J. Coetzee writes to Paul Auster

by on March 14, 2013 at 10:29 am in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

From a letter:

Finally, a remark by Christopher Tietjens in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End: that one goes to bed with a woman in order to be able to talk to her.  Implication: that turning a woman into a mistress is only a first step; the second step, turning her into a friend, is the one that matters; but being friends with a woman you haven’t slept with is in practice impossible because there is too much unspoken in the air.

That is from Here and Now Letters 2008-2011, by Auster and Coetzee.  That excerpt is from the first letter, and I will keep reading.

1 Yog Sothoth March 14, 2013 at 10:46 am

So so true.

2 Michael G Heller March 15, 2013 at 4:51 am

“So true”. Convincing as they sound, there’s not a whole lot of *truth* in Coetzee memoirs, and it’s wise and astute of him to preempt the rubbish which biographers sometimes write once you are dead. But the general impression given in this exchange of letters is probably correct. All the women ‘interviewed’ in the 3rd memoir — The Summertime — do appear rather resentfully not to have been particularly impressed by Coetzee’s efforts in the art of sexual intimacy (such as his idea for strict rhythmic consistency with a Schubert symphony). As Tyler mentioned a couple of years ago in a previous review post there is an explicit admission / acknowledgment of autism in that book, perhaps irrelevant to the present subject. *However* maybe Coetzee is succeeding in conveying a sweeter side of male psyche not often acknowledged, which is simply the desire some of em have for the intimacy of conversation rather than (or after) the “animal” act of “gripping me tight and pushing part of your body into me”. That again is the accusation which seems to offend, anger, or perplex the Coetzee-like (?) character in his latest book The Childhood of Jesus. I’m only part way through. Tyler may comment eventually on that book.

3 Li'l Em-Kel March 14, 2013 at 10:49 am

Yeah, that’s what Billy Crystal was saying in “When Harry Met Sally.”

Not exactly deep though, is it?

4 anon March 14, 2013 at 11:14 am

being friends with a woman you haven’t slept with is in practice impossible

No it’s not impossible for men to have female friends. Easier if you have a sister(s), and much easier after you have a daughter.

5 Brian Moore March 14, 2013 at 11:24 am

Only if you’re bad at making friends.

6 bc282 March 14, 2013 at 11:37 am

Nb. that Coetzee is paraphrasing considerable – the quote is that one marries “in order to continue the conversation”.

7 FredR March 14, 2013 at 11:42 am

Coetzee wrote his dissertation on Ford Madox Ford. In “Youth” he says that he thought he might be discovering a neglected genius, but that Ford’s “back-catalog” was actually pretty disappointing. Probably true, but on the other hand “Parade’s End” is probably the most under-appreciated novel/novel series of the 20th century.

In any event he’s misunderstanding or misremembering. Tietjens didn’t have any trouble talking with Ms. Wannop before they went to bed together, it was just that there were a lot of social barriers in the way. What few private conversations they did have put her (an unmarried woman) in a compromising position. Even just making her his mistress would have (and did) clarified her position and given them the time and the space for conversation. Actually their conversations before they live together are more interesting to both of them than after, so I would say that not only is Coetzee wrong, but Tietjens is wrong as well.

8 FredR March 14, 2013 at 11:46 am

Although I found Coetzee very profound when I was 20 or so, now his thinking just seems superficial. He still has a great writing style though.

9 Michael G Heller March 15, 2013 at 5:00 am

“He still has great writing style”. That is THE point. There’s a passage in his novel ‘Foe’ where the recently rescued female castaway who has a wonderfully disturbing and adventurous story to tell to the world laments to the ship captain: “As I tell it to you, my story passes the time well enough, but what little I know of book writing tells me its charm will quite vanish when it is set down baldly in print. A liveliness is lost in the writing down which must be supplied by art, and I have no art”.

Everyone has or claims to have a book in them to write, but only a Coetzee can tell you the dullest and you think suspiciously “superficial” thing with “art”. Ain’t many of us got what it takes, regardless of our prideful and astonishing tales of derrring-do!

10 FredR March 14, 2013 at 11:48 am

I get the feeling Coetzee got around a lot, so maybe that’s just his personal experience as a very cold and withdrawn casanova.

11 bpk March 14, 2013 at 12:29 pm

When asked if a man could be friends with a women, Prime Minister Disraeli replied “Afterwards, never before”. Sure wish I could find that citation…..

12 Thursday March 14, 2013 at 12:45 pm

one goes to bed with a woman in order to be able to talk to her

Unbeliebably stupid. There are plenty of vapid or boring girls with hot bodies and pretty faces that I’d like to sleep with, but whose conversation skills are certainly lacking. It’s like this man has never heard of the pump and dump.

13 anon' March 14, 2013 at 12:52 pm

lesson from the post: be wary of men who write well

lesson from the comment: be doubly wary of men who don’t

14 Marie March 14, 2013 at 12:49 pm

No, it’s perfectly possible. The “unspoken question in the air”? The answer is no. Get over yourselves and just be friends. Haven’t you ever made friends with a female coworker or a neighbor? I just don’t understand how every female human in the world is a possibility.

15 Mikael March 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Exactly my thoughts.

16 The Other Jim March 14, 2013 at 1:34 pm

>The “unspoken question in the air”? The answer is no.


Tyler’s citation is thoroughly sexist, and posted without comment, which does not speak well for him. The academic world is a strange one. Wondering aloud why the average man is better at math than the average woman will get you fired, but suggesting that you cannot speak to woman without having sex first is somehow insightful.

17 Thor March 14, 2013 at 1:47 pm

They aren’t possibilities. Or rather, they are only to a subset of men, many of whom will eventually grow up.

18 lords of lies March 15, 2013 at 5:45 pm

“I just don’t understand how every female human in the world is a possibility.”

the fat, ugly and old ones certainly aren’t. at least not for men with options.

19 BenSix March 14, 2013 at 1:03 pm

…one goes to bed with a woman in order to be able to talk to her.

Easy to get the wrong impression from that.

20 Nathan March 14, 2013 at 2:02 pm

This is of course why gay men can’t really be friends with women.

21 Phil March 14, 2013 at 3:00 pm

I would say that this is why gay men and women can so easily be friends: there is no unspoken in the air.

22 Alec March 14, 2013 at 3:05 pm

My reaction would be the exact opposite. Becoming friends would be a necessary, but far from sufficient, precondition to going to bed with her.

23 Steve Sailer March 14, 2013 at 4:46 pm

You can see Coetzee’s self-portrait of himself in the 2009 movie “Disgrace,” with John Malkovich as a womanizing Cape Town professor who wants to write an opera about Mozart’s librettist da Ponte:


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