two memoirs 12-11-2009

a strange book but not quite strange enough. a fictional memoir by j m coetzee about the recently deceased novelist 'j m coetzee' whose main failings (coolness, dryness, distance) mirror what are sometimes perceived (by those who think he has failings) to be the main failings of the real j m coetzee. it feels like an attempt to expiate that failing in the catholic manner. but it doesn't quite work, anymore than confessing to being a habitual liar makes one honest. indeed, the coolness, the dryness and the distance, are only compounded by the fact that it isn’t a fictional memoir as such, but a collection of fictional interviews and (i presume) fictional notebook fragments which purport to be research material for an intended biography. convolutions which wouldn’t matter if the conceit had a decent emotional pay-off. but, with the exception of a few passages, the conceit is invisible. that is, the book would lose nothing if the main character were called john smith. clever conceits can work. in rosencrantz and guildestern for example (what are minor characters doing when they’re offstage?). or nicholson baker’s mezzanine (what happens in one man’s mind during his lunch hour). but they work because the literary cleverness generates insights of real wisdom (we’re all offstage, victims of greater forces happen elsewhere; a lunch hour is a rich and real as fighting in the trenches or being cast away on a desert island if we look closely enough). but i don’t think this happens here. in fact, if you know nothing about j m coetzee or his work (which is hardly mentioned in the novel) the book would lose nothing by changing the name of the central character. in spite of which it is very readable, mostly because of coetzee's faultless prose (maybe that's his failing, writing too well).

‘me cheeta’ is based on one of those rather brilliant conceits. a hilarious, bitchy, warm, sad and very moving hollywood memoir purportedly written by tarzan’s chimpanzee helpmeet. it seems merely clever at first, then the richness of the metaphor starts slowly to unfold. some of this you can see coming (there’s not a great deal of difference between a talented ape and the stars of hollywood’s golden age). some of it takes you completely by surprise. it's tempting to kill the humour by quoting some of the (great and very rude) jokes. so i won't. just read it.