Diary of a Bad Year by JM Coetzee

Diary of a Bad Year

 

I read this on the recommendation of a friend, who said that she didn’t know anyone else who had read the book and wanted to have someone to talk about it with. I had never heard of it, although JM Coetzee does have several books on The List (not this one, unfortunately, but now I at least want to seek out some more of his work). I also realized, looking over my Goodreads shelves, that this is the first book I’ve read in 2014 that was written by a man. So take that, patriarchy!


The format of Diary of a Bad Year is, at first glance, daunting. Each page is divided up into three sections, each representing the viewpoints of a different character. The first section is for the official writings of Senor C, an aging author who is putting together a collection of essays for a book called “Strong Opinions.” The second section is Senor C’s personal perspective, describing what occurred while he was working on his essays. The third section is for Anya, the woman Senor C hires as a typist. Coetzee starts out easy, dividing each page into just Senor C’s essay and his personal narration, and then gradually adds Anya’s perspective to the bottom of the page. The three voices share pages for a while, and then gradually things shift. Senor C’s essay sections get shorter as the personal perspectives get longer. Sometimes an essay will extend to the second page, leaving you with a choice that another reviewer phrased beautifully: follow the writing, or follow the story? Reading Diary of a Bad Year was, if nothing else, a fun exercise in form, and it’s to Coetzee’s credit that all three sections remain cohesive and never become too confusing.

My biggest problem with this book was Anya – as a character, she’s frustrating. Senor C hires her because he thinks she has a great butt and wants an excuse to spend time with her. Anya is aware of this, and is proud of it. She’s portrayed pretty shallowly, always talking about how it’s important for her to be attractive to men, and she’s in a relationship with an older man who left his wife for Anya. The man, Alan, intrudes on the story halfway through (he has some dumb plan about stealing from Senor C’s bank account with computers, I don’t know) and soon Anya’s perspective becomes overshadowed by Alan’s presence. Anya starts out disdainful of Senor C, gently mocking him as a silly and slightly creepy old man, but by the end of the book, she thinks of him only with respect and reverence. Anya seemed less like a character and more like the personification of JM Coetzee’s personal wish fulfillment – it’s such a cliche, the idea of an older male author wanting some young pretty girl to worship him and his writing, but here it is. It was profoundly irritated to me to see Anya start out looking at Senor C with derision, and end with wide-eyed admiration, especially because he hadn’t done anything to earn it.

It’s an interesting book, especially in terms of form, and I enjoyed it despite my issues with Anya. I’ll have to keep Coetzee in mind the next time I’m looking for a new book, and see if I have a better experience the second time around.

“Of late, sketching stories seems to have become a substitute for writing them. I think of Gyula and his harem of images. It is one of the consequences of growing older that one no longer needs the thing itself, that the idea of the thing suffices – as, in matters of the heart, the entertainment of a possibility, called ideal love by Gyula but more familiar to ordinary people as flirtation, may become a substitute, a not unwelcome substitute, for love itself?”

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