private, personal level.

Through a graceful counterpointing of different perspectives Coetzee weaves a taut reflection on age, academia, and authority in writing that defies isolationist interpretations of any text and is sure to touch a nerve with anyone who has ever wondered about the humanity behind the stone-faced academese.

Recommendations aside, I would like to wish all of you a fulfilling reading experience and a great summer!

1For more literature on the concept of ‘wholeheartedness’, make sure to check out Harry Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love (2004). Joking aside, this is actually a really cool and accessible and short book as well :P.
2Because I’m a nasty person, and because I don’t want to spoil too much, I’m not going to divulge anything else about C’s Soft Opinions in this recommendation!

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