[Excerpt – opening page of the book]
‘At last I could row no further. My hands were blistered, my back was burned, my body ached. With a sigh, making barely a splash, I slipped overboard. With slow strokes, my long hair floating about me, like a flower of the sea, like an anemone, like a jellyfish of the kind you see in the waters of Brazil, I swam towards the strange island, for a while swimming as I had rowed, against the current, then all at once free of its grip, carried by the waves into the bay and on to the beach.
‘There I lay sprawled on the hot sand, my head filled with the orange blaze of the sun, my petticoat (which was all I had escaped with) baking dry upon me, tired, grateful, like all the saved.
‘A dark shadow fell upon me, not of a cloud but of aman with a dazzling halo about him. “Castaway,” I said with my thick dry tongue. “I am cast away. I am all alone.” And I held out my sore hands.
comments: Whoa but this is an unusual book. I read about it in Jane Smiley’s litcrit classic, 13 ways of Looking at a Novel (reco-ed to me, I think, by Chrissie Poulson). I am a big fan of Smiley, and strongly believe that the under-rated Ten Days in the Hills might be the Great American Novel.
I have read other books by Coetzee, but would never have counted myself as a big fan – he is a great writer, but I admired rather than loved him, and found his books rather grim.
But this one is a revelation. It is magnificent.
It starts – those are the opening lines above - with a woman, Susan Barton, being washed up on a desert island. She encounters two people whom we know instantly to be Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday. She lives with them for some time, and the 1st person narrative describes their life. And then it starts getting really unexpected… (and note that the passage above starts with a quotation mark. She is telling a story to someone.)
The back of the book gives a full rundown of what is going to happen, and I am very happy I didn’t read it first (I know, I always say that). I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect, and was rewarded with a most unlikely book, one that darted around all over the place.
You can’t go looking for a full linear story with causes and effects and details. As hinted in the title, the Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe is an important character in the story. Coetzee and Susan and Defoe all play with the ideas of character, of adventure, of novels: people consider Robinson Crusoe (published 1719) to be one of the earliest novels in English, so there were no rules for him…
The book takes no time to read – it has fewer than 160 pages, and is completely enthralling, I just really wanted to know what was going to come next. It is very funny, but also affecting and thoughtful.
It has amazing sentences: ‘My sweet Susan, as to who among us is a ghost and who not I have nothing to say: it is a question we can only stare at in silence, like a bird before a snake, hoping it will not swallow us.’
‘He gave me sixpence, which, though no great payment for a visit from the Muse, I accepted.’
There are sentences like that, and gems and delights on every single page, it is entrancing, I had to stop highlighting the great bits.
It is a masterpiece.
I then went back and re-read Smiley’s comments: these are the most helpful –
‘What Coetzee seems to be getting at is the disorder of a writer’s themes and subjects before he orders them into separate books. Whereas life is a mishmash of events, book are ordered and sequenced; whereas life is rather dull, books are exciting.’
‘The novel is short because Coetzee wants to make a certain point – that the usual novelistic tricks of the trade, such as detailing the setting (London in the early 18th C), fleshing out the characters, and filling in the gaps of the story are exactly the parts of novel-writing that, according to Foe, are dishonest and suspect.’
I also read and blogged on the book Taras Bulba, by Gogol, because of Smiley, and even found a narrow thread of connection with Dorothy L Sayers – read the post here.
There is a great website called Wonders and Marvels (subtitle: A Community for Curious Minds who Love History, its Odd Stories and Good Reads) – no longer being updated, but still available. Two pictures come from an item there about a female Robinson Crusoe.
The third picture is one chosen for the cover of an edition of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, so seems fair enough to have her stand in for Susan Barton.
Once I started thinking about Robinson Crusoe I realized I would need another blogpost – later in the week.