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

Abstract

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…

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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. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.b8f643d0a0.