Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday 19 October 2009



History is nothing but a certain kind of story that people agree to tell each other – J M Coetzee


Titles are odd things. How do you decide on a title that will encompass a complete novel? What is the purpose of that title? Is it simply a label or is it a code, a way into the book? And, keeping this in mind, what do you make of the title of J. M. Coetzee's 1986 novel, Foe? Strangely enough my first thought was right, at least I thought it was; it was a name. As I started to read through the book I realised that it might also signify a foe, an opponent or, in fact, a number of opposing forces. But I'll come back to that.

What is the purpose of writing? Okay, big question. Let’s rephrase. Is the purpose of writing to provide answers? Up to a point, yes, and Coetzee does indeed provide a number of them. We learn who Foe is for starters. It's the writer Daniel Foe, better known to us nowadays as Daniel Defoe, best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe. And there will be few people out there who don't know his story. But is it a story? Yes and no. It's generally accepted that the book is based on Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway who lived four years on the Pacific island called Más a Tierra, now renamed Robinson Crusoe Island, off the coast of Chile, but in reality Defoe had access to a much wider and more plausible range of potential sources of inspiration and the fact is castaway surgeon Henry Pitman is a more likely candidate as the model for Crusoe. Pitman's short book about his desperate escape from a Caribbean penal colony, followed by his shipwrecking and subsequent desert island misadventures, was published by J. Taylor of Paternoster Row, London, whose son William Taylor later published Defoe's novel.

But what if that's not how it happened? This is the premise behind Coetzee's novel. In Foe he proposes that a woman, Susan Barton, ends up on the island and is rescued along with Cruso (as he is known in the book) and Friday and that Cruso dies on the voyage home once they are rescued. Additionally he suggests that Susan is the one who actually approaches Daniel Foe in the hotel in Clock Lane where she happens to be staying and asked him to write their story. So what happened to Susan in the Defoe’s book because I think I would have noticed if there had been a woman running around half-naked in it?

defoe2-1 Lots of people have ideas for books. You don't need to be a writer to have a good idea and Susan freely admits that she is no writer but a good idea is a good idea. And Foe agrees. It is a good idea . . . up to a point . . . but one that could be improved upon if he were not encumbered by the facts. The truth is all well and good but truth does not necessarily sell books because, most of the time, the truth is rather dull. How many stories have come down to us over the years where it’s obvious that the facts have been elaborated upon if not downright romanticised? Even Susan herself realises that "the idea of Cruso on his island is a better thing than the true Cruso."

But perhaps we should backtrack and explain how Susan came to be on the island. I'll let her do the talking:

'"Two years ago my only daughter was abducted and conveyed to the New World by an Englishman, a factor and agent in the carrying trade. I followed in search of her. Arriving in Bahia, I was met with denials and, when I persisted, with rudeness and threats. The officers of the Crown afforded me no aid, saying it was a matter between the English. I lived in lodgings, and took in sewing, and searched, and waited, but saw no trace of my child. So, despairing at last, and my means giving out, I embarked for Lisbon on a merchantman.

'"Ten days out from port, as if my misfortunes were not great enough, the crew mutinied. Bursting into their captain's cabin, they slew him heartlessly even while he pleaded for his life. Those of their fellows who were not with them they clapped in irons. They put me in a boat with the captain's corpse beside me and set us adrift. Why they chose to cast me away I do not know.'"

This she tells Cruso on arriving on the island but you'll notice the double inverted commas above. This is her telling Foe what she told Cruso. In fact the entire first two sections of the book, 106 pages, is in quotes; in Part I she is speaking – presumably directly to Foe – whereas Part II consists of a number of letters addressed to the writer expanding on what she has told him in Part I.

My first introduction to Robinson Crusoe, like many from my generation I'm sure, will have been the French production, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe shown by the BBC first in 1965 and repeated on a regular basis. I didn’t remember a huge amount about the show but watching a few clips brought it all flooding back to me. The theme tune, however, and much of the incidental music is etched into my consciousness. I've just found a copy of it online and it's filled me with a warm fuzzy feeling. I actually teared-up for a second – seriously.

And, if you're really sentimental and have seven minutes to spare here's a link to a good quality recording of the entire Suite from the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Robert Mellin and Gian Piero Reverberi.

Robert Hoffmann will always be Crusoe for me, a civilised man despite the circumstances he found himself in. Coetzee's Cruso is nothing like him. And it's not simply time that has worn him down, he was never like that. The man Friday takes Susan to meet has lost all interest. He may well be monarch of all he surveys (to paraphrase the opening line of William Cowper's poem The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk) but that is not saying much:

'In the hut there was nothing but the bed, which was made of poles bound together with thongs, crude in workmanship yet sturdy, and in a corner a pile of cured apeskins that made the hut smell like a tanner's storehouse (in time I grew used to the smell, and even missed it after I had put the island behind me; even today when I smell new leather I grow drowsy), and the stove in which the embers of the last fire were always left banked, for making new fire was tedious work.

'What I chiefly hoped to find was not there. Cruso kept no journal, perhaps because he lacked paper and ink, but more likely, I now believe, because he lacked the inclination to keep one, or, if he ever possessed the inclination, had lost it. I searched the poles that supported the roof, and the legs of the bed, but found no carvings, not even notches to indicate that he counted the years of his banishment or the cycles of the moon.'

Cruso offers scant explanation for any of this. He is clearly a man unused to having to answer for his actions and also one who has all but forgotten how to converse. Surely though he has had Friday for company for many years, has he not taught him to talk if not to aid communication between them then at least to wile away the hours? The answer is: no, but there is a good reason for that. Whereas the Friday I knew growing up was rescued by Crusoe, the Friday in this book came ashore with Cruso; he had been a slave onboard and what is more he had, according to Cruso, had his tongue removed by the slavers long before the two of them had become acquainted, So normal conversation was impossible and all Cruso had chosen to do was teach Friday to understand a few basic English words:

'One evening, as I was preparing our supper, my hands being full, I turned to Friday and said, "Bring more wood, Friday." Friday heard me, I could have sworn, but he did not stir. So I said the word "Wood" again, indicating the fire; upon which he stood up, but he did no more. Then Cruso spoke. "Firewood, Friday," he said and Friday went off and fetched wood from the woodpile.

'My first thought was that Friday was like a dog that heeds but one master; yet it was not so. "Firewood is the word I have taught him," said Cruso. "Wood he does not know."'

I asked earlier: Is the purpose of writing to provide answers? As far as this book goes the answers are as short as the answers Cruso provides Susan with; he answers but he rarely explains. He is the king of his island and although Susan can't fathom what law made him king she does her best to fit in with this odd couple. As the days pass though she ends up with more and more questions, questions that she – and, by extension, we – don't get answers to, don't expect to get answered and, indeed, never do get answered. Many of these are questions of a practical nature, for example, why had Cruso not tried to salvage items from the ship? Why had he contented himself with a knife as his only tool?

As the book progresses though Parts II and III Susan's questions become more and more philosophical in nature. When she finally returns to civilisation she finds herself living on its fringes not simply because she is carrying around Friday who is little more than deadweight but more because she cannot shake the island even though she only spends a year there, nothing in comparison to Cruso's fifteen. Indeed the wrench from the island proves too much for him and he dies on the homeward voyage, essentially "of woe, the extremest woe."

There are a number of issues that this book touches up but the three that crop up most in discussions are postcolonialism, feminism and postmodernism (and its tool, historiographic metafiction, a term which describes metafictional works that concentrate on histories and the historical). Let's take them one at a time:

The optimistic Robinson Crusoe, in Foe, becomes Cruso, a weak-minded mountain of insecurity who, unlike the original protagonist, lives sullenly on a desert island with only a few tools, no gun, no Bible, no writing utensils, and no records. He labours every day to construct gigantic terraces, walled by stone, which stand empty and barren, for he has nothing to plant. In Cruso's island (as opposed to Crusoe's island), there are no providential seeds, spiritual or natural. Such meaningless construction also symbolises the hollowness at the core of Empire-building. Cruso as colonist manqué is not only impotent but also ludicrous. - Ayo Kehinde, 'Post Colonial Literatures as Counter-Duscourse: J M Coetzee's Foe and the Reworking of the Canon'

Friday Defoe's Friday has a voice. His Crusoe has discourses with him. It's all very civilised; his Friday (a handsome Caribbean youth with near-European features) quickly learns his place. Cruso's Friday (now cast as an African slave) has had his tongue cut out of him. Is Coetzee presenting the true face of colonialism here? Susan also wonders if Friday's mutilation was at the hand of Cruso. History is written by the victors or if not by them by the survivors.

The book came out in 1986 at a time of cumulative and violent civil conflict in South Africa. It was not especially well received because, presumably following a cursory reading of the text, the reviewers couldn't understand why he was "writing about the writing of a somewhat pedestrian eighteenth-century English novelist", to quote Eugene Marais, when the country was burning, quite literally in many places. Since then appreciation for it has grown.

The most glaring difference between the two accounts is the insertion into proceedings of a woman. At first you can accept her treatment by the males around her a just a sign of the times but although that might have been typical, Susan Barton is not. The fact that she would get on a ship to pursue her child shows her metal. Perhaps had she remained in England she would have settled down but exposure to the rigors of the island only serves to develop this side to her.

Whoever owned this book before me has made copious notes in pencil especially in Part I and I would lay money that it was a female considering the tone of some of these and the fact 'she' makes a point of highlighting every sexist remark. Susan answers Cruso back on a couple of occasions and then apologises later. My predecessor has written: "Why?" both times in the margins. Actually I'm grateful to whoever she was; her underlining and comments drew my attention to a lot of detail I might have otherwise missed on a first reading.

Cruso is not really interested in Susan. Specifically he is not really interested in her as a woman. He only uses her once and that is more a matter of proximity than anything else; she had spent the night in his bed trying to calm him while he had a fever and once it broke, well, she was just there. Friday, the younger man, never comes near her.

The real problems arise for Susan when she returns to England and encounters Foe, the successful author, who is interested in her tale but really wants to write her out of it.

"Successful author" is a barbed phrase here, a highly barbed phrase. Foe in the book, or Daniel Defoe in "real" life is the type of the successful author. Am I being classed with Foe, though my interest clearly lies with Foe’s foe, the unsuccessful author, worse authoress – Susan Barton? How can one question power or "success" from a position of power? One ought to question it from its antagonistic position, namely, the position of weakness. Yet, once again in this interview, I am being installed in a position of power – power in this case over my own text. – Tony Morphett, "Two Interviews with J. M. Coetzee. 1983 and 1987." Triquarterly 69 (1987) p456

At one point she writes to him:

'"Better had there been only Cruso and Friday," you will murmur to yourself: "Better without the woman." Yet where would you be without the woman? Would Cruso have come to you of his own accord? Could you have made up Cruso and Friday and the island with its fleas and apes and lizards? I think not. Many strengths you have, but invention is not one of them.'

And then later and very much to the point:

Return to me the substance I have lost, Mr Foe.

Susan's in an ontological battle, a battle to determine her own worth and role in life, be it as a character, a person or a muse. Is her story enough or can it only find its place "by setting it within a larger story"? She's acutely aware of losing her place in Foe's book but she's also aware that she's gradually losing herself; it may have begun on the island but it has continued, perhaps even accelerated, back in Britain; people look at her and they see an old gypsy. Much 180of her problem is due to the fact she is metaphorically chained to the childlike Friday who is completely lost in this new land and has come to depend on her for everything. She tries to get him on a ship bound for Africa but when she realises that she would just be sending him back to a life of slavery she finds she can't do it.

defoe000 Foe, however, does disappear. For the whole of Part II he is in hiding, ostensibly from the bailiffs but more and more it looks as if he is hiding from Susan who has to make extraordinary efforts to trace him. She is like a character who refuses to be written out of her own story and this is where, for me, the book is simply about the confrontational aspects of writing, as the following text makes clear when, in Part III, after finally tracking him down, Susan ends up in bed with Foe:

I calmed Foe. 'Permit me,' I whispered – 'there is a privilege that comes with the first night that I claim as mine.' So I coaxed him till he lay beneath me. Then I drew off my shift and straddled him (which he did not seem easy with, in a woman). 'This is the manner of the Muse when she visits her poets,' I whispered, and felt some of the listlessness go out of my limbs.

'A bracing ride,' said Foe afterwards – 'My very bones are jolted, I must catch my breath before we resume.' 'It is always a hard ride when the Muse pays her visits,' I replied – 'She must do whatever lies in her power to father her offspring.' – italics mine

Such a curious turn of phrase! You'll need to read the whole conversation that precedes this to make sense of it though. The word author suggests authority but does that necessarily mean that every author write with authority?

Is the purpose of writing to provide answers? Perhaps. Is the true purpose of writing to provide questions? I would suggest that it is. And this book asks many questions: Why does Friday float on a log out to sea and toss petals? Who is the strange girl who calls herself 'Susan Barton' and stands watching Susan's lodgings? What's Friday's real story? Was he ever a cannibal? And who exactly is the narrator of Part IV? These are perhaps the obvious questions. There are others. Your head is probably full of them right now. I know mine is.

This is a book where much of the work will be done once the cover have been closed and I suspect the urge to pick it up and thumb through it will be strong especially after that final section to which my first response was quite simply: "Eh?" and I immediately went back to the start of Part IV and reread it. I felt very much the same after reading another metafiction recently, Paul Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium. Going back over it while writing this if there was one thing I noticed was how carefully Coetzee chooses his words but then his doctoral dissertation was on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett. I would read him again without question.


coetzee John Michael Coetzee is a South African writer who was educated at the University of Cape Town, where he received his master’s degree in 1963. He earned his doctorate in linguistics at the University of Texas in 1969. For two years, he taught at SUNY Buffalo, where he was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War. This arrest returned him to South Africa. He taught at the University of Cape Town since 1971 and was appointed Distinguished Professor of General Literature in 1999.

Between 1984 and 2003 he also taught frequently in the United States: at the State University of New York, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago, where for six years he was a member of the Committee on Social Thought.

His books are critically acclaimed, and he is the only writer to have been awarded the prestigious Booker Prize twice, once for The Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and again for Disgrace in 1999.

In 2002 Coetzee emigrated to Australia. He lives with his partner Dorothy Driver in Adelaide, South Australia, where he holds an honorary position at the University of Adelaide. In 2003 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Understandably a lot has been written about Foe and I would recommend the following for those who get captivated by it:

This is an expanded version of the review that appeared originally on the Canongate site.


Kass said...

Fascinating! How admirable of you to take note of the underlinings of what seems to be a woman and to admit gaining insights from them. Why was Susan left out of the account? Why is a Mother In Heaven left out of most allegories? Are either of them real? Or just constructs? Real or imagined, are women only intellectually useful if they can act as muses? You bring up feminism - you bring up postmodernism (which I hate, because it's like promoting ambiguity to a statistician), but once again, you make me think, which I like.

Rachel Fenton said...

Hey, Jim, this is great. My current WIP is historiographical metafiction, so this is right on the nail for me.Great reading and great links!

Elisabeth said...

Coetzee's 'Disgrace' is one of the best books I've read. You start with a character you despise and then overtime you come to understand and respect him.
Your review of Foe is magnificent.
We here in Australia claim Coetzee as our own, which is of course ridiculous but there must be something here that draws him to us, if only his partner.
You are an ace reviewer of books. You make me want to go back and read. I also loved the utube of Robinson Crusoe. I don't remener it as a child, but I'd love to see the wholevthing. Your hero looks so well groomed, blond haired and beautiful despite his trama.
I love the implausibility of it all

Dave King said...

Historical fiction (which I suppose is what you could call this) is having a vogue at the moment. Hilary Mantel, speaking of her Booker success with Wolf Hall made the point that it is where the facts are missing that the novelist gets going. Whether or not that is answering questions, I am not sure, but yet another enthralling post Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say I think Coetzee's idea was inspired, Kasscho, so simple and so obvious it's amazing that no one ever thought of it before apart from, I hesitate to add, in The Erotic Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, where, I am led to believe never having seen the film, Man Friday was usurped by Girl Sunday. I think is was an inspired idea tackling feminism and post-colonialism in one foul – and remarkably short – swoop.

I seem to be coming up against a bit of both at the moment, Rachel, historical fiction and metafiction. I don't think the former is for me – far too much research involved and not enough writing – but the more I read of the latter the more I like it,

Glad you liked the YouTube video of Robinson Crusoe, Elisabeth. It was such a part of my childhood growing up it really was and you're right, he is so clean cut. The whole series is available on YouTube if you have the time and can be bothered to watch it. I really think it only works for people like me who have a sentimental attachment to it.

Foe was the first book by Coetzee that I'd read – it's amazing the authors out there I've managed to miss along the way – but I'd have no trouble picking up another book by him and the premise of Disgrace certainly appeals.

And, yes, Dave, I can see there would be a lot of fun to be found filling in the blanks if you've a mind for it. I have to say the other two works of historical fiction that I've read recently do that, and do it quite well. I think the good point from a writer's point of view is that you know the start point and the finish and all you have to do is get your characters there. I know when I was writing Milligan and Murphy once I knew how the book had to end a huge pressure came off me.

Scattercat said...

This is mostly tangential, but I do like used books with notes in the margins. Despite this, I would never bother to do such a thing myself, both from a superstitious horror of defacing a book, but also because of a natural disinclination towards notes and note-taking. I feel guilty about enjoying something so much without contributing to its furtherance.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Jim, you remind me of the 80's with "Foe" when in my view there was a better Coetzee than the one who won the Nobel Prize. I loved the concise intensity of his stories. In particular the hare-lip man of Life & Times of Michael K.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Scattercat, it was quite interesting reading a book like this and having to guess about who had had it before me. Until recently I have never made notes in a book - underlining, yes, in three colours (blue, red and green - a paragraph rarely has more than three main points), but only text books. The one exception was a book of poetry I've just reviewed that was driving me batty keeping everything in some sense of order and so the only think I could think to do was colour-code the points and write in the cross-references by hand. I did go through Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World and We highlighting all the common ground but, again, that was a study thing.

And, Tommasso, having only read the one book I'm poorly placed to judge but I'm a sucker for concise writing.

j said...

You have definitely piqued my interest in both the book and in Coetzee. Years ago, I read Disgrace. I think I still have it and need to reread it with a writer's eye.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Jennifer, I have a review of The Master and Margarita coming up, a book I first read about thirty years ago, an I was astounded this time to see just how superficial my initial reading was but then at that age I was more interested in just getting though books so I could say I'd read x number.

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