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Teaching J. M. Coetzee's Foe and Disgrace: Intertextuality and the Question of Canonicity

Easton, Kai 'Teaching J. M. Coetzee's Foe and Disgrace: Intertextuality and the Question of Canonicity.' (Unpublished)

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Abstract

This essay discusses two of Coetzee’s best-known works in academic circles: both appear widely on university syllabi and offer students a chance to engage with debates on authorship, intertextuality, and canonicity. Beginning with a discussion of the reception histories of these two novels, the essay charts the ways in which Coetzee’s fiction is consumed locally and globally and ask questions not only about the politics of writing, but also the ethics of reading (see Attwell 1993; Huggan 2001; Attridge 2005; and Easton in Morrison & Watkins (eds), 2006). When Foe was published in 1986 at the height of State of Emergency South Africa, for example, it caused a stir for its apparent remoteness from the South African situation (as the reviewer Harriett Gilbert asked: 'Postmodern narratives while Soweto burns?'). When Disgrace appeared in 1999, it caused great consternation for its ‘bleak’ representation of the ‘new’ South Africa – not just in reviews, but also in Government quarters. At the same time, it won Coetzee many accolades, including an unprecedented second Booker Prize. What does this say about the absence of ‘South Africa’ as a geographical marker in Foe compared with its stark presence in Disgrace? Like Coetzee’s 1994 novel, The Master of Petersburg, Foe involves a literary figure, a text, from afar, that intervenes in Coetzee's story: here it is of course Daniel Defoe, the eighteenth-century world of his Robinson Crusoe in particular, but also his corpus more generally; in The Master of Petersburg there is similarly a mix of fact, fiction and literary biography, when Coetzee uses Dostoevsky and the genesis of his novel The Possessed; in Disgrace, there is an obvious sub-text of Byron and his satire, Don Juan, as well as the poem ‘Lara’: and yet, since Byron is not exactly a character in this work, his presence too has been marginalised in the critical reception of this work. These identifiable authors in Coetzee’s novels lead us to intertextuality and the question of canonicity. How do the canonical texts of Defoe (and behind him, a host of 'Robinsonnades') illuminate or problematise our reading of Coetzee's Foe, and how might their presence affect the way that Coetzee's own novel has become canonical? Had Coetzee not borrowed from Defoe, would his novel be taught in courses that focus not on postcolonial literature or Africa, or even South Africa, but contemporary literature and postmodernism? In the case of his later novel Disgrace, we have quite the opposite: this novel has been set in South Africa, a pointedly new South Africa, where Byron, and the teaching of Romantic poetry, are of seeming irrelevance. Do we need to know Byron to understand Disgrace? Do we need to know Defoe to understand Foe? When Coetzee received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, he offered not a lecture but a short story called 'He and His Man', in which questions of character and authorship continue: this story expands the story in Foe, since it is Robinson Crusoe (now with an 'e') who is seemingly alive and well in Bristol, writing about 'his man' Defoe/Foe, this busy man, who writes about plagues, and tours through England. Reading this ‘sequel’ story-lecture alongside Foe raises intriguing questions about ‘original’ texts, textual proliferations, and gaps and infiltrations in terms of gender, race, and history. To explore the overlapping or fluid boundaries of fiction and history, we read Linda Hutcheon’s seminal essay on ‘historiographic metafiction’ (see The Poetics of Postmodernism); Brenda Marshall’s incisive reading of Barthes’s essay, ‘From Work to Text’ in relation to Foe (see Teaching the Postmodern, 1993) furthermore reminds us that intertextual readings are almost contradictory: if intertextuality is a ‘mosaic of quotations’ without origin, as Kristeva would have it, how do we as critics read the intertextual without falling into what Barthes calls ‘the myth of filiation’? How do we dismiss the idea of origins and source studies, whilst also pointing to possible literary predecessors?

Item Type: Other
Keywords: J. M. Coetzee, pedagogy, canonicity, intertextuality, Foe, Disgrace, South African literature, Wide Sargasso Sea, postmodernism, teaching at SOAS, University of London, MA Travelling Africa, MA Comparative Literature, History in African and Caribbean Literature
SOAS Departments & Centres: Faculty of Law and Social Sciences > Centre for Gender Studies
Faculty of Languages and Cultures > Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies
Faculty of Languages and Cultures > Centre for Film and Screen Studies
Faculty of Languages and Cultures > Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa
Regional Centres > Centre of African Studies
Depositing User: Kai Easton
Date Deposited: 24 Nov 2010 12:05
URI: http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/id/eprint/11013

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