Summer Selections: Re-writing Personal Histories
by Maisie Prudames
Authorship is a theme present throughout much of J.M. Coetzee’s literature, from Susan Barton’s struggle to get her story told in Foe to Mrs. Curren’s letter writing to her daughter in Age of Iron. Presented in the form of an extended letter to her daughter, Age of Iron follows Mrs Curren’s journey up until the end of her life and the growth of her understanding in that time, with the letter serving as a memoir of significant events. The epistolary form is an interesting mode of writing, allowing the narrator to select the fragments of their life that they choose with little direct indication of the experiences of others, as well as rely solely on the memory of the events rather than experiencing a full stream of consciousness. This form allows Mrs Curren to refine and adapt her experiences, arguably to gauge more of an emotional response from her daughter. The result is a novel that is entirely one sided, to the extent that even the narrative that is provided cannot be wholly trusted to be entirely truthful.
Age of Iron opens with Mrs Curren returning home after receiving ‘the news from Dr. Syfret’[i], which we learn later in the novel is a cancer diagnosis. For lack of a less morbid phrase, we meet our protagonist at the beginning of the end of her life. An important question to ask, therefore, is why Mrs Curren chooses to write an extended letter, with the intention of it being sent to her daughter after her death, stubbornly refusing to directly contact her with the news. Her daughter left South Africa many years before, her self-imposed exile motivated by her disgust for the apartheid regime. Mrs Curren decides that nothing will make her daughter return to the country, not even her mother’s terminal illness. Curren tells Vercueil ‘she will not come back to South Africa as you and I and she know it. […] I am not going to ask her to go back on her vows.’[ii] The stubbornness of her belief leads to the writing of the letter, and it is unclear as to whether she ever tells her daughter she is ill. The letter often comes across almost as a retaliation towards her daughter for abandoning her and feels spiteful, as though the intention was to invoke guilt, particularly when reminiscing on memories of the daughter when she was young and her constant longing to be reunited.
It could be suggested that the sole purpose of the letter to her daughter is so that she can feel as though her ‘history’ is preserved in writing, and her experiences are not lost when she dies – the writing process itself becoming more valuable than the words on the page. As an ex-humanities professor, we can assume that the documenting of events feels familiar and provides a sense of comfort in an uncertain time. Mrs Curren’s intentions are to document her own life, and the letter comes to serve as a diary, a therapeutic and cathartic method of expressing the tragedy and injustice experienced by those around her that she is forced to come to terms with.
The epistolary form creates an interesting dynamic between reader and narrator, forcing the reader to take on the role of the daughter as Curren directly addresses ‘you’. Experiencing the novel in this way requires a great deal of trust in the narrator and the extent to which she is relaying the truth to the reader through the letter. As the reader, it is easy to assume that the text is truthful, especially when we do not have alternate perspectives through which to witness events. Mrs Curren presents the reader with a ‘scrupulous, unadorned recording of events and mental states’[iii], something usually attained through complete impartiality, yet Coetzee presents the narrative through Mrs Curren’s consciousness, creating a sense of ‘distortion, partiality and moral blindness’[iv]. The letter is aware of this: ‘Through me alone do you find yourself here on these desolate flats…’[v], acting to address the uncertainty directly when recounting the visit to Site C: ‘attend to the writing, not to me. If lies and pleas and excuses weave among the words, listen for them. […] Read all, even this adjuration, with a cold eye’[vi]. The narrative cannot promise impartiality and even pleas for Curren’s daughter to read without sympathy for her mother, reinforcing the uncomfortable sense of guilt and unsettled conflict between narrator and reader given the unclear status of their relationship since the daughter’s self-inflicted exile. At this point in the text, Mrs Curran assumes that her daughter’s sympathies will lie with her (something that cannot be commented upon, because it is uncertain as to whether the letter was ever received). Curran essentially ‘requires sympathy from her daughter and concern for what she narrates if the act of writing is to have any force and if the significance of the terrible events are to be conveyed’[vii]. Through engaging with the letter, the reader involuntarily takes on the role of the daughter and sympathy towards Mrs Curran and her situation is presumably felt, whether in regard to her battle with cancer or the events she witnesses. Considering this angle when assessing the novel, the letter is successful in its intent to evoke an emotional response, but whether it is a trustworthy narrative or not is something we as readers can only decide for ourselves – no alternative perspective is offered, so the level of honesty in the account can never be definitively determined.
Coetzee offers us a memoir curated over the course of three years, but by channelling the story entirely through Mrs Curren’s letter, true impartiality can never be achieved. Curren cannot have predicted the route the final years of her life would take, but it is feasible to suggest that she has selectively exaggerated or omitted certain interactions to gauge a greater emotional response from her daughter or whomever reads it. The letter’s focus is almost entirely on how ‘sick and tired, tired and sick’[viii] she is becoming and the apartheid violence she witnesses, very rarely depicting positive or neutral aspects of her day to day life that would be present in a complete memoir. Of course, this is a literary choice on Coetzee’s part; excessive scenes of everyday life would slow the narrative and somewhat detract from the impact of the story. When considered in the context of Mrs Curran’s choices, however, it somewhat supports the argument that she is more selective about the tales she recounts than we might assume at first glance, and the letter effectively becomes a performance. Not only does she flash back to her daughter’s childhood, she writes imagined scenarios she could not be present for, such as Florence’s home life – ‘Whilst I was driving back to this empty house, […] He washed; she cooked a supper of chicken and rice on the paraffin stove, then fed the baby.’[ix] The switch between her experiences, her imagination and her memories leaves the reader to discern fact from fiction. It is feasible to suggest that Mrs Curren is documenting a refined version of her personal history and purposefully emphasising the themes she would like to be remembered through her ‘memoir’. She writes that ‘with every day I add to it the letter seems to grow more abstract, […] the kind of letter one writes from the stars’[x], as though her narrative is obscuring to the point where even the writer cannot recognise their own story.
At times, Curren’s letter feels almost confessional, as though confessing her wrongdoings and renouncing her previous actions will shed her story in a new light. Given that her daughter fled out of disgust for the apartheid regime and Mrs Curran is only just coming to terms with the reality of it years later, the confession could be taken as a last-minute plea for forgiveness, proof that she came to understand her daughter’s perspective and reasons for leaving. She writes ‘As far as I can confess, to you I confess’[xi], desperately addressing her daughter to accept her apologies and not think badly of her. As far as Mrs Curran is concerned, the opinions of others weigh heavily on her, crying to Vercueil ‘I made a fool of myself’[xii] after confronting the police when trying to report the officers who caused injury to Bheki and his friend John. Through her letter, it is possible that Mrs Curran is confessing to her daughter in order to be remembered in a softer, kinder light than as the grumpy and stubborn elderly lady we meet at the beginning of the novel – thus rewriting, or rather dictating, the way her personal history is remembered by her family.
One of the key characteristics of Mrs Curran’s story is its striking resemblance to the fundamental concept of a bildungsroman novel. Despite her age, the protagonist embarks on a journey of learning and growth that changes her perspective and understanding of the world. Curren often brings up events in her daughter’s childhood at significant times. Whilst covered in John’s blood after the boys are targeted and forced to crash their bicycles by officers in a police van, Curren recounts a time sat in a hospital waiting room surrounded by all levels of pain and injury: ‘What did our timid thimbleful count for beside this torrent of black blood?’[xiii] This is one of the biggest steps in Curren’s ‘coming of age’. By associating memories with current events and condemning her previous thoughts and actions, the reality of her country is becoming clearer and more apparent and her perspective broadens. Rather than editing her experiences, in this case it is as though Mrs Curren is consciously attempting to rewrite her own memories in accordance with the information she is coming to understand, as if attempting to erase the fact she was ever complacent to the violence around her.
In terms of a literal rewriting of history and historical literature, numerous allusions to Dante’s Inferno are apparent throughout the narrative. Although not explicitly a reimagining of the original text, many parallels can be drawn between the two. As a retired classics professor, it is reasonable to assume Curren to be familiar with the text, and thus the similarities between Inferno and her letter could be interpreted as an intentional parallel to heighten the effect of the text. When reading with this perspective, Vercueil takes on the role of Virgil, his role particularly evident towards the end of the text: ‘I wondered whether you were not, if you will excuse the word, an angel come to show me the way’[xiv]. Virgil, of course, takes Dante on his journey into hell, just as Vercueil arrives on the day Mrs Curren is diagnosed with terminal cancer and remains a constant feature until her death. Coetzee’s work ‘bear[s] witness to the tyranny of apartheid, whilst remaining powerless to effect reconciliation’,[xv] and it falls on Mrs Curren to bear this burden. No more than a ‘tourist in an underworld of suffering’[xvi], Mrs Curren is taking her growing confusion about her surroundings and inability to offer worthwhile aid and projecting it through familiar channel in order to make sense of own thoughts and emotions. Perhaps the most striking comparison is made when Florence chooses to leave her daughter Hope behind when travelling to Site C in search of Bheki. This is reminiscent of the Inferno’s famous line: ‘all hope abandon, ye who go through me’[xvii]. In alternative translations of the text, this is presented as ‘abandon all hope, ye who enter here’, indicative of the journey Mrs Curren, Florence and Mr. Thabane are taking to Site C and a foreshadowing of the tragedy and chaos they will bear witness to. Mrs Curren does mention earlier in the text that Florence ‘does not entrust [her] with the real name’[xviii] of her daughter and gives the name Hope. In keeping with the suggestion that Mrs Curren rewrites and adapts events to suit her intentions, our narrator could have chosen this name for the girl for the intents and purposes of her letter.
Mrs Curren’s extended letter allows us a unique insight into her experiences: we learn about and discover them as Mrs Curren remembers, or chooses to remember, them. This allows her complete freedom to carefully select and present herself specifically how she would like to be remembered. This creates an uncomfortable ambiguity as to whether Curren’s writing is entirely truthful, leading to a sense of distrust between narrator and reader. Another important theme is that of confession: Mrs Curran seems to be confessing of her sins, prejudicial thoughts and misdeeds in hopes that it will help her to gain forgiveness from her daughter. However, it cannot be ignored that throughout the novel Mrs Curran is on a journey of discovery, learning of the violence and discrimination she was so ignorant towards. Passing on this experience is just as valuable as anything else, especially coming from the mouth of an impartial spectator only directly involved by force: this is an easier experience for many fortunate readers in the white western world to relate to and thus has a deeper emotional impact than events that cannot be so easily sympathised with.
[i] J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron (New York: Random House, 1990) p.4
[ii] i.b.i.d. p.75
[iii] Samantha Vice, ‘Truth and Love Together at Last: Style, Form and Moral Vision in Age of Iron’ in J.M. Coetzee and Ethics ed. by Anton Leist and Peter Singer, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) p.299
[iv] i.b.i.d. p.299
[v] J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron (New York: Random House, 1990) p.103
[vi] i.b.i.d. p.104
[vii] Samantha Vice, ‘Truth and Love Together at Last: Style, Form and Moral Vision in Age of Iron’ in J.M. Coetzee and Ethics ed. by Anton Leist and Peter Singer, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) p.296
[viii] J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron (New York: Random House, 1990) p.82
[ix] i.b.i.d. p.42
[x] i.b.i.d. p137
[xi] i.b.i.d. p136
[xii] i.b.i.d. 86
[xiii] i.b.i.d. p 63
[xiv] i.b.i.d. p168
[xv] Sam Durrant, Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning (New York: State University of New York Press, 2004) p.24
[xvi] i.b.i.d. p.24
[xvii] Dante Alighieri, The Inferno of Dante Alighieri, ed. by Ciaran Carson, (London: Granta Books, 2002)
[xviii] J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron (New York: Random House, 1990) p.37
Summer Selections is a FalWriting series bringing you a variety of writing produced this academic year by Falmouth students. It's a vibrant and diverse selection of work covering text forms from experimental poetry to forensic literary analysis, from gothic short stories to critical dissertations. This year the selection is guest edited by third year student Jess Hawes.