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Beyond the Lone Islands

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Book Review: Slow Man

Slow Man is a novel from 2005 by J.M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.

For the first twelve chapters, it appears to be a pretty straightforward story. The main character, Paul Reyment, a man ”on the threshold of comfortable old age” as the text on the back cover says, is the victim of a traffic accident, which results in the amputation of one of his legs. Besides the common problems of old age, he now also has to deal with becoming an invalid, dependent on other people for help with the most trivial things. He has to hire a nurse to take care of him, and he goes through a few before he finds one with whom he feels comfortable. When he does find her, he soon finds himself developing feelings for her that go beyond the patient-nurse relationship. He lets daydreams run away with him; extending his affection to her children, but ignoring (among other things) the fact that there is also a husband in the background whom he has never met.

The story so far is interesting in itself, and well-written enough to keep the reader's interest up.

Then one day Paul ”takes the plunge”, bringing his feelings for Marijana out into the open... And from that point on, we are no longer in a straightforward story at all; because suddenly, on Paul's doorstep, out of nowhere, Elizabeth Costello arrives, and starts to interfere.

Slow Man is the first book I ever read by Coetzee. I was not aware, when entering chapter 13, that Elizabeth Costello is also the title of a separate novel preceding this one, from 2003. I found that out later, when reading up on the author a bit. I'm not sure it matters much, however, because it is pretty obvious from the context of Slow Man alone, that Elizabeth Costello (in this book) appears as the ”alter ego” of the Author.

This is how she presents herself:

'I was going to say I was from the State Library,' she says. 'I was going to introduce myself as one of the Library's volonteers, come to assess the scale of your donation, the physical scale I mean, the dimensions, so that we can plan ahead. Later it would have come out who I actually am.'
'You are not from the library?'
'No. That would have been a fib.'

(Paul has a collection of old photographs which he has decided to bequeath to the State Library after his death.)

It is made clear that Elizabeth Costello is the Elizabeth Costello, renowned writer; and she goes on to quote the initial paragraph from the first chapter of the book we are in...

The continued dialogue between Paul and Elizabeth does not only bring to the surface all the moral and practical problems that Paul has been suppressing or ignoring in his daydreams; it also brings to the surface the Author's struggle with the independence of her own creation. The interaction between them is far from simple. For example, Paul, who at first just ”occurred to” Elizabeth - ”a man with a bad leg and an unsuitable passion”, turns out to have a past, which she knows nothing about – it is he who has to tell her about it, not the other way round.

Enough revealed. This is a book which manages to do at least three things simultaneously: Tell a good story. Raise questions about some serious moral issues. Analyse the relationship between the writer (any writer) and his/her work of fiction. All done with an admirable mix of humour and compassion!


1 comment:

Don said...

Sounds interesting. I always enjoy authors who use their characters to muse about life's puzzles. Heinlein was one who did it well. Hesse also. (Perhaps I date myself.) ;-)


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