My Mother and Me (and J. M. Coetzee)


Arts & Culture


I was born the year J. M. Coetzee published his third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. My mother read this dark, disturbing novel, with its many scenes of torture, as she breastfed me at night, while my older sister slept and the house was quiet. It was 1980. The apartheid government had declared a state of emergency in the face of growing internal revolt, and my parents were thinking of leaving South Africa again.

My mother nursed me in the spare room so the lamplight wouldn’t wake my father, and as she read, her somatic response to the words on the page would have coursed through her into me: elation and despair, trepidation and longing. I feel I’m still marked by that embodied encounter with Coetzee’s writing, via my mother, as a newborn. Coetzee, who anticipates everything, would say I am inhabiting action in imagining my way back to my neonate self, though even he allows for the possibility of flickerings of insight into other selves or our own younger selves.

Several years later, when I was no longer a baby and my mother was on her way to becoming the first scholar to publish a book on Coetzee’s work, I formed one of my earliest visual memories. It is of the striking cover of this same novel, which lay on the kitchen table in our home in Melbourne, Australia, surrounded by the detritus of a midday meal: half-eaten sandwiches, apple cores. A picture of a white man on his knees, washing a pair of jagged black feet that have been sawed off at the ankles. 

That image haunted me. I wanted to know what was inside the book that kept my mother in its thrall. I could sometimes pinpoint the moment when she fell through the trapdoor into the secret world of her mind, and I knew this book was one of the portals through which I might one day follow her there. She had taken over our dining room as her study, where she’d work from four until eight each morning, sitting on the floor in front of the heater in the chilly dawn hours, writing by hand on foolscap pads. When she came through to join us for breakfast, with rosy cheeks and bright eyes, I was aware that something special had happened to her in those hours, something to which I was not privy.

In Coetzee’s 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello, the adult son, John, remembers that his mother “secluded herself in the mornings to do her writing” while he and his sister would “slump outside the locked door and make tiny whining sounds.” I felt no bitterness at having a door temporarily closed between my mother’s world and mine, for there was never any doubt that my sister and I were front and center of her life; her pleasure in the work of mothering was very evident to us throughout the long days we spent in her care. Instead, I was mesmerized by the way she could switch roles—effortlessly, it seemed to me then—and become immersed in these books written by a mysterious man whom she referred to only as J. M.

Coetzee has always been there, an unseen but strongly felt presence in our small family drama. I suspect it was at least in part owing to his presence that I first learned to take what psychoanalysts refer to as “the third position” so crucial to a child’s maturation, to let somebody else into the intense dyad of mother and child. The psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz, in the recently published correspondence between herself and Coetzee, explains this phase in the child’s development as “the ability to build a space in one’s own mind for the relationships between others.”

Coetzee himself depicts this awareness in his fictionalized autobiographies Boyhood and Youth. The young John is very close to his mother—she is the firmest foundation in his life—but he senses with some unease that she has an interior life of her own, that she had “a life before he came into being, a life in which there was no requirement upon her to give him the slightest thought.” The child has to grasp that the other, usually in the form of the mother, has full personhood—and in so doing, the child intuits the scale of history, that almost unimaginable time, in the words of Roland Barthes, “when my mother was alive before me.”

My mother came into the kitchen on those mornings—often clutching one or another of Coetzee’s novels—in a heightened state of intellectual arousal, a state I have since come to know myself. Barthes vividly describes the jouissance, or bliss, that a “writerly” text can produce in readers by encouraging them to expand beyond the usually passive subject position of the reader and enter instead with the writer into a mutually satisfying interpretation of the text. In his fiction and his critical commentary, Coetzee often describes the spark between writer and reader, master and student. He likes to portray teachers and students walking the dangerously blurred line between physical and intellectual attraction. In his correspondence with Kurtz, he mentions reading an interview with the actress Juliette Binoche in which Binoche says she needs to have an erotic relationship with the directors of her films, or else the work suffers. By this she doesn’t mean she sleeps with them, Coetzee writes, but rather is describing the “quintessential experience of learning, which is a feeling of growing beyond yourself, of leaving your old self behind and becoming a new, better self … a form of ecstasy.”

I’m now in my late thirties, the same age my mother was when she was in her most ecstatic phase of engagement with Coetzee’s fiction. I’ve become acquainted, since having children, with the pace of domestic time, the way the mornings rush by and the afternoons pass as slowly as treacle. How the thought deprivation of early motherhood can be worse than the sleep deprivation, how sublime moments of reading and writing must be snatched in the day’s natural lulls.

Like most people, I feel something akin to terror when I’m asked to respond to Coetzee’s work, intimidated by the notion that his complex books are best parsed in the rarefied world of the academically ambitious. Yet my own most fulfilling experiences of discussing his writing have in fact taken place in more intimate settings. Once I was old enough to read his novels, the conversations I had about them happened over cups of tea with my mother and sister in the lounge, or while we prepared dinner together, or during lazy mornings in our pajamas on family holidays. I recently discussed The Schooldays of Jesus with my mother as she rocked my youngest son to sleep in her arms, and later Skyped with my sister, Lindiwe (who is a scholar of African screen media in London), to talk about an article she cowrote with our mother on film adaptations of Coetzee’s novels a few years back. Her daughter was on her lap, and every now and then we broke into a song to keep her entertained, to buy ourselves a few more minutes of conversation.

I feel grateful to Coetzee for introducing another dimension to our lives as women in the same family. We have each for decades been sustained by his work in different ways. And it strikes me as remarkable that Coetzee brought to life characters like Elizabeth Curren, Susan Barton, and Elizabeth Costello, who are among the most intelligent women I’ve encountered on the page. They are mothers who are also thinkers. The one does not have to cancel out the other. The Elizabeths, in particular, pass on to their children not just an emotional legacy but an intellectual one, sharing with their offspring not only their bodies (wombs, breasts) but the contents of their minds.

The adult children in these books don’t always respond well to their mothers’ philosophizing; in fact, they’re sometimes exasperated by it. Yet Coetzee is open to portraying the ideas that are transmitted between a woman and her children. These women characters have been criticized by some for not being believably female, or taken as mere stand-ins for the author, as if it’s considered unrealistic for a woman to speak to her children about literature, philosophy, theory.

To me, these characters seem not only real but familiar: they remind me of my mother. Once I had embarked on my own life of the mind, in my late teens, she used Coetzee’s novels to teach me how to think. Each one, she showed me, was a lesson in a different mode of knowing and method of representation; each revealed previously camouflaged codes of language. But the books themselves have remained fundamentally opaque to me. Even now, approaching him as writer on writer (a curious phrase that makes me imagine covering his body with my own), I can form no original opinion of his books that is not founded in my mother’s way of thinking. To get to him, I must always step through her formidable mind.

Perhaps this is why I find myself regressing, whenever I read him, to an almost childlike state of wonder and bewilderment. I worship his novels but cannot interpret them without my mother’s prompts, which in turn makes me feel helpless and resentful.

I was relieved to discover I’m not alone in this. In a 2012 essay, the South African scholar Hedley Twidle, who is around my age, admits there is something about Coetzee and his work that makes him behave strangely. He becomes childishly possessive, stalkerish, reluctant to teach Coetzee because he doesn’t want to share him with anybody. He describes watching old footage of Coetzee in Cape Town and feeling certain that if he could only see Coetzee’s bum clad in Lycra as he heads off on one of his cycling routes, all these confusing emotions would be resolved. (In the footage, this wish is of course denied: Coetzee’s jacket is too long.)

To console himself, Twidle cites evidence in others of this same neurotic obsession with an author: Nicholson Baker overidentifies with John Updike, Geoff Dyer with D. H. Lawrence—and to these I might add Virginia Woolf saying of George Eliot that “no one else has ever known her as I know her,” or the novelistic portraits of mania for an author created by Julian Barnes or A. S. Byatt. Twidle asks whether this “obsessive-compulsive” response we have to the authors who mean everything to us can or should be tamed. He wonders what might happen if he let himself respond to Coetzee not with grave seriousness but playfully, flippantly—if that in turn would allow Coetzee’s books to remain fickle and wild.

My mother, like Twidle, has always been fiercely possessive of Coetzee’s work. But she chose never to meet him, though there were ample opportunities to do so; she was satisfied to focus not on his biography—or his Lycra-clad body—but on his books. (J. M.—the initials are an act of distancing, a warning shot my mother heard clearly: Do not come too close; you will not find me here.) Yet, to adopt Woolf ’s description of what a book can be, his novels seemed to issue a sly invitation to join in their “dangerous and exciting game, which it takes two to play.” My mother felt invigorated reading him, but also baffled. What did Coetzee want from his readers and critics: for them to back off or to come closer?

Encountering his work mimics that most primal encounter, in psychoanalytic terms, with the breast, which elicits the infant’s rage and desire simultaneously. Coetzee writes in his fictionalized memoirs that John’s first memory is of his mother’s white breasts and of feeling angry and confused that they had been taken away from him. The breast is offered but then, inevitably, withheld. It is both wonderful and terrible, an object of the child’s most powerful and conflicting emotions, which Arabella Kurtz describes as “frustration, disappointment and longing, alongside feelings of love, calm and satisfaction.”

In a broader discussion with Kurtz about how people often fail to integrate two conflicting interpretations of past events, Coetzee interjects: “All that I see at the moment is the infant and the breast. The breast is good, the breast is bad: two conflicting judgments. How can it (it?) be both good and bad at the same time? What is the truth about it?”

Our first lesson in life is to come to terms with this ambivalence. Perhaps the point of Coetzee’s work—so much of which is steeped in his own deep readings of psychoanalytic theory—is to force us to sit with our conflicting judgments, to accept that his novels will never fully surrender their meaning. He refuses to answer our questions about them except, like Socrates, with more questions.

Reading his books can feel like a form of transference, whereby we unconsciously redirect feelings from formative relationships onto the figure of the author. By returning us to this childlike, childish state, maybe Coetzee is asking us to learn, as we did as infants, how to manage uncertainty, how to live with complexity: the project of a lifetime.


Ceridwen Dovey is the author of Blood Kin, which was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Award and selected for the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, and a collection of stories, Only the Animals, which won the 2014 Readings New Australian Writing Award. Her most recent book is the novel In the Garden of the Fugitives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). She lives in Sydney.

© Ceridwen Dovey, 2018, excerpted from Writers on Writers: On J. M. Coetzee, published by Black, Inc. in association with State Library Victoria and the University of Melbourne on October 1. Reprinted with the permission of the Wylie Agency LLC and Black, Inc.