Monday, August 20, 2007

This Writing Life, or, Someone's trying to tell me something, but I can't quite work out what

Some readers of this blog will be familiar with the work of J.M. Coetzee, and will know that in his novels and essays there is much food for thought on the ethical treatment (or more to the point, the unethical treatment) of animals. The vegetarian Coetzee is known for his literary variations on the theme of human cruelty, and his most straightforward and least complex writing is to do with cruelty to animals and all that that implies.

So as I sat down at the keyboard this morning and was poised to bash out the first word of the last draft of a review of his most recent novel (late, and if my editor is reading this, you are being very nice about it -- the not-being-badgered thing will have its reward when you get this copy later today), wholly concentrating on the keyboard, on the screen, and on the syntax and diction of my opening sentence, the phone began to ring.

And it was nice old Alan from the RSPCA, asking which of their fund-raising lines of merchandise I'd like to buy this time. I don't know why I don't just give them money and tax deduct it, but, for whatever reason, I have amassed an extensive collection of teatowels and chopping boards with wombats and toucans on them. I ordered the 2008 calendars -- Australian Birds and All Creatures Great and Small -- and trudged back to the study.

Begin again from Square One, for the nascent sentence has atomised and blown away. Start from scratch, if I could find it. Ah yes, I was going to say this, and put it together with that, and then I was going to segue to ...


Tortoiseshell leaps into lap, kisses my ear, and settles down with her front paws across my right forearm, a position not known for its typing comfort.

Sentence shatters and blows away a second time.

Coetzee would enjoy this scenario, I think, but it's not getting the work done. I'm not game to start again a third time quite yet; I might invoke an elephant, coming trumpeting into this not very big room.


Chris said...

Third time lucky, PC.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

iirc the nazis were one of the first to bring in anti animal cruelty laws.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Godwin's law: you lose.

But I'm curious, FXH -- are you making a point? If so, is it 'Everyone knows the Nazis were the incarnation of evil, therefore it is all right to treat animals any horrible way you like'?

That's like saying 'The Nazis were big on clean neat uniforms, therefore we should all get around stinking of old sardines and cat piss to prove we're Good People.'

I am reasonably sure you don't actually think either of those things, but I can't quite work out why you would make this comment ...

Mindy said...

Maybe it was meant more in a "I'll be you'll never guess who was the first to bring in anti animal cruelty laws" way?

Mindy said...

"I'll bet" that should have been.

ThirdCat said...

People are always saying that to us vegetarians, PC: 'did you know Hitler was a vegetarian'? I've never really understood what point they were trying to make, but Mindy could be right.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

I posted on the hop. I guess my mind leaps around with connections and I just assume everyone does the same and I make sense.

I think I probably thought that many /most people reading would think "ahh someone will say Hitler was a vego"

Then I think I might have thought well I'll say that bit I know about the animal cruelty stuff because we all know that we can't extrapolate from one or two actions into character and predicting future or other actions - (or can we).

I 'm not sure what I meant - it was a fragment of stream of consciousness triggered.

I tend, at times, to assume everyone knows what I mean. Sometimes as you can see I'm not even sure what I mean myself. Or if I meant anything.

As you can imagine its worserer when I can just blurt it out and don't have to type it, then copy a word thing like xxayfoj and click etc.

Pavlov's Cat said...


I get it.

My own feelings about animals and cruelty to animals are too extreme to expose en blogue to anyone who might mock or belittle that. I would want to hunt them down and kill them slowly and painfully.

Clearly this is not a good thing.

redcap said...

Cruelty to animals aside, did you like the book, PC? I find it almost impossible to enjoy Coetzee. I struggled through Disgrace, only made it halfway through Elizabeth Costello and couldn't even bring myself to pick up Slow Man. Please tell me Diary of a Bad Year is readable.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Redcap, I know what you mean (though don't really share your feelings). With Coetzee, enjoying or not enjoying seem sort of beside the point -- it's more a matter of working out what he's doing and why and whether you think it works, or are in sympathy with the book's ideas and/or structure. They're books that set readers some hard tests that many aren't interested in passing irrespective of competence, in much the same way I have no interest in taking either a Physics test (which I would fail horribly) or a Music Theory test (which I wouldn't).

I thought Disgrace was a fabulous novel in the traditional realist-narrative mode, a much more accessible mode than his fiction's now become. I liked Elizabeth Costello for rather different reasons; Slow Man maybe a bit less but the intellectual challenges were still fascinating, and the first 20 or 30 pages an utterly riveting bit of pure, brilliant fiction.

But I doubt if I could read his last few books if I hadn't been steeped in the history of Eng lit and western philosophy, as a professional necessity, for 25 years.

This one's written in a deliberately disruptive way with three different voices layered down the page, very like part-singing. It's interesting and intriguing and some of the stuff about contemporary Australia is terrific -- but I wouldn't say in a general way 'Oh you must read this' -- which is something I would still say about Disgrace.

Sorry to sound so equivocal, and you shouldn't take that as a judgement about the novel -- as a reviewer I've been stubbornly resisting the question 'Yes but did you like it?' for many years, simply because my bent is more towards analysis than it is towards judgement.

lucy tartan said...

Martin's Act of 1822 criminalised the cruel treatment of cattle and is usually quoted as the first piece of animal welfare legislation passed in the modern world.

English legislation on animal welfare has a history of being relatvely progressive and enlightened.

You were better off being a beast of burden in nineteenth century england than a child of the working class.