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J.M Coetzee Deconstructed

Needless to say, since arriving in South Africa I’ve been looking hard for First Editions of work by J. M. Coetzee. Got a very good deal on Disgrace and Michael K in Franshoek the other day. Purchased what I’m thinking must, judging from the publisher, be a fairly obscure title, here today in Hermanus.

Not a book by Coetzee, but Teresa Dovey’s The Novels of J.M. Coetzee, Lacanian Allegories, published by AD. Donker (?), out of Capetown, in paperback in 1988.

In her introduction Dovey provides as good an explanation of how Coetzee has used his fiction as criticism, – criticism as fiction – as I’ve come across. Her contention is that his oeuvre is a systematic, measured exploration and utilization of various known techniques and theories of writing. As she puts it:

 “…the novels constitute a profoundly unified body of work, despite the diversity of style necessitated by the adoption of previous modes of writing”

 …which would explain why Coetzee’s novels have, since the publishing of Dovey’s book, continued, over time, to become more and more experimental in nature. Despite wandering into a labyrinth peopled by the likes of Lacan, Kojeve, Derrida, and Paul de Man, Dovey’s book, from what I’ve read so far, contains a lot that is useful. Here are a few notes from the introductory chapter:

Coetzee deliberately adopts and adapts the models and theories that ‘lie to hand’ [to make writing possible], inhabiting them in a way that closely approximates  the Derridean strategy of deconstruction…just as Magda, narrator of In the Heart of the Country, puts it when describing herself as a hermit crab “ that as it grows migrates from one empty shell to another,”

Dovey identifies the following sub-genres inhabited by the novels as follows:

Dusklands: the anthropological/historical/fictional grouped together under ‘journey of exploration.’

In the Heart of the Country: romantic pastoral

Waiting for the Barbarians: the liberal humanist novel

Life & Times of Michael K: the novel of the inarticulate victim

Foe: the intersection of feminist, post-colonial and post modern discourses


The narrators in all of these novels help trace the history of colonialism and neo-colonialism and the forms of discourse which have ‘provided the legitimizing of representations of various phases of imperialism.’ 


Dovey tells us that it would be a mistake to claim that one has access to the novels’ ‘meaning,’ ‘via the ‘meaning’ of the Lacanian subject which resists reduction to a specific unified ‘meaning.’ Rather: the texts attempt to understand the necessity and the rhetorical functioning of textual ambiguity, and resist the mastery of interpretation.

“Coetzee’s novels” she says,

“deconstruct previous genres both in terms of their desire for recognition and in terms of the various forms of their failure to acknowledge the responsibility for the discourse of the Other in themselves. Coetzee’s novels themselves do make this acknowledgement of the discourse of the Other, but are articulated around the necessity and the impossibility of ‘forgiving’ this discourse.”

(A tad rich this sauce…however I’m assuming it will become more digestible upon further reading)


On the paradoxes of the Lacanian ‘split’ subject: Dovey quotes Robert Con Davis: ‘the split indicates a fundamental division in the psychic life, in selfhood, and even within the things we know. “In literary studies, it is a permanent division between within the text and narration.”

Magda speaks for all of Coetzee’s narrators when she says ‘I create myself in the words that create me.’


Dovey then goes on to discuss the master/slave dialectic, the Whites’ hollow mastery and the desire for recognition in which Coetzee’s novels have their genesis; Lacan’s Mirror Stage in which the infant’s first perception of identity is an alienating image of itself; self as subject and object, and the struggle for recognition in ‘intersubjective’ relationships; I and You and living among people without reciprocity, seeking in speech intimacy and response from others; literary texts as gestures of mastery, or gestures of submission to the mastery of the reader as Other; temporality, the ‘what’ of a text as an effect of the ‘how, when and why’ of its telling, aphanesis, psychoanalysis…


All manner of inconclusive yet interesting concepts and ideas about Coetzee will it seems be raised in this book. As with much that is French, I expect fruitful, if frustrating reading.


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3 Responses to “J.M Coetzee Deconstructed”

  1. Pete Rooke Says:

    Ceridwen Dovey is apparently the daughter of Teresa.

    She wrote Blood Kin and Coetzee blurbed it:

    Blood Kin is a fable of the arrogance of power, beneath whose dreamlike surface swirl currents of complex sensuality, male and (particularly) female.

    Slightly icestuous?

    And from what I can gather the novel is quite Coetzeesque.

    Here she describes it as a fable and it seems to be quite a political work:

    It looks interesting.

  2. Nigel Beale Says:

    I’ve noticed that Coetzee is blurbing a lot more now than ever before…perhaps Australia is agreeing with him.

  3. vitor oliveira jorge Says:

    I am sure that Jacques Lacan is one of the most important thinkers of the XX century. But people need to read what he actually said. Onde very important book on him is in French, Dictionnaire Lacan, by Jean-Pierre Cléro, Paris, Ellipses, 2008. It is mainly about his philosophy and based on the seminar.
    Best regards

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