Eurydice’s Curse: J. M. Coetzee and the Prospect of Death


The prospect of death is one of J. M. Coetzee’s central and enduring concerns. As David Attwell observes in his biography, ‘The most trenchant of the purposes of Coetzee’s metafiction . . . is that it is a means whereby he challenges himself with sharply existential questions’. My claim in this essay is that Coetzee uses the act of writing existentially to orient himself and his readers to the prospect of death. I argue that Coetzee treats the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a story about how to deal with the prospect of death. What seems to terrify the Coetzeean protagonist is the thought of the absolute solitariness of death. I call this the curse of Eurydice. Eurydice’s fate in the myth is to be left alone in the Underworld, dying for a second time after her impatient lover turns to gaze at her before they have safely reached the surface of the earth. To take Eurydice’s point of view in the story is to begin to glimpse the solitariness of death. One of the roles of women in Coetzee’s fiction, I suggest, is to mitigate the male character’s fear of this solitariness by conducting him to the threshold of death, but no further.

1. ‘So this is what a last thought is like?’

The prospect of death is one of J. M. Coetzee’s central and enduring concerns. Believing as he does that nonhuman animals are aware of dying, Coetzee considers the prospect of death in his fiction from both the human and the nonhuman point of view. In Dusklands, Jacobus Coetzee wonders sadistically about what passes through the mind of a little black beetle when you pull its head off: ‘You may pull his legs off one by one and he will not wince. It is only when you pull the head off his body that a tiny insect shudder runs through him; and this is certainly involuntary. What passes through his mind during his last moments?’ (96). In his fictional memoir, Boyhood, Coetzee attributes to the sheep on his family’s farm the capacity to sense their looming deaths in Cape Town abattoirs:

[I]n their yellow eyes he catches a glimpse of something that silences him: a resignation, a foreknowledge not only of what happens to sheep at the hands of Ros behind the shed, but of what awaits them at the end of the long, thirsty ride to Cape Town on the transport lorry. They know it all, down to the finest detail, and yet they submit. (102)

As Victor Brombert notes, ‘The victim’s awareness of dying is at the core of Coetzee’s insistently imagining what goes on in a consciousness during the second or split second before dying’ (133).

Two autobiographical events help to explain why Coetzee is obsessed with the prospect of human and nonhuman death. In Boyhood, Coetzee claims that his earliest memory, one he concedes may well be false, is of seeing a dog being run over by a car outside his family’s flat in Johannesburg:

He is leaning out of the window of their flat in Johannesburg. Dusk is falling. Out of the distance a car comes racing down the street. A dog, a small spotted dog, runs in front of it. The car hits the dog: its wheels go right over the dog’s middle. With its hind legs paralysed, the dog drags itself away, squealing with pain. No doubt it will die; but at this point he is snatched away from the window. (30)

In the same text, Coetzee describes almost drowning while on a scout camp near the Breede River in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. Troop-leader Michael has to drag the young Coetzee out of the river when the boy’s head starts dipping beneath the surface of the water. For weeks afterwards, Coetzee reflects on the near-death event: ‘From that day onward he knows there is something special about him. He should have died but he did not. Despite his unworthiness, he has been given a second life. He was dead but is alive’ (16–17). On a number of occasions in Boyhood, rather than death itself, Coetzee gives us the prospect of death, that is, an animal or a human death as it looms large in the narrative frame of the text before eventually disappearing from view.

The prospect of death is at the core of Coetzee’s storytelling practice. Coetzee writes in the notes for his 1994 novel The Master of Petersburg: ‘A story is like a road. What do we hope to find at the end of the road? Oneself. One’s death’ (qtd. in Attwell 31). As Walter Benjamin famously proclaims in his 1936 essay ‘The Storyteller’, ‘Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death’ (94). In the case of Coetzee the storyteller, we might say, more precisely, that he borrows his authority from the prospect of death, from the narrative space that opens up as a result of the near-death experience, when a first life becomes for whatever reason a second life. According to the OED, prospect is ‘[t]he action or fact of looking forward or out, or of seeing to a distance’. The English word prospect comes from the classical Latin prospectus meaning the ‘action of looking out, outlook, view, in post-classical Latin also consideration of the future, foresight’. As this etymology indicates, prospect can refer to the action of looking forward or out in space or time. In its temporal sense, it is ‘the thing anticipated, a future occasion or event’. Since a prospective event is yet to happen, our act of looking forward to it is mental or metaphorical. But prospect also involves the physical action of looking or facing out or forward in the present. It is ‘[t]he view (of a landscape, etc.) afforded by a particular location or position’. Given Coetzee’s remark that ‘a story is like a road’, it is also worth noting that in Russia a prospect is ‘a long, wide street; an avenue or boulevard’ (OED, ‘Prospect’). Coetzee uses the word in this sense in chapter 17 of The Master of Petersburg, when he refers to ‘Voznesensky Prospekt’, a major street in St Petersburg’s historic centre (204).

Coetzee combines the spatial and the temporal dimensions of the notion of prospect when he describes seeing the dog being run over by the car in Boyhood. Telegraphing the potential artificiality of this ‘magnificent first memory’ (30) is its cinematic mode of presentation. Coetzee’s initial position in the scene – leaning out of the window – affords him a kind of God’s eye view of the accident. He sees the car come out of the distance racing down the street. He sees the dog run in front of the car. He sees the car hit and mortally injure the dog. But, crucially, he is snatched away before he (or, indeed, we) can see the dog actually die. The dog’s death is thus prospective in the double sense that it has been seen in the present but must also be anticipated or imagined to occur in the future.

Coetzee is constantly presenting death in his fiction as prospective, as anticipated but still not yet occurring in the narrative present. We see many of his characters, whether human or animal, about to die but not yet dead. The first-person narrator of Age of Iron, Mrs. Curren, is terminally ill with cancer and constantly reflects on dying as she writes her long narrative letter to her absent daughter in the United States. But, in part due to the epistolary form of the text, we never witness the moment of Mrs. Curren’s death. At the end of Disgrace, the main protagonist David Lurie is about to euthanise the three-legged dog ‘he has come to feel a particular fondness for’ (214–15). But we never see the crippled dog die. Like Coetzee in his fictionalised first memory, we are snatched away from the window – or, to mix our metaphors, have come to end of the road – of the novel before the dog that is marked for death actually dies. Rather than the dog’s death, we are given Lurie’s prospective imagining of this death:

He can save the young dog, if he wishes, for another week. But a time must come, it cannot be evaded, when he will have to bring him to Bev Shaw in her operating room (perhaps he will carry him in his arms, perhaps he will do that for him) and caress him and brush back the fur so that the needle can find the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly, his legs buckle; and then, when the soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up. He will do all that for him when his time comes. It will be little enough, less than little: nothing. (219–20)

Making the final scene of Disgrace so affecting, I think, is the fact that, rather than truly abandoning the dog, Coetzee’s text marshals the forces of novelistic rhetoric to transform the condemned animal’s inevitable death into something prospective, something still to come.

As Jan Wilm notes, ‘Coetzee’s texts seem more to allude to death than to narrate it . . . It is remarkable that not even one of Coetzee’s endings closes with an explicit, unambiguously narrated death of a character. Not once is the reader witness to a protagonist’s end of life’ (196). Why does Coetzee generally choose not to show or narrate the deaths of his characters? By implying that these deaths occur outside the narrative frame of the text, he emphasises the prospectiveness of death. The important aspect of death, he seems to be saying, is that it does not occur in the present, in the time of writing, but in the future. To write is thus to suspend death – or, as Mrs. Curren puts it in the following passage from Age of Iron, to hold death ‘at arm’s length’:

For as long as the trail of words continues, you [my daughter] know with certainty that I have not gone through with it [suicide]: a rule, another rule. Death may indeed be the last great foe of writing, but writing is also the foe of death. Therefore, writing, holding death at arm’s length, let me tell you that I meant to go through with it, began to go through with it, did not go through with it. (106)

Rather than an event in the present, death is the horizon of eventuality in Coetzee’s fiction. Despite their obsession with death, with imagining and reimagining the moment just before death, we might locate the strange optimism of Coetzee’s texts in the way they situate their characters and readers on the side of life facing forward and out toward death, in the way they continually figure death as a future eventuality, a prospect. Mrs. Curren epitomises the existential optimism of the Coetzeean narrator when she rejects the consoling thought of the afterlife and affirms her continuing love of ‘this first life, this life on earth’, despite all its travails:

We sicken before we die so that we will be weaned from our body. The milk that nourished us grows thin and sour; turning away from the breast, we begin to be restless for a separate life. Yet this first life, this life on earth, on the body of earth – will there, can there ever be a better? Despite all the glooms and despairs and rages, I have not let go of my love of it. (11–12)

In so obsessively documenting the moment before death, Coetzee presents life as an asymptotic curve that approaches but never touches the point of death. Death is approached prospectively even in a text like The Master of Petersburg in which the central character Dostoevsky’s stepson Pavel Isaev is already dead when the narrative begins. In fact, as Brombert notes, this novel ‘offers the richest variations on this [Coetzeean] theme of a terminal rush of consciousness’ (133). In it, Dostoevsky returns to St Petersburg from exile in Dresden after learning that his twenty-one-year-old stepson has died in mysterious circumstances, as a result of falling from the top of the old shot tower on Stolyarny Quay. The grief-stricken father mourns his dead son by trying imaginatively to inhabit the place of the dead son. He rents Pavel’s old room at number sixty-three Svechnoi Street in the Haymarket district of St Petersburg. He wears Pavel’s old clothes, including his now-dirty white suit. He even tries to imagine what it was like for Pavel to fall through the air to his death:

All morning he sits at the table in his son’s room, his head in his hands. He cannot pretend he is writing. His mind is running to the moment of Pavel’s death. What he cannot bear is the thought that, for the last fraction of the last instant of his fall, Pavel knew that nothing could save him, that he was dead. He wants to believe Pavel was protected from that certainty, more terrible than annihilation itself, by the hurry and confusion of the fall, by the mind’s way of etherizing itself against whatever is too enormous to be borne. With all his heart he wants to believe this. At the same time he knows that he wants to believe in order to etherize himself against the knowledge that Pavel, falling, knew everything.

At moments like this he cannot distinguish Pavel from himself. They are the same person; and that person is no more or less than a thought, Pavel thinking it in him, he thinking it in Pavel. The thought keeps Pavel alive, suspended in his fall. (20–1)

Disturbing the father, perhaps even more than the fall itself, is the son’s awareness, as he falls, that he falls to his death. Dostoevsky later reflects:

Upon him bursts the thought of Pavel’s last moment, of the body of a hot-blooded young man in the pride of life striking the earth, of the rush of breath from the lungs, the crack of bones, the surprise, above all the surprise, that the end should be real, that there should be no second chance . . . A body hitting the earth: death, the measure of all things! (105)

As David Attwell points out in his critical biography J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, ‘There is no shot tower in St Petersburg, nor has there ever been one, judging from historical maps, descriptions, engravings, drawings and photographs of the city, starting in the 1860s’ (187). Coetzee puts a shot tower in St Petersburg to add drama and plausibility to Pavel’s fatal fall. We read in his notes for the novel:

Drop the notion that Pavel dies falling from the fourth floor of No. 63. No. 63 only has three storeys. The third floor, D thinks, is not enough to die from. Instead, Pavel is said to have died by falling from the shot tower on the banks of the canal. His body is brought to the apartment the morning after. The police surgeon arrives, decides he died from falling, not the result of an assault. (qtd. in Attwell 209)

Falling is a central figure in the text. ‘The novel uses the repetition of the word fall and its derivatives as formal reminders of Pavel’s literal fall a full 42 times’, Wilm observes, ‘thus suffusing the narrative’s language with falling, the way the focalizer’s mind is contaminated with the images and echoes of his falling stepson’ (126). Indeed, Coetzee proposed Falling as a title for the novel in his notes, before abandoning this title ‘because it was already in use by another writer’ (Attwell 203).

In The Master of Petersburg, the act of falling figures the conscious subject’s asymptotic approach to the moment of unconsciousness. As we have seen, this is how Dostoevsky conceives of Pavel’s fall from the shot tower. But Dostoevsky also thinks of his epilepsy – the ‘falling sickness’ (226) – in the same way, as an asymptotic approach to the instant of unconsciousness. The mourning father tries to draw nearer to his dead son by imagining that the two share an intimate understanding of the physics and the metaphysics of falling. After climbing a spiral staircase to the top of the tower with the revolutionary Nechaev (who is possibly his son’s killer), Dostoevsky reflects: ‘The epileptic knows it all: the approach to the edge, the glance downward, the lurch of the soul, the thinking that thinks itself crazily over and over like a bell pealing in the head: Time shall have an end, there shall be no death’ (118, original emphasis). For the inconsolable father, every type of unconsciousness becomes a kind of falling: ‘He is falling asleep. He imagines himself plunging down a long waterfall into a pool, and gives himself over to the plunge’ (6).

There is a reason why The Master of Petersburg offers ‘the richest variations on this theme of a terminal rush of consciousness’ (Brombert 133) in Coetzee. A terrible biographical fact lies behind Coetzee’s decision to put a shot tower in St Petersburg. Coetzee’s son Nicolas Coetzee tragically died on 21 April 1989, two months before his twenty-third birthday, as a result of falling from his eleventh-floor flat in Hillbrow, Johannesburg (see Attwell 194–7). In writing The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee has thus made the fictional circumstances of Pavel’s death resemble the real-life circumstances of his son Nicolas’s death. This fact gains further significance when we note that the historical Dostoevsky’s son Pavel outlived his father by almost twenty years. Coetzee clearly engages with the event of his son’s death through the fictionalised consciousness of his author-character Dostoevsky: ‘The third floor, D thinks, is not enough to die from’. Just as Dostoevsky is forced into contemplating his stepson’s terrible fall in The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee forces himself in the writing of this novel to confront the terrible fall of his own son.

Coetzee revisits the theme of the physics and metaphysics of falling in his 2005 novel Slow Man, which begins with main protagonist Paul Rayment being hit by a car and thrown from his bicycle:

The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful, like a bolt of electricity, lifting him up off the bicycle. Relax! he tells himself as he flies through the air (flies through the air with the greatest of ease!) and indeed, he can feel his limbs go obediently slack. Like a cat he tells himself: roll, then spring to your feet, ready for what comes next. (1, original emphasis)

Rayment here tries to mitigate the reality of his fall by imagining himself as suddenly acquiring the agility (and perhaps the proverbial extra lives) of a cat. He fantasises about ending up in a position of prospection: on his feet, facing out toward the future, ‘ready for what comes next’. Balancing Rayment’s initial fantasy of falling without injury are his soberer second thoughts about the near-fatal accident, which results in the amputation of his right leg above the knee:

But if it so happens that Wayne Blight bumps into him a second time and sends him flying through the air with the greatest of ease, he will make sure he does not save himself. No rolling with the blow, no springing to his feet. If he has a last thought, if there is time for a last thought, it will simply be, So this is what a last thought is like. (26–7, original emphasis)

Nowhere is Coetzee’s philosophy of the prospectiveness of death more beautifully encapsulated than in one of JC’s diary entries from the 2007 novel Diary of a Bad Year:

04. Insh’Allah

‘Under the sign of death.’ Why should not our every utterance come accompanied by a reminder that before too long we will have to say goodbye to this world? Conventions of discourse require that the writer’s existential situation, which like everyone else’s is a perilous one, and at every moment too, be bracketed off from what he writes. But why should we always bow to convention? Behind every paragraph the reader ought to be able to hear the music of present joy and future grief. Insh’Allah. (136)

The Arabic phrase Insh’Allah or InshaAllah means ‘if God so wills’ or ‘God willing’. Muslims use this phrase to talk about prospective events. We read in Surah 18:23–4 of the Qur’an: ‘do not say of anything, “I will do that tomorrow,” without adding, “God willing”’. To pronounce Insh’Allah is to acknowledge God as the guarantor of every future event. In the diary entry above, JC replaces God with death. His point is that death is the ultimate guarantor of every future event. The author, he thinks, writes ‘under the sign of death’, which is to say, looking forward and out toward death. JC suggests bracketing the literary in order to glimpse the perilous existential situation of the writer. I suggest applying this thought to reading the fiction of his author JMC.

As Attwell observes in his biography:

Coetzee criticism is filled with commentary on the novels’ metafictional qualities – the writing about writing. The most trenchant of the purposes of Coetzee’s metafiction, however, is that it is a means whereby he challenges himself with sharply existential questions, such as, Is there room for me, and my history, in this book? If not, what am I doing? The book must in some sense answer to the mystery of its author’s being. Coetzee’s writing is a huge existential enterprise grounded in fictionalized autobiography. (26, original emphasis)

My claim in this essay is that Coetzee uses the act of writing existentially, to orient himself and his readers to the prospect of death. A passage from the draft of the 1983 novel Life & Times of Michael K, from which Attwell takes the subtitle of his biography, Face to Face with Time, neatly illustrates my thesis:

I have retreated and retreated and retreated, till I am on the highest mountaintop and there is nowhere more to go save up into the heavens. Now I am face to face at last with time: everything is behind me, only the huge block of the day is before me everyday when I wake, and will not go away. Now there is nothing for me to do but live, through time, like an ant boring its way through a rock. (qtd. in Attwell 25–6)

Attwell comments about this draft: ‘There is much here that is suggestive of Coetzee’s authorship: the inwardness and isolation of the voice, the sense of being embattled; the desire for meaning, even when it is thwarted. The ant boring its way through rock is a good metaphor for all of Coetzee’s writing’ (26). I would add that the passage also reveals Coetzee’s characteristic focus on the prospective, which is to say, the action of looking outward or ahead in space and time.

2. ‘He thinks of Orpheus walking backwards step by step’

Given his fascination with the prospect of death, with death as it involves the action of looking forward or out in space and time, with death as it relates to the willingness of the gods to support human activities, it is no surprise to discover that Coetzee is drawn to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Although thought to be of Greek origin, the earliest versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice story survive in the works of Roman poets: in Virgil’s Georgics and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Ovid’s account, which classicist C. M. Bowra (113) speculates derives from a Greek poem, Eurydice dies from snakebite to her ankle soon after being married. Overcome with grief at the loss of his wife, the poet-songster Orpheus travels to the underworld to beg the gods to let him retrieve her. The gods are so moved by the sorrowful song Orpheus sings to them on his lyre that they allow him to take Eurydice back on the condition that he does not look at her until he reaches the surface of the earth. But Orpheus disobeys this command: out of concern for Eurydice, he carelessly turns to look at her before he leaves the underworld and she dies for a second time. In Book X of the Metamorphoses, Ovid vividly portrays the prospect of her second death:

Up the sloping path, through the mute silence they made their way, up the steep dark track, wrapped in impenetrable gloom, till they had almost reached the surface of the earth. Here, anxious in case his wife’s strength be failing and eager to see her, the lover looked behind him, and straightaway Eurydice slipped back into the depths. Orpheus stretched out his arms, straining to clasp her and be clasped; but the hapless man clutched nothing but yielding air. Eurydice, dying now a second time, uttered no complaint against her husband. What was there to complain of, but that she had been loved? With a last farewell which scarcely reached his ears, she fell back again into the same place from which she had come. (226)

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice tells of a failed act of resurrection, of the mourning artist’s inability to resuscitate his lost lover by the powers of art alone. As Helen Sword notes, ‘Orpheus embodies both the powers of art and the limitations of art – both the possibility of conquering death and the futility of the attempt’ (408).

A number of critics, including Mike Marais, Michelle Kelly and Ottilia Veres, have observed how Coetzee repeatedly draws on and reworks the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in his fiction. The katabasis or the journey to the underworld is one of Coetzee’s key tropes. In relation to The Master of Petersburg, both Marais and Kelly argue that Coetzee appeals to the myth as an allegory of inspiration. According to Marais, ‘the myth serves as a metaphor for that desire which inspires Dostoevsky to write’ (90). Kelly, similarly, notes: ‘In Petersburg . . . the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice comes to embody the risks of the creative enterprise, risks that involve slippage between the public and private worlds of master author Dostoevsky’ (144). In reading the Orpheus story as an allegory of the creative act, Marais and Kelly follow the lead of Maurice Blanchot, who writes in his 1944 essay ‘Orpheus’s Gaze’: ‘When Orpheus descends toward Eurydice art is the power by which night opens . . . For him Eurydice is the furthest that art can reach . . . She is the instant when the essence of night approaches as the other night’ (The Space of Literature 171, original emphasis). What fascinates Blanchot about the myth is that Orpheus draws Eurydice out of the underworld with the power of his song but then wrecks his song by turning back to look at its source of inspiration. Orpheus’s gaze expresses the artist’s desire to privilege the formlessness of inspiration (Eurydice as she appears in the underworld) over the form of the artwork. ‘To look at Eurydice’, Blanchot writes, ‘without regard for the song, in the impatience and imprudence of desire which forgets the work: that is inspiration’ (173, original emphasis). This, then, is the risk of the creative act to which Kelly refers. To justify this kind of reading, Kelly cites Coetzee from some notes for a seminar on Olive Schreiner at the University of Cape Town in 1993, included in papers he donated to the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown: ‘The meaning of the Orpheus story: you kill your inspiration by turning back to look at it’ (qtd. in Kelly 143).

Marais and Kelly are right to claim that Coetzee uses the Orpheus myth in The Master of Petersburg to figure inspiration. The novel, after all, finishes with Dostoevsky finally writing Pavel as a fictional character. I want to suggest that Coetzee not only treats the myth of Orpheus as an allegory of inspiration in The Master of Petersburg, but also thinks of it (in this novel and elsewhere) as a story about how to deal with the prospect of death. A first qualifying point we might note is that Coetzee removes the prohibition on Orpheus gazing at Eurydice in his rewriting of the Greek myth. Here is the first reference to the story in the first chapter of the novel:

He is trying to cast a spell. But over whom: over a ghost or over himself? He thinks of Orpheus walking backwards step by step, whispering the dead woman’s name, coaxing her out of the entrails of hell; of the wife in graveclothes with the blind, dead eyes following him, holding out limp hands before her like a sleepwalker. No flute, no lyre, just the word, the one word, over and over. (5)

In contrast to the Greek myth, Orpheus is here presented as walking backwards out of the underworld and so facing Eurydice (who represents Pavel). Later in the novel, there is a similar allusion to the myth:

Why this plodding chase across empty country after the rumour of a ghost, the ghost of a rumour?

Because I am he. Because he is I. Something there that I seek to grasp: the moment before extinction when the blood still courses, the heart still beats. Heart, the faithful ox that keeps the millwheel turning . . . Not oblivion but the moment before oblivion, when I come panting up to you at the rim of the well and we look upon each other for a last time, knowing we are alive, sharing this one life, our only life . . .

The rule: one look, one only; no glancing back. But I look back . . .

Forever I look back. Forever I am absorbed in your gaze. (53–4)

In the final chapter of the novel, Dostoevsky sits at the table in Pavel’s old room and conjures the spectral figure across the table from him:

He closes his eyes, makes himself confront the figure, makes it grow clearer. Across the face there is still the veil, which it seems powerless to remove. Only the figure itself can do that; and it will not do so before it is asked. To ask, he must know its name. What is its name? Is it Ivanov? Is this Ivanov come back, Ivanov the obscure, the forgotten? . . . Or is it Pavel? (237)

Coetzee’s epithet ‘Ivanov the obscure’ echoes the title of Blanchot’s 1941 novel Thomas the Obscure. Like Coetzee, Blanchot is a writer obsessed with death as it fails to arrive in the narrative present. Blanchot begins his 1994 story The Instant of My Death, ‘I remember a young man – a man still young – who was prevented from dying by death itself – and perhaps the error of injustice’ (Blanchot and Derrida 3). This story fictionalises a pivotal and formative moment in Blanchot’s life in which he narrowly avoided being summarily executed as a young man when the Vlassov army passed by his family home in Quain, Saône-et-Loire, in the summer of 1944. After the first-person narrator escapes being shot by the firing squad, he reflects in the final sentence of the story: ‘All that remains is the feeling of lightness that is death itself or, to put it more precisely, the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance’ (11). Early on in The Master of Petersburg we see Coetzee put things in a particularly Blanchotian way: ‘I am the one who is dead, he thinks; or rather, I died but my death failed to arrive’ (19).

If we hear Blanchot’s influence in The Master of Petersburg, we should hear not just the reading of the Orpheus myth as an allegory of inspiration, but also the focus on the narrative non-arrival of death. Inspired both by Blanchot’s fiction and criticism, Coetzee adapts the Orpheus myth to his own concern with the prospect of death. Dostoevsky’s attempt at resurrecting Pavel is less an attempt to have him back in the present than an attempt to inhabit the moment from which the father was absent: ‘His mind is running to the moment of Pavel’s death . . . By whatever act of will it takes, let me be the thinking animal plunging through the air’ (20–1). We learn in the first chapter of the novel that Dostoevsky is wracked by feelings of guilt over abandoning Pavel: ‘I will come back: the same promise he made when he took the boy to school for his first term. You will not be abandoned. And abandoned him’ (5, original emphasis). The father’s impossible task in returning to Petersburg is to try to inhabit the moment before the son dies, to be ‘the thinking animal plunging through the air’, thereby somehow converting retrospection (belatedness) into prospection (present-ness). The Orpheus myth models the existential, not simply literary or artistic, problem for Coetzee of arriving too late to save the beloved from the instant of their death.

In pointing out how Coetzee models Pavel’s death in Master of Petersburg on the death of his son Nicolas, Attwell quotes a poignant note that Coetzee recorded on Christmas Day 1992: ‘Christmas Day and Nicolas is not here. The project: to recover the truth of his relation to the dead boy. That truth: not to bring the dead boy back into this world but to go into the world of death without fear. In this his conductress will be A. S. [Anna Sergeyevna]’ (qtd. in Attwell 197). Notice here that Coetzee says ‘the truth of his relation to the dead boy’. What seems to terrify the Coetzeean protagonist, more than anything else, is the thought of the absolute solitariness of death, the thought, that is, of losing all relation to others at the point of one’s death. This is what I am calling the curse of Eurydice. Eurydice’s fate in the myth is to be left alone in the Underworld, dying for a second time after her impatient lover turns to gaze at her before they have safely reached the surface of the earth. To take Eurydice’s point of view in the story is to begin to glimpse the absolute solitariness of death. As Sword notes:

From Eurydice’s point of view . . . Orpheus’ turn, however admirable and ambitious its motivations, has an unambiguously unpleasant result: she is packed off to the Underworld, refused the chance at life that moments before had been so tantalizingly dangled before her. Bearing none of Orpheus’ symbolic baggage, defined and manipulated by his powerful gaze, Eurydice is, comparatively speaking, a mythological nobody. Her only obvious archetypal significance resides in a negative role: that of woman-as-Other, woman-as-death, woman as the ‘dark continent’ that Freud found both so threatening and so irresistible. (408)

Toward the end of The Master of Petersburg, Dostoevsky tries to reassure Anna Sergeyevna’s young daughter Matryosha by saying to her, ‘What frightens us most about dying isn’t the pain. It is the fear that we must leave behind those who love us and travel alone. But that is not so, it is simply not so. When we die, we carry our loved ones with us in our breast’ (208). It seems to me that Dostoevsky only half believes what he says to Matryosha here. His reassurance that in death ‘we carry our loved ones with us in our breast’ is given for the child’s – rather than his own – benefit.

One of the roles of women in Coetzee’s fiction is to mitigate the male character’s fear of the solitariness of death by conducting him to the threshold of death, but no further. Dostoevsky says to Anna Sergeyevna at one point in The Master of Petersburg, ‘On the ferry, when you took me to see Pavel’s grave . . . I watched you and Matryosha standing at the rail staring into the mist . . . and I said to myself, “She will bring him back. She is . . . a conductress of souls’’’ (139). But Anna Sergeyevna doesn’t accompany Dostoevsky in quite the way he expects. If anything, she helps him to let go of the male or Orphic desire to resurrect the other through the power of art. She will not travel to the underworld with him as he imagines. ‘I pictured the two of us in a boat’, he tells her late in the novel, ‘you at the prow piloting us through the mist. The picture was as vivid as life itself. I put all my trust in you’ (223). But Anna Sergeyevna stays on the side of life; she does not pass the threshold of death. I can illustrate this point by juxtaposing two very odd and grotesque passages from the novel relating to seed:

He thinks of the seed that for a while went on living in the body [of Pavel] after the breathing had stopped, not yet knowing it would never find issue. (76)

They make love as though under the sign of death . . . ‘So was that meant to bring about the birth of the saviour?’ she murmurs . . . ‘A real river of seed. You must have wanted to make sure.’ (225)

Whereas Dostoevsky’s earlier personification of the unused sperm in Pavel’s dead body indicates the stepson’s frozen solitude in death, Anna Sergeyevna’s later post-coital remark about Dostoevsky’s sperm indicates the warmth of relation. She here refers to his desire to have a child with her.

More than twenty years after publishing The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee once again turns to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to think about the prospect of death in Diary of a Bad Year. The reading of the story appears in the first entry of JC’s Second Diary, in which he recounts a ‘troubling dream’: ‘I had died but had not left the world yet. I was in the company of a woman, one of the living, younger than myself, who had been with me when I died and understood what was happening to me’ (129). Although this younger woman is understanding and protective toward JC, ‘[s]he too made it clear that I could not stay; and indeed I knew that my time was short, that I had a day or two at most, that no amount of protesting and weeping and clinging could change that’ (129). The dream gives JC an idea for a story: ‘An intriguing idea: to write a novel from the perspective of a man who has died, who knows he has two days before he – that is, his body – caves in and begins to fester and smell, who has nothing he hopes to achieve in those two days save to live some more, whose every moment is coloured with grief’ (129–30). Now comes the reading of the Eurydice story.

The story of Eurydice has been misunderstood. What the story is about is the solitariness of death. Eurydice is in hell in her graveclothes. She believes that Orpheus loves her enough to come and save her. And indeed Orpheus comes. But in the end the love Orpheus feels is not strong enough. Orpheus leaves his beloved behind and returns to his own life.

The story of Eurydice reminds us that as of the moment of death we lose all power to elect our companions. We are whirled away to our allotted fate; by whose side we get to pass eternity is not for us to decide. (131)

Notice how in his preparation notes for the seminar on Olive Schreiner at the University of Cape Town, Coetzee calls it the ‘Orpheus story’, whereas in 2007, in Diary of a Bad Year, JC calls it ‘the story of Eurydice’. The two readings differ because they focus on the perspective of different characters: Orpheus in the one case, Eurydice in the other. The two readings also emphasise different moments in the story. In the 1993 reading, Coetzee imagines himself in the position of Orpheus walking back from the underworld under the prohibition of the gods not to turn and look at his beloved. In the 2007 reading, JC imagines Eurydice’s perspective having been returned to hell after Orpheus turns and looks at her. In this case, Orpheus’s love for her has not been strong enough to bring her back to life. As JC notes by way of a moral to the story: ‘One holds on to the belief that someone, somewhere, loves one enough to hold on to one, keep one from being torn away. But the belief is false. All love is moderate, in the end. No one will come with one’ (131).

Like Anna Sergeyevna in The Master of Petersburg, Anya in Diary of a Bad Year is a ‘conductress of souls’ and a witness to the ultimate moderateness of all love. As JC writes about her in his diary, ‘This young woman who declines to call me by my name, instead calling me Senōr or perhaps Senior – is she the one that has been assigned to conduct me to my death? If that is so, how odd a messenger, and how unsuitable! Yet perhaps it is the nature of death that everything about it, every last thing, should strike us as unsuitable’ (50–1). Although it concerns the prospect of a human rather than an animal death, the ending of Diary of a Bad Year resembles the ending of Disgrace. Just as David Lurie promises to be there for the crippled dog when his legs bewilderingly buckle, Anya promises to look after JC when his time comes. She writes this in her final diary entry:

I will fly to Sydney. I will do that. I will hold his hand. I can’t go with you, I will say to him, it is against the rules. I can’t go with you but what I will do is hold your hand as far as the gate. At the gate you can let go and give me a smile to show you are a brave boy and get on the boat or whatever it is you have to do. As far as the gate I will hold your hand, I would be proud to do that. And I will clean up afterwards. I will clean your flat and put everything in order. I will drop Russian Dolls and the other private stuff in the trash, so you don’t need to have sinking thoughts on the other side about what people on this side will be saying about you . . .

All that I will promise him, and hold his hand tight and give him a kiss on the brow, a proper kiss, just to remind him of what he is leaving behind. Good night Señor C, I will whisper in his ears: sweet dreams, and flights of angels, and all the rest. (176–8)

Here, once again, rather than the death of one of his characters, Coetzee gives us the prospect of this death, this death as it appears in the mollifying imagination of another character. Anya echoes Horatio’s eulogy to Hamlet: ‘Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’ (5.2.338–9). She promises to accompany JC to the gate of death but no further. There is a twofold effect from her repeated use of the future tense in the passage that we can now recognise as properly Coetzeean: death is momentarily deferred because it fails to occur in the narrative present; life itself – our experience of the present moment – is recast under the sign of death. Insh’Allah.

Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: J.M. Coetzee.

Cite as: Danta, Chris . ‘Eurydice’s Curse: J. M. Coetzee and the Prospect of Death.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018.