Coetzee and Wicomb: Writers Giving an Account of Themselves in Age of Iron and October


J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron and Zoë Wicomb’s October feature female writers who are also academics giving an account of themselves through an autobiographical project engaging the genres, respectively, of the epistle and the memoir. While the aim is, ostensibly, to reach an understanding of the historically situated self – Mrs Curren in state-of-emergency apartheid South Africa and Mercia Murray in a conflicted family history – each narrative is punctuated with moments of profound self-questioning with answers, if any are attempted, formulated only as conditional and deferred. This article argues that Mrs Curren’s and Mercia’s ‘incoherencies’, what Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself calls ‘moments of interruption, stoppage, open-endedness . . . enigmatic articulations that cannot easily be translated into narrative form’ signal each writer’s increasing awareness that she is ‘implicated, beholden, derived, sustained by a social world’ (64) that renders impossible fully knowing both the self and the other and includes her dispossession in the very language with which she attempts to represent herself. It is significant, I claim, that each novel stages an encounter with the figure of the other – Vercueil in Age of Iron and Sylvie in October – that is mediated through a non-linguistic art form, namely music and photography. Temporarily revealing the opacities created by each writer’s normative framework, these scenes demonstrate the possibility of a full responsiveness to and experience of knowing the other that cannot, however, be narrated.

The female writer is a familiar persona in the works of both J. M. Coetzee and Zoë Wicomb, probably the South African authors most concerned with what the latter calls ‘that stranger, the writing self’ (‘Writing’).1 The protagonists of Age of Iron and October, respectively Mrs Curren and Mercia Murray, are also academics whose scholarly interests inform and suggest a potentially productive form of intertextuality but are not necessarily the impetus for their writing. Thus, Age of Iron, presented as a letter written by Mrs Curren, a retired classics professor, to her daughter in America, examines apartheid history, and in October, Mercia, a professor of English literature writing a monograph on postcolonial memory, also attempts a memoir in which she revisits her family history. Significantly, these women are giving accounts of themselves through an autobiographical project – engaging the genres, respectively, of the epistle and the memoir – motivated by an inaugurating trauma: Mrs Curren’s cancer diagnosis, which she receives on the same day as the vagrant Verceuil’s arrival, and Mercia’s abandonment by her boyfriend of more than two decades, coinciding with a letter from her brother calling her back to Little Namaqualand where a dark family secret involving Mercia’s father and her sister-in-law Sylvie will be revealed.

My concern here is with the juxtaposition in Age of Iron and October of writing subjects who are highly educated individuals, and can thus lay claim to having knowledge, and the novels’ staging of their inability, reflected in their writing, to know quite how to be in the worlds they inhabit. What, according to these novels, is the nature and value of knowledge that can be achieved through language? Both writers stage a concern with writing and its betrayals through ‘irruptions of history’2 and the modalities of thought that not only have become unthinkable within their respective cultural fields but are, to a certain extent, un-representable in/through language.3 Drawing on Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself, and informed by Derek Attridge’s thinking in The Singularity of Literature and The Work of Literature on literary reading as an event, an experience of alterity, I argue that both Age of Iron and October stage an encounter with the aesthetic that draws attention to knowing – not knowledge as an end-state but as an experience – that cannot be narrated. Both novels thus make a claim for literary language and its effects on the hospitable reader.

Writing in a language and about a historical context – both politically and personally – that precede them, both Mrs Curren and Mercia4 are, in Butler’s formulation, ‘implicated, beholden, derived, sustained by a social world’ that is ‘beyond [them] and before [them]’ (Giving an Account 64). Both Age of Iron and October, I argue, signal a critical awareness of these primary relations which include, Butler writes, ‘a history that establishes my partial opacity to myself . . . norms that facilitate my telling about myself but that I do not author [yet initiate my agency, and] a dispossession in language [that] is intensified by the fact that I give an account of myself to someone, so that the narrative structure of my account is superseded by . . . the structure of address in which it takes place’ (Giving an Account 39, emphasis in original). Even though Butler’s social world exceeds the binary relationality suggested by self and other, lastly and crucially, this awareness is initiated by the encounter with and demand by the figures of alterity created by these very frameworks, Verceuil and Sylvie, both, not coincidentally, uneducated characters assumed not to know.5

That these novels are literary engagements with the epistle and the memoir as forms of autobiographical writing is signalled by their undermining of the reader’s expectations of linguistic transparency. As Attridge notes, in Age of Iron, we are aware that we are reading ‘a strange kind of letter’ (‘Trusting’ 91), its impossibility underscored by the fact that it ends with the writer giving an account of her own death. In October, the reader encounters a paragraph early in the novel that starts with the declarative sentence, ‘Nicholas Theophilus Murray was a good man, a decent colored man’ (9) and later finds Mercia sitting in front of her computer, typing a slightly modified sentence: ‘Nicholas Theophilus Murray was a good man, a decent man. She stops. She does not have the courage to bare her bosom to the screen’ (213). We thus cannot fully convince ourselves that parts of October are, in fact, Mercia’s autobiographical writing: indeed, Coílín Parsons calls Mercia ‘the protagonist and at times perhaps narrator’ (93) of the novel, and Meg Samuelson writes that Mercia ‘appears . . . to be the dominant focaliser – and even figure of the author’ (186). In this self-reflexive questioning of Mrs Curren’s and Mercia’s writing as acts of self-representation, Age of Iron and October interrogate the idea of the writer being in control of her narrative: the idea of authorship itself. That this is a key concern in Wicomb’s critical and creative work is rendered explicit in her essay, ‘An Author’s Agenda’, published in 1990, written in response to an invitation to speak to the theme of her writing ‘agenda’ by the organisers of the conference, ‘Literature in Another South Africa.’ Wicomb quickly dismantles the idea of authorship itself, replacing the word ‘author’ in her own title with that of ‘writer’, acknowledging her relationality, the social world she occupies as a ‘South African and black feminist . . . a teacher, mother or member of a nuclear family’, and the role of the reader, ruefully noting her not having control over the interpretation of some aspects of her fiction (24).

In October, Mercia’s confessional discourse is interwoven with a third-person narration, a narrative technique recognisable to readers of Coetzee’s overtly autrebiographical works, collected as Scenes from a Provincial Life: Boyhood, Youth, Summertime. In Wicomb’s novel, the interjection – ‘Does Mercia know that what threatens are tears of self-pity, that she is touched by her own difference, her distance from home?’ (39) – could be explained as the writer who is also the reader commenting on her own work. Familiarity with Wicomb’s oeuvre suggests that this is a deliberate staging of autobiographical writing. Based on her repeated objection to purely historical readings of black women’s writing, ‘as if all that is expected of us is the authentic experience’ (Wicomb, interview with Hunter 93), in works such as You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town and October, Wicomb deliberately flirts with the literary conventions of autobiography. In the former work, Frieda Shenton, like Wicomb herself, is a ‘coloured’ female from a small community in Little Namaqualand who goes to school in Cape Town, then attends the University of the Western Cape and eventually pursues her education in England. In the latter novel, Mercia Murray is a ‘coloured’ South African academic working at a Glasgow University. However, both texts hold their readers to account, demanding a careful close reading by deliberately undermining the allegorical impulse. Thus, in You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, Frieda’s mother, deceased at the beginning of the narrative, is resurrected in the last short story in the collection, ‘A Trip to the Gifberge.’ And at an author’s reading,6 Wicomb made a point of mentioning her own grandchildren before introducing October as a novel about ‘childlessness’. Dorothy Driver’s interpretation of the interweaving of the personal and the historical in Wicomb’s short story collection, The One That Got Away, is instructive in this regard: ‘as the figure of the biographical author enters the text, scattering clues for anyone with any research initiative to see (or perhaps to avoid as decoy), so too does she proclaim the author as necessarily produced by that text’ (‘The Struggle’ 536).

For Samuelson, Wicomb’s toying with the reader’s expectations of autobiography ‘is directed towards surfacing the truths that fiction can tell’ in contrast to the ‘ready-made form’ of the memoir (181) which, as Mercia recognises, ‘prides itself on fidelity’ to the past (Wicomb, October 213) and which she ultimately rejects. Wicomb’s work thus stages the figure of the writing self, 7 and, as Andrew van der Vlies argues, Mercia’s gender is not coincidental:

[A]ll of Wicomb’s writer-figures (writer-protagonists and, in some cases, implied narrators) are female: Frieda Shenton; the unnamed narrator in David’s Story; Playing in the Light’s Brenda McKay (if it is she who is the implied narrator); and Mercia Murray in October. Wicomb’s texts – or more significantly, the texts within her texts – are thus mothered, not fathered; their affiliation and genealogy is gynocentric, presuming to displace the patriarchal male author and, implicitly, the patriarchal authority presumed by the author of the kind of realism that Wicomb’s work consistently undermines. (138)

Taking ‘the self as subject’ (1) of her memoir, Mercia can be seen as engaging in ‘an extended act of self-verbalization – exomologesis – as a way of making the self appear for another,’ as Butler explains Foucault’s understanding of the confession (Giving an Account 112–13). Confronted with her own incoherencies, the inability to fully know herself, and unable to give an account of herself within the normative framework available to her, she is compelled to adopt a critical relation to those norms.

In the case of Mrs Curren, her speaking position as a white female writer giving an account of herself against the backdrop of the violent interregnum of apartheid South Africa is compromised by both her inevitable complicity with and subjection to historical forces. According to Sue Kossew, as a white male writer Coetzee deliberately chooses white female writers to reveal the ‘double-bind in the speaking position . . . so that the narrator’s own awareness of possible bad faith is used to interrogate structures of power, language/voice and authorship/authority’ (‘Women’s Words’). Or, as Laura Wright, drawing on Fiona Probyn’s work puts it, Coetzee’s white female narrators occupy a space of ‘self-negation: white women are, on the one hand, agents of colonization and, on the other, subjected citizens. Writing from such a vantage point, then, Coetzee . . . consistently critiques the very concepts of historical, literary, and academic authority’ (20).8 Thus, Mrs Curren reveals both her anxiety about her white privilege and the dominant discourse that frames her utterances when she exclaims, ‘who am I, who am I to have a voice at all? . . . I have no voice; I lost it long ago; perhaps I have never had one . . . The rest should be silence. But with this – whatever it is – this voice that is no voice, I go on. On and on’ (Age of Iron 164). Her assertion that she has no voice of her own suggests a dispossession in the very language in which she expresses herself, imbued with meanings and correspondences she did not choose and does not author. As she tells Verceuil, ‘From the cradle a theft took place: a child was taken and a doll left in its place to be nursed and reared, and that doll is what I call I’ (109); a doll’s knowing is ‘a knowledge without substance, without worldly weight, like a doll’s head itself, empty, airy’ (110). In depicting ‘a doll’s knowledge’ as worthless to make sense of the events she recounts in her letter, Mrs Curren seems to recognise that she belongs to a dying order, but, moreover, that the exigencies of apartheid have rendered a full responsiveness to and understanding of her environment impossible.

Instead, Mrs Curren resorts to her academic knowledge to explain events. ‘[A]gainst the voices of history and historical judgement that resound around her’, Coetzee claims in Doubling the Point – an interview given before Age of Iron’s publication – Mrs Curren brings ‘the authority of the classics’ (250). But this authority is ‘denied and even derided in her world . . . because it speaks from long ago and far away’ (250). As she writes to her daughter, her words ‘fell off [John, one of the ‘iron children’] like dead leaves the moment they were uttered’ (79), as does her claim to the wisdom of age: ‘You must listen to me. I am an old person, I know what I am talking about’ (143). Her use of her knowledge of the classics as a framework of interpretation arguably prevents her from learning from the new information she acquires about apartheid brutality – or, perhaps, she is not able to, having no language to fully account for these events’ challenge to her normative framework.9 What we initially see in Mrs Curren’s responses to Verceuil, however, is an instrumentalisation of her education to deflect and to avoid responsibility. Verceuil’s first words to her are ‘This is a big house . . . You could turn it into a boarding house’ for students (10–11). In response, she draws on a false etymology of the word, charity, to explain her inaction. ‘Because the spirit of charity has perished in this country . . . Charity: from the Latin word for the heart. It is as hard to receive as to give’, she tells him, adding somewhat patronisingly, ‘I wish you would learn that. I wish you would learn something instead of just lying around’ (22). Of course, it is Mrs Curren’s own historical and academic authority that is being drawn into question.

October too questions the value of an education to learn how to live in the world. In several humorous scenes, Wicomb seems to take particular pleasure in skewering lofty ideals about the practical worth of a humanities degree: what is the use, Mercia’s father asks rhetorically, of ‘a doctor of literature who cannot cure a headache?’ (26). Sylvie, confronted with Mercia who, ‘for all her supposed cleverness knows nothing of either children or sheep’ (62), is incredulous that the latter, ‘immersed in a tricky chapter’ (131) of her monograph, had clean forgotten to get dinner. ‘No wonder the man [Mercia’s boyfriend] left’ (132), she thinks to herself. In fact, like Mrs Curren’s, Mercia’s education, her trained drive towards interpretation, is depicted as a tool to avoid reconsidering her understanding of the world. Using reason, she defends their father – a man who punished his children for crimes they had yet to commit and raised them to consider themselves better than the uneducated members of their community – against her brother Jake’s emotional tirade. He taught his children self-respect, she claims, to which Jake counters, ‘self-preservation’ but not to respect others, the Africans, or the people of Kliprand. ‘What does he mean when he says they’re not our kind of people?’ (80). Mercia invokes theory to dismiss his claims, sighing, ‘You don’t understand how difficult it is to think outside of the dominant ideology’. To which her brother snarls in response, ‘Ideology! Bugger that claptrap . . . that can’t be an excuse. Others managed, why can’t he?’ Mercia, now clutching at straws: ‘Could their father not be thought to mimic obedience to the state?’ Which makes Jake laugh. ‘The old man simply did not make sense he said toeing the apartheid line, and at the same time crediting himself with independent thought, with being different’ (80). Jake, Mercia’s alcoholic and uneducated brother, is another character presumed not to know, but seems here to point out the conundrum: the impossibility of independent thought in an over-determined context, or, put in Butler’s terms, the impossibility of knowing the extent to which we are constituted by norms that are not of our making.

Mercia and Mrs Curren, marked by their social worlds, including their academic training, appear to be stuck in certain thought patterns, and as they are giving an account of themselves through writing, what can be called language ruts.10 Like the Magistrate in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, who despite his interrogations of the relations between Empire and the barbarians after his encounter with the barbarian girl, leaves the closing scenes of the novel ‘feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere’ (156), Mrs Curren approaches ‘a death without illumination’ (195): ‘I may seem to understand what I say’, she writes to her daughter, ‘but believe me, I do not. From the beginning, when I found him [Vercueil] behind the garage in his cardboard house, sleeping, waiting, I have understood nothing. I am feeling my way along a passage that grows darker all the time’ (131). Thus, while the ethical demand made by Verceuil – and by others in the novel, most notably John – raises to consciousness the primary historical and social relations that condition Mrs Curren’s responses, like the Magistrate, she does not – in fact, she cannot – arrive at a final state that can be called knowledge or insight, indicated by her repeated failure to transcend these primary relations. Coetzee’s formulation in his lecture ‘What is a classic?’ anticipates Butler’s thinking that our social world precedes and exceeds us when he claims, ‘That part of our present – namely the part that belongs to history . . . we cannot fully understand, since it requires us to understand ourselves not only as objects of historical forces but as subjects of our own historical self-understanding’ (15).

My discussion thus far has focused on Mrs Curren’s and Mercia’s primary relations, their dispossessions through historical and academic discourse and the kind of responses they condition and knowledge they inhibit. These very ‘opacities’ and ‘incoherencies’ drive their narratives. ‘We are, to an extent, driven by what we do not know, and cannot know’, Butler writes, and this ‘“drive” (Trieb)’ [she is referencing Freud here] is the site of the convergence of the biological and the cultural: ‘If I am always constituted by norms that are not of my making, then I have to understand the ways that constitution takes place’ (Undoing Gender 15). While, as I argued earlier, both Age of Iron and October frustrate the reader’s drive towards interpretation, and thus undermine the idea of literary authority, these novels also stage scenes of an aesthetic engagement with the figure of alterity. Mrs Curren’s and Mercia’s experience of these scenes suggests a form of knowledge that exceeds their existing normative frameworks, which, as I will argue, is mirrored in the literary reading of these novels.

In Age of Iron, Verceuil is hardly responsive to Mrs Curren’s words, prompting her to state, ‘He barely listens when I speak to him’ (22), and to plead anxiously: ‘listen to me now!’ (165); ‘Do you understand? Do you understand?’ (73); ‘Do you hear me, or have I put you to sleep too?’ (166). Shortly after his arrival, however, she plays the piano, fumblingly, searching for the ‘one chord [she] would recognize . . . as [her] chord . . . the heart’s chord.’ ‘I was playing for myself’, she writes, ‘But at some point a board creaked or a shadow passed across the curtain and I knew he was outside listening. So I played Bach for him, as well as I could’ (23–24). Why does listening seem to come so easily to Verceuil in this moment – or rather, why is Mrs Curren so sure that he is listening? The effect of sharing this experience is represented as increasingly intimate. Contemplating Bach’s picture on the cover of her music book, Mrs Curren wonders, ‘Where does that spirit find itself now? . . . In my heart, where the music still dances? Has it made its way into the heart too of the man in the sagging trousers eavesdropping at the window? Have our two hearts, our organs of love, been tied for this brief while with a cord of sound?’ (24). This culminates when, playing a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, she sees Verceuil through the window squatting against the garage door, and reflects in her letter, ‘Together we listened . . . At this moment, I thought, I know how he feels as surely as if he and I were making love’ (30). This seems an extraordinary privilege given to Bach, music that, arguably, like Mrs Curren’s classics, is also from long ago and far away. Note that this is not all music – especially not the blaring, ‘loud, metallic’ music of the young couple Mrs Curren and Verceuil encounter on their mountainside drive – which reflects the ‘closed, bunched’ expression of the woman, a ‘membrane between the world and the self inside, a thickening become thickness’ (127). And note also Mrs Curren’s formulation of the effects of the chord [of music] that has become a cord [a rope of sound] that ties her to Verceuil in the form of four successive questions.

One afternoon at the age of fifteen, Coetzee tells us in his lecture, ‘What Is a classic?’ he was ‘mooning around the backyard, ‘when from the house next door I heard music. As long as the music lasted, I was frozen, I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to as music had never spoken to me before’ (Stranger Shores 9). In trying to find meaning in the event, Coetzee reflects on whether this was a ‘disinterested . . . and impersonal aesthetic experience’ (Stranger Shores 11) or whether he was ‘symbolically electing high European culture’ and its codes to escape the ‘historical dead end’ of white South African society (10–11). Significant for my purposes here is the tension between Coetzee’s recognition of the experience of hearing Bach for the first time as an event – its meaning unknowable and irreducible – and his instrumentalisation of this experience in the process of speaking about it, interpreting it, within the context of an academic lecture. This is a tension that also exists in the relation between the work of literature in the Attridgean sense – literary reading as an event – and literary criticism. Staged in the novel, Mrs Curren’s experience of Bach and her imagining of Verceuil’s enjoyment of it lie beyond knowledge as interpretation – fixing its meaning – in marked contrast to her use of the classics to explain and instruct. For example, something like a literary understanding seems to be staged in the novel in Mrs Curren’s attempt to understand the word ‘gratitude.’ She writes it down and then reads it back: ‘What does it mean? Before my eyes it grows dense, dark, mysterious. Then something happens. Slowly, like a pomegranate, my heart bursts with gratitude; like a fruit splitting open to reveal the seeds of love. Gratitude, pomegranate: sister words’ (55–56). Her reading is described as an affective experience of openness and as a singular understanding of the word. Furthermore, unlike Susan Barton in Coetzee’s Foe, who, frustrated with the mute Friday’s unyielding silence, plays the bass flute in pursuit of a ‘language accessible to Friday’ (96), Mrs Curren does not play Bach in search of a response or reciprocity from Verceuil. Nor does Susan receive any from Friday; he remains insensible to her, and her instrumental idea, ‘As long as I have music in common with Friday, perhaps he and I will need no language’ (97), results only in another frustrated attempt at communication.

Alterity, as Attridge argues, is ‘always relative to a state of things’, ‘unapprehended not because no-one has thought of apprehending it, or because it bears no relation whatever to existing forms of knowledge, but because to apprehend it would threaten the status quo’ (The Work 55). While the acknowledgement of otherness would thus suggest a revaluation of our normative framework, our attempt to give an account of this experience through writing would again be an act of epistemic and ontological violence. Thus, Mrs Curren is left with only questions rather than answers, suggesting that alterity will always exceed its interpretation. This reading is intimated in Mrs Curren’s use of the same phrase to describe Bach’s music and her daughter: while playing, she stumbles through the first fugue until ‘the real thing emerged, the real music, the music that does not die, confident, serene’ (24, my emphasis); and she writes to her daughter, ‘you are with me not as you are today in America, not as you were when you left, but as you are in some deeper and unchanging form: as the beloved, as that which does not die (129, my emphasis). And, similarly, Coetzee writes in a letter to Paul Auster in a conversation on great authors’ and musicians’ late career works in the later stages of their lives, Bach, who was working on his Art of the Fugue at the time of his death, composed ‘pure music in the sense that it is not tied to any particular instrument’ (Here and Now 88). In other words, the meaning of our experience of alterity does not lie in the knowledge we gain of the other as if that knowledge exists out there for the reader or listener to find. Rather, the meaning of the engagement with the work of art exists in the particular structural relationship of exchange, that is, the context and the form in which it takes place.

According to Driver, Wicomb often ‘positions her characters in front of artworks, literary texts or other aesthetic spaces, as if mirroring in her fiction the potential agency of art in the outside world, perhaps even the potential agency of the fiction we are reading’ (‘Zoë Wicomb’s Translocal’ 11). This is also staged in October, where Mercia turns again and again to Marilynne Robinson’s Home, from which the novel takes one of its epigraphs, to reflect on her conflicted family relations. Her literary and affectively unsettled reading of this novel, I argue elsewhere, enables a certain dislocation from the narratives that dominate her family relations and initiates a reconsideration of herself in relation to the places and the people, Craig in Glasgow and her deceased parents and her brother Jake in Kliprand, who represent home (‘What Literature Can Do’ 113–15).11 While this engagement suggests, following Driver, the possibility of a readerly ethics, significantly in both the Age of Iron and October, the engagement with the figure of alterity is seemingly mediated through a non-linguistic aesthetic medium, and the significance of the encounter is unnarratable, suggesting Coetzee’s and Wicomb’s acute awareness of the writer’s dispossession in and through language.

In October, Mercia’s first encounter with the photographs Sylvie has taken of herself – thus an autobiographical project in a certain sense (without the graphia) – only affirms her received narrative of Sylvie, tainted by a trained, entrenched snobbery towards this Afrikaans-speaking ‘girl’, who in conversation ‘shouts as if she were in another room’ (32) and by the shame of her own father’s paedophilic transgression (the family secret alluded to earlier). ‘[L]ittle tart’, Mercia thinks, considering a photograph in which Sylvie strikes an extravagant pose in ‘cheap sunglasses and tight trousers’ (158). She is embarrassed by this reaction: ‘our thoughts and utterances betray us’, she thinks. ‘If only the word tart had not entered her thoughts’ (158). In marked contrast to this conditioned response is her reaction to a black and white photograph in which she encounters a Sylvie whom she ‘does not know and cannot fathom’ (166):

The photograph is extraordinary . . . A strange young woman in knowing performance who claims for herself an iconic presence in the ethereal light, then subverts it with a grin. Or is it an ironic grimace? . . . For all the girl’s lack of education, the photographic figure is imbued with language: I am alone in the world; I cannot be touched; I am transfigured . . . What is it that the girl knows? There is more than self-reflexivity, something beyond the knowing aesthetics of representing the self. There is knowledge that crosses over from the ghostly world of the photograph, that flicks across eerily into the real, now a flickering shadow across Mercia’s heart. A shadow of fear and awe. Who is this apparition who rises out of the darkness, whose bright, ironic grin haunts the viewer? Who is Sylvie? (166–67)

Like Mrs Curren in her encounter with Verceuil through Bach, Mercia’s response to Sylvie, mediated through the photograph, can be formulated only as a sequence of questions.12 This aesthetic experience thus forces both writers to yield control over interpretation. Mercia recognises that Sylvie has knowledge beyond her understanding and insight, that she exceeds the interpretive framework informed by apartheid South Africa and Mercia’s father’s values.

Attridge’s claim that ‘Words like “insight,” ‘knowledge,” “wisdom,” and “understanding” all belong too irredeemably to the discourse from which Mrs Curren is achieving a difficult escape, the discourse of knowledge as content and inheritable property’, is thus also applicable to Mercia. Mrs Curren’s love’s cord is echoed in the flickering shadow across Mercia’s heart. Knowledge is then rather, as Attridge writes, ‘an always contextualised responsiveness, activity, and self-questioning’ (‘Trusting’ 92). Returning to the demands of the quotidian, this glimpse of alterity is lost, and when Sylvie enters the house shortly after, Mercia wonders, ‘How it can be that there is no trace of the extraordinary figure of the photograph?’ (167). For the reader, however, it is clear that the trace of the encounter is evident in Mercia’s temporarily changed perception of Sylvie, momentarily transcending the framing values of her primary relations.

Despite these contextualised moments of responsiveness to the other, both Mrs Curren and Mercia are unable, in their writing, to account for the significance of these events as knowledge of either the other or of the self. Suggestively, this failure of knowledge is metaphorically expressed as the failure to reproduce. Mrs Curren tells John, ‘[A]ll the time you feel other words stirring inside you like life in the womb. Not like a child kicking, not yet, but like the very beginnings, like the deep-down stirring of knowledge a woman has when she is pregnant’ (145); and even though Mercia yields momentarily to the ‘temptation to write another [story], to reproduce’ (143), October is, as Wicomb introduced it herself, a novel about childlessness. Indeed, in the penultimate scene of October, Mercia, wary of the ‘fiction that telling begets’ and unable ‘to find the words’ (214), abandons her attempt at memoir, dragging the file into the trash bin. If as Butler claims, ‘something that we might tentatively call the truth of the person, a truth that . . . might well become more clear in moments of interruption, stoppage, open-endedness – in enigmatic articulations that cannot easily be translated into narrative form’ (Giving an Account 64), then what do Age of Iron and October reveal about these women writers?

While Butler’s use of the word truth is undermined by the impossibility of achieving insight, as I have just argued, her notion of a writing subject as beholden to her social world serves to explain the reason for Mrs Curren’s and Mercia’s open-ended self-representations. In writing, they become strangers to themselves, encountering that which had remained opaque to them without being fully able to account for it. Like other authors before her – she quotes Coetzee and Henry James – Wicomb interrogates the idea of a unified, coherent writing self, when she claims, ‘To write is to reproduce the world in novel ways, and in doing so the writer is rendered stranger to herself [. . .] writing is an encounter with the foreign self you don’t know’ (‘Writing and the Stranger’).13 In the essay ‘Why I Write,’ she also mentions ‘the known which in our attempts to represent in language, turns out to be about what we had not known, what we discover’ (574). Or in Butler’s words, ‘This failure to narrate fully may well indicate the way in which we are, from the start, ethically implicated in the lives of others . . . the way we are, from the start interrupted by alterity may render us incapable of offering narrative closure for our lives . . . our “incoherence” establishes the way in which we are constituted in relationality’ (Giving an Account 64). This relationality, as I argued earlier, includes the very language they draw on, always implicated in a particular social context.

As conclusion, I want to draw attention to the experience of transcendence noted in both Mrs Curren’s writing on Bach and in Mercia’s encounter with an otherworldly knowledge as well as the motif of transformation or metamorphosis that runs through both novels: references to Ovid in Age of Iron and the fairy tale in October. ‘Like a moth from its case emerging, fanning its wings: that is what, reading, I hope you will glimpse: my soul readying itself for further flight’ (129), Mrs Curren writes to her daughter. Mercia too, rising from the ‘ashes’ (107) of her failed relationship, attempts to break her family ties after the secret of her father’s transgressions is revealed at the local watering hole, ‘Aspoester’, Afrikaans for Cinderella: ‘But for all her desire to remove herself from them, from her people, from the place of exile called home, she cannot, and it irks’ (215). Despite both writers expressing a fervent wish to be recognised in the first-person singular I, or to know themselves in excess of their primary relations, and the fact that they get a glimpse of alterity through writing, it is also writing that makes an absolute transcendence of these frameworks impossible.

However, even though Mrs Curren’s and Mercia’s encounters with alterity are mediated through non-linguistic aesthetic forms, music and photography, they are staged for the reader of Age of Iron and October through language. Coetzee’s and Wicomb’s novels thus make a claim for literary reading, a different encounter with the aesthetic, as an event. To support this argument, I want once again to refer to Bach. ‘The best proof we have that life is good’, J. C., another academic narrator of Coetzee’s in Diary of a Bad Year, writes, ‘and therefore that there may perhaps be a God after all . . . is that to each of us, on the day we are born, comes the music of . . . Bach. It comes as a gift, unearned, unmerited, for free’ (221). The language of the gift that J. C. invokes suggests a relationality that is not predicated on the idea of reciprocity, on knowing what the proper response to the gift is. Attridge reads Mrs Curren’s letter as a gift to her daughter that she will receive only upon the writer’s death, ‘except that’, as Attridge notes, ‘if the gift is truly received, the mother will live on in the daughter’ (‘Trusting’ 92). ‘I tell you this story not so that you will feel for me but so that you will learn how things are’ (103), Mrs Curren writes to her daughter just before she warns her reader: ‘I am the one writing: I, I. So I ask you: attend to the writing, not to me. If lies and pleas and excuses weave among the words, listen for them’ (103–04), asking her to note the meanings in the margin, the absences in her narrative. I want to suggest, following Attridge, that in the structure of address that is set up by Age of Iron and October as literary stagings of autobiographical writing – Mrs Curren’s letter and Mercia’s memoir – the reader is the addressee and the potential receiver of this gift. In revealing the ‘crucible of social relations’ within which the ‘telling and the showing’ of their writing take place, Mrs Curren’s and Mercia’s narratives demonstrate what Butler calls the possibility of confessional discourse to ‘act on the schemes of intelligibility that govern who will be a speaking being, subjecting them to rupture or revision, consolidating their norms, or contesting their hegemony’ (Giving an Account 132). Performed by the language in both novels into competing and conflicting claims to understanding, the possible knowledge that we can experience through a hospitable reading is not calculable through reason, but through opening a new modality not of thought as teleology but of thinking as a contextual responsiveness. In both Age of Iron and October, the success of the writer’s autobiographical project in reaching its addressee is indeterminate – Mrs Curren entrusts her letter to Verceuil to be delivered only after her death, and Mercia’s memoir lingers in her computer’s trash bin. Like these writers, the reader, frustrated in her drive towards interpretation and thus forced to act out a failure of reading, is left with the ‘unknowingness about the Other in the face of the Other’ (Butler, Undoing Gender 35) that undoes the self.


  1. The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers of this essay for their detailed and incisive feedback.

  2. Nick Visser uses this phrase in his essay on Mongane Serote. See ‘Fictional Projects and the Irruptions of History: Mongane Serote’s To Every Birth its Blood.’

  3. See Patrick Hayes’ ‘Writing and Politics after Beckett’ for an examination of how Coetzee’s fiction holds open and creatively disorients ‘those notions of moral and political value that a given cultural field is making “beside the point”’ (53).

  4. My use of the formal address to refer to Mrs Curren while informally calling Mercia by her first name is motivated by the uncertainty surrounding her name. Mrs Curren is, of course, unnamed in the novel, but critics often call her Elizabeth after Coetzee does so himself in Doubling the Point (249). As David Attwell reveals in his fascinating study of the genesis of the author’s works, J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, however, Coetzee initially intended Mrs Curren’s first name to be Evelyn (151).

  5. For an exploration of Coetzee’s staging of art as linked to ‘the transfiguring power of extreme sensation, with the rudis of wayward, convulsive bodies’ (Pollard 96), represented in Age of Iron by the figure of Verceuil, see Nathalie Pollard’s ‘On Rudeness: J. M. Coetzee.’

  6. The Language of Literature-Attridge at 70, an international conference celebrating Derek Attridge’s contribution to literary studies which was held at the University of York, 22-24 May 2015.

  7. This suggests that Mercia is an heir to Dulcie, identified as a ‘figure of writing’ in Wicomb’s David’s Story by Dorothy Driver: ‘Liberated into being figures of writing, these women free themselves from being authored, and hence perform themselves as the kind of writing that is authored by writing, and that bursts into a proliferation of meaning’ (‘The Struggle’ 540). Samuelson, however, convincingly argues for Sylvie, rather than Mercia, as the figure of writing in October (see ‘Unsettling Homes’).

  8. See also Wright’s ‘Displacing the Voice: South African Feminism and J. M. Coetzee’s Female Narrators’ and Teresa Dovey’s ‘Writing in the Middle-Voice.’

  9. See Gillian Dooley’s ‘“Hades this Place, and I a Fugitive Shade”: Classical Cultures and Languages in J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron’ for a discussion of how classical and biblical discourse and the Latin language inform Mrs Curren’s narrative and condition her responses to events and characters.

  10. Clarkson’s observation, drawing on the thinking of Jean Améry, regarding David Lurie’s inability to translate Lucy’s rape into ordinary language is apt here: ‘The intellect, in language ruts like these, loses its capacity to transcend’ (115).

  11. For a more sustained and developed reading of Robinson’s Home and its citation, ‘with uncanny affects’ (183), in Wicomb’s October, see Meg Samuelson’s essay ‘Unsettling Homes and the Provincial-Cosmopolitan Point of View in Zoë Wicomb’s October’ in Zoë Wicomb and the Translocal: Writing Scotland and South Africa, edited by Kai Easton and Derek Attridge.

  12. In Age of Iron, Mrs Curren looks at pictures of her own childhood with an increasing realisation of what has been excluded by the frame of the photograph, namely the exploitation of black labour on which white privilege was built. See Rachel Ann Walsh’s ‘Not Grace, Then, but at Least the Body’: Accounting for the Self in Coetzee’s Age of Iron’ for a discussion of Mrs Curren’s engagement with photographs in the novel and her recognition of ‘the limiting frames through which she witnesses the [sic.] apartheid violence’ (185).

  13. Attridge has written extensively on the act-event of writing literature in The Singularity of Literature, The Work of Literature, and in J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event.

Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Language & identity, Women - Literary portrayal, J.M. Coetzee, Zoe Wicomb.

Cite as: Lochner, Liani. ‘Coetzee and Wicomb: Writers Giving an Account of Themselves in Age of Iron and October.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018.