The Pole by J. M. Coetzee

Some years ago, my wife and I spent a few days at the Tokyo Literature Festival with the Nobel Prize–winning South African novelist J. M. Coetzee. Every morning, when we came down for breakfast, just as the restaurant opened, it was to find him already there, at a small table, with a newspaper, impeccable in a white shirt. He never greeted anybody; he kept entirely to himself. My wife decided he must be a monk, committed to the altar of his art.

When once I tried to engage him in conversation, he listened patiently, politely, for many minutes, offering nothing but an elegant, occasional “Yes.” At the public events, he stuck closely to my wife, who, being Japanese, speaks relatively little English.

“Did you enjoy the panel?” she asked after one onstage discussion. “No,” he replied with memorable serenity.

“You’re calm on the outside, but have many feelings within,” she bravely volunteered. “Yes,” he said.

Coetzee first published The Pole in Spanish, disliking “the way in which English is taking over the world.”

Those encounters kept coming back to me as I read Coetzee’s haunting and surreptitiously heartfelt new novel, The Pole. It seems typical of the man that he gives us, as his title character, a celebrated Polish pianist who sounds very much like himself. “The Pole,” as he’s coolly referred to, is “unusually dry and severe,” his playing of Chopin “so dry, so matter of fact!” As he openly admits, the man gives all of himself to his art and saves nothing for his life. The maestro’s bearish demeanor and extravagant gestures could not be further from Coetzee’s, but he was born in 1943 (Coetzee was born in 1940), he looks like Max von Sydow (as Coetzee might be said to do), and his name, Witold Walczykiewicz, is at least as hard to manage as “Coetzee.”

It’s also typical of this master of unsparingness that his seeming alter ego is seen through the eyes of a brisk and no-nonsense banker’s wife who is asked to host the musician at a concert in Barcelona and finds herself singularly unimpressed by her visitor. Beatriz, as she’s called, has “no great respect for men and their appetites”; this ungovernable old man, who keeps telling her that she gives him peace, strikes her as “dour” and “pompous,” a “living skeleton” who at best inspires pity. He lives, she will find, in “a monk’s cell,” and his fumbling attempts to woo her seem galumphing. She has no wish to serve as Beatrice to his unlikely Dante, especially when he says things such as “Happiness is not the most important sentiment.”

“The Pole,” as the protagonist is coolly referred to, is “unusually dry and severe,” his playing of Chopin “so dry, so matter of fact!” As he openly admits, the man gives all of himself to his art and saves nothing for his life.

Coetzee’s “autobiographical novel” Summertime (2009) has long been my favorite contemporary memoir, because in it the author gives us what looks to be the story of his life, but as delivered by the women he has known, who unfailingly describe him as cold and aloof and unresponsive. Here is the rare author who has no interest in justifying himself and never gives himself the benefit of the doubt. In an age of virtue signaling, Coetzee has the courage to bypass every fashionable position and reassurance and, by so doing, in The Pole, to catch some emotional truth, about loneliness and bewilderment and need, that really pierces.

Many master novelists, in old age, throw off slim books that sound like odes to the worldly pleasures they’re about to lose. If their names are Philip Roth or Gabriel García Márquez, these late works are impenitent hymns to nubile young girls. Only Coetzee, I suspect, would give us a hopeless old man who knows he’s no prize, yet dares to liken an unremarkable society matron in her late 40s to a rose.

Some of Coetzee’s recent novels have been rather abstract philosophical exercises or opaque parables. But in The Pole he serves up an unstoppably readable riddle that takes all kinds of surprising turns. Where Cormac McCarthy in his culminating novel The Passenger crafted 383 long pages of ravishing and eerie prose that ultimately seem to add up to a mumble of despair, Coetzee presents a suggestive mystery that unsettles Beatriz as much as it does us. As we begin to read translations from a long suite of poems the Pole has left behind at his death, it feels very much as if Coetzee (who first published this book in Spanish, disliking “the way in which English is taking over the world”) is addressing us from beyond the grave. The strange implication is that his protagonist, for all his hopeless and arid exterior, is in truth a man of desperate passion and this book an examination of the “submerged life.”

The first beauty of this short novel is that, as soon as I completed it, I wanted to go back and read the whole elliptical thing again; the second is that this former programmer whose doctoral dissertation was a computer analysis of Samuel Beckett here gives us such a cry of love that now I wish to re-read every one of his earlier books.

Pico Iyer is a Columnist at AIR MAIL and the author, most recently, of The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise