JM Coetzee's 1950s selfies are dynamite!

An exhibition of photos from the personal albums of Nobel laureate JM Coetzee offers a fresh view of the great writer

26 November 2017 - 00:00 By CARLOS AMATO

Have a look at these four selfies by JM Coetzee. For real. It's him.
Meet John Maxwell Coetzee, with his collar snapped up in tribute to his cricket idols, messing around with his camera in 1955 or 1956. He was 15 or 16, a schoolboy at St Joseph's Marist College in Rondebosch, Cape Town, and he owned two cameras: a novelty "spy" camera and an Italian-made 35mm Wega, a copy of a Leica II. These pictures were taken with the Wega.
These photos and many others by Coetzee can be seen in Photographs from Boyhood, an exhibition at the Irma Stern Gallery in Rosebank, Cape Town, which opened yesterday. The negatives and prints were offered to Coetzee scholar Hermann Wittenberg when the novelist sold his Cape Town flat in 2014.
Have another look at the selfies. Technically they aren't true selfies, because Coetzee can't see himself as he clicks. Oh, but he can. Mirrors existed in the 1950s - and anyone who has read his memoirs will know that the young Coetzee was obsessively observant of his own awkward presence, both external and internal.Like any given teenager, he spent much of his time watching himself growing up. The difference with Coetzee is that he somehow archived all the raw psychic data of his rampant worry and self-absorption and condensed it, decades later, into three of the most unsparingly forensic memoirs ever printed.
In Boyhood, Youth and Summertime, we watch Coetzee watching his younger self watching himself growing up. It's a hall of selfies, and not a fun one. Reading Youth, you feel a strong need to kick the young Coetzee in the arse, as does the old Coetzee, it seems. To make matters worse, you can also feel the old Coetzee reading us while we read young Coetzee. Bladdy freak.
But for all the apparent precision of those three books, they gave us no access to the kid you see on the bottom right. That goofy, uncontrived grin is just one of the exhibition's several glimpses of an elusive quality, at least in the public imagination: the happy John Coetzee.
Here's John the cricket nut, batting for hours alone against his garden wall in Plumstead, deep in his test-match fantasies. Here's John the dorky prankster secretly photographing his schoolteachers - sadistic, cane-wielding Marist brothers - as they nodded off in class. Here's John the buddy of Nic Stathakis and Harry Cartoulis, a duck-tailed wide boy "who was reputed to have had sex, the real thing".In an interview with Wittenberg, Coetzee explains his youthful pleasure in photography. "Let me just say that in the 1950s 'serious' photography carried considerable cultural cachet. It was also a manly activity, in contrast to such effeminate activities as composing poetry or playing the piano."
Then came the voodoo of the darkroom. "I believe I was interested in being present at the moment when truth revealed itself, a moment which one half discovered but also half created. This was, I think, the aesthetic behind the practice of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson," said Coetzee.
"What I discovered over the course of time, unfortunately, was that I didn't have the eye of an artist-photographer. For a while I told myself that this was because I wasn't taking enough pictures: the photographers I read about thought nothing of taking a whole roll of 36 of a single subject, while I had to ration my shots.
But the truth was that I was never open enough to the world, particularly to other people's experience. I was too wrapped up in myself, which is not unusual at that age."
When Wittenberg asks him to map out the theme of photography in his fiction, he blocks like Kepler Wessels. "The marks of photography ... are all over my work, from the beginning (The Vietnam Project). It's not my job to join up the dots."
It's this kind of imperious honesty, combined with shyness, that has led many to think of Coetzee as a cold man - and even more wrongly, a cold mind. Coetzee would never deign to stoke public love with the performative tools of the savvy contemporary writer: festival panels, book signings, topical op-eds, smart-assed tweets.
I speak from experience, having completed a creative writing module with him at the University of Cape Town in the late '90s. He was by turns brutally blunt with us - a sample comment, made in the presence of the whole class: "If you are thinking of becoming a writer, you should reconsider" - and miraculously attentive to every line, every word, of our earnestly crap short stories.
I have treasured the hard copy of one of my efforts, in which Coetzee has circled a paragraph and scrawled "dull writing" in the margin.Coetzee's novels seem to cast a frigidity because they search psychic wounds with an attentiveness that feels dispassionate, medical. But of course that kind of stillness of attention requires more emotional strength than the rest of us have, not less.
"Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt," noted the magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians. And when you keep on tracing the twisting shapes of pain, the ways in which whole selves and whole societies become deformed, you don't make people love you or love reading you. But you can end up telling all kinds of truth. You might even bag a Nobel prize.
But the real problem that critics have with Coetzee is a double-barrelled one: Disgrace and his Disgraceful Emigration. Soon after his gloomy Booker-winning masterpiece, which seemed to suggest that white South Africa is a grotesque colonial residue, an untenable parasite on a furious and dehumanised black host, Coetzee left for Australia.
For many "patriotic" South African critics of the left, and for former president Thabo Mbeki, this was an insulting injury. In a nutshell, their objection was: "How can you say this country is a shit-hole and then LEAVE! Of course it's a shit-hole but we are STAYING because we are PATRIOTS!"Since then, Coetzee's creativity has lost urgency and force. That happens in Adelaide. But he still contributes to South African society by remotely preventing the onset of Alzheimer's among his former colleagues in South African university English departments.
A couple of years back, the UCT duo of Ian Glenn and Imraan Coovadia engaged in a spectacularly bitchy essay-duel about Coetzee. Google it: lit-crit doesn't get juicier, in an exchange that runs to tens of thousands of words.
It can be paraphrased thus:
Coovadia: Why the hell does everyone worship Coetzee? He's lost his edge since he left, and anyway he was no struggle hero.
Glenn: How very dare you? Coetzee is ten times better than you or any other South African novelist.
Both Glenn and Coovadia are right. But neither knew he could take a mean selfie.
• JM Coetzee: Photographs from Boyhood is at Cape Town's Irma Stern Gallery until January 20

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