words. music. pictures. scheherazade.
What is realism? J.M. Coetzee’s narrative parlour trick. Iron & Wine and “Tree By the River.” Nostalgia, sex and mnemonics.
What is realism? That is the central question running throughout the first section of J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, aptly titled - wait for it - “Realism.” I don’t know any other writer who is more intelligently mischievous than Coetzee, and he plays it very sly in this section. The premise is simple: Elizabeth Costello, a famous literary writer, arrives in a Pennsylvania college town to accept an award with her son. The narrative pivots around the apparently useless function of realism in contemporary literature -
Realism has never been comfortable with ideas. It could not be otherwise: realism is premised on the idea that ideas have no autonomous existence, can exist only in things.
And in fiction, according to this narrator, characters embody contending ideas but in doing so, prohibits the ideas from floating free. Coetzee also does his tongue-in-cheek best to expose the artifice of his fictional construct; he pushes along the action with dispassionate directives that seem more like cookie-cutter screenplay directions than anything, i.e.: “We skip the rest of the hotel scene, move to the foyer.” Mapquest directions can seem less bland than this.
Yet, this is a deliberate game. The reader realizes that Coetzee’s narration is anything but dispassionate, as it’s a remarkable act of psychological ventriloquism, a free indirect speech which closely tracks the interiority of Elizabeth’s son. All the while Coetzee points out the artifice of realist fiction, pointing out that realism tethers ideas and imaginations down to things, the evidences that Coetzee underhandedly presents through his writing prove the exact opposite - that the things that we are bound by, even and especially our bodies, actually open up our imagination, our emotional lives. For example, Elizabeth’s son sleeps with a woman who interviewed his mother earlier in the day. Coetzee chooses to narrate the son’s experience retrospectively. “We skip ahead in the text rather than in the performance,” he says -
When he thinks back over those hours, one moment returns with a sudden force, the moment when her knee slips under his arm and folds into the armpit. Curious that the memory of an entire scene should be dominated by one moment, not obviously significant, yet so vivid that he can still almost feel the ghostly thigh against his skin. Does the mind by nature prefer sensations to ideas, the tangible to the abstract? Or is the folding of the woman’s knee just a mnemonic, from which will unfold the rest of the night?
What a passage. That haunting last question posed with a Proustian inflection: Or is the folding of the woman’s knee just a mnemonic, from which will unfold the rest of the night? From the smallest containment - a glimpse of a fold from a woman’s knee - a dream space opens up, a narcotic space divinely expansive with metaphysical proportions.
Which brings us to the attached music file, sorry about the circuitous route. Sam Beam, in a brief introduction to the live account of this song in NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, says that it took him more than 10 years to write this brief song. It begins this way -
Mary Anne, do you remember
the tree by the river
when we were seventeen?
Dark canyon wall, the call and the answer
and the mare in the pasture
pitch black and baring its teeth.
Not difficult to imagine how a single mnemonic, be it a folding of her knee or a tree by the river, can resurrect an entire world you’d believed had long perished with time, heartbreak and all, and every swift glance at each small thing suddenly reveals a hidden code, all specifying the same secret, that I haven’t forgotten, I have not forgotten, could never have forgotten.