THE POLE, by J.M. Coetzee
The South African writer J.M. Coetzee’s novels are slim, and so, by and large, are his characters — they’re Modiglianis, not Boteros. The most wraithlike, a saintly hunger artist, is the protagonist of his novel “The Life and Times of Michael K,” which won the Booker Prize in 1983.
When an ample person does show up in Coetzee’s work, moral stigma is often attached. Take the hapless “plump” boyfriend in “Diary of a Bad Year,” from 2007, or the lesbian daughter of the canceled professor John Lurie, in the riveting novel “Disgrace” (1999). She’s a farmer. Lurie takes her fleshiness as a sign she’s fled the strictures of civilized intellectual life. Coetzee isn’t known for his humor, but Lurie takes a parched stab at a joke: “Sapphic love: an excuse for putting on weight.”
Coetzee’s gravid new novel, “The Pole,” presents readers with another of his rawboned and priapic older men, unable to dampen the lust that plagues and shames them. This time he is Witold Walczykiewicz, a concert pianist from Warsaw whose name has so many w’s and z’s and c’s in it that many people simply call him “the Pole,” as if he were a talking erection. (Coetzee’s name is similarly hard to pronounce. I discovered last week, even though I had my intonation from a good source, that I’ve been saying it wrong for years. It’s koot-SEE, not koot-SEE-uh.)
Witold is 70, with a mane of silver hair. He’s craggy, severe, cadaverous. He records for Deutsche Grammophon. Hulked over his piano, he is said to resemble both an enormous spider and Max von Sydow. “The Pole” is about what happens when he travels to give a concert in Barcelona. There he becomes besotted with Beatriz, a name out of Dante. She’s a wealthy, graceful and married arts patron. He begins to pursue her, from near and far. She thinks: “An old man in love. Foolish. And a danger to himself.” She does not need him in her life. Or does she?
This is a simple thread on which to hang beads of perception. Coetzee, who is 83, retains a sure touch. This is a convincing late-period novel. If it doesn’t rank with this Nobelist’s finest work, it is no embarrassment. It’s a pared-down book that avoids the excess philosophizing that has dragged down some of his more recent novels.
Among this book’s themes is the nature of austerity itself. Witold is a well-known and controversial interpreter of Chopin, and a stony one. He does not transport his audiences, and he is said to rarely smile. Coetzee too is famous for his stoniness, as felt in his disinterest in scene-setting. But there’s a dryly funny moment in this novel in which you sense the author sending himself up. Describing a pleasant autumn day, he writes: “The leaves are turning, et cetera.” That “et cetera” is impatient Coetzeen for “yada yada yada.” Like urine drawn from a catheter, Coetzee’s descriptions are a thin stream.
Mortality has been on Coetzee’s mind since he was scarcely in middle age. His men fear falling into sexual nonentity. Beatriz, who is two decades younger than Witold, isn’t immune to such concerns. Her husband has affairs; they no longer share a bed. She thinks about Witold’s hands. Does the size of men’s hands give them an advantage at the piano? Her thoughts progress:
She has not given much thought to hands before, hands that do everything for their owners like obedient, unpaid servants. Her own hands are nothing special. The hands of a woman who will soon be 50. Sometimes she discreetly hides them. Hands betray one’s age, as does one’s throat, as do the folds of one’s armpit.
In her mother’s day, a woman could still appear in public wearing gloves. Gloves, veils, hats: last traces of a vanished epoch.
This is a book about conversation, about what one says versus what other people hear. It’s a book about translation. Witold and Beatriz are forced to converse mostly in English, a second language for each of them. A lot is lost in translation. Unable to communicate his love to his satisfaction, Witold eventually turns to writing.
This is also a book about philanthropy and charity. The world is in flames and our notion of a noble deed is flying in a disgruntled pianist?
The novel asks: What does it mean to lead a good, or successful, life? How much of an impression does one have to make? Witold is an artist. He asserts his worth. He says things like, “Happiness is not the most important … the most important sentiment.” (The ellipses are Coetzee’s.) “Anyone can be happy.”
Beatriz is intelligent and well educated, but she fears she is not taken seriously. Here again, hunger and seriousness intertwine. While he was born in Poland during World War II, she was born in 1967. “In 1967 no one in Europe had to eat cabbage soup: no one in Poland, no one in Spain. She has never known hunger. Never. A blessed generation.”
She is proud of her sons. She thinks, “Is it enough to have propelled two such well-fed, energetic young male beings into the world?” Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps this is why she becomes entangled with Witold. Or maybe it is simply existential pity, or insecurity. Past a certain age, every attempt at bedroom romance is an experience one can file under the heading “Naked and Afraid.”
THE POLE | By J.M. Coetzee | 167 pp. | Liveright | $26