Foe – J M Coetzee

12 May 2013
Part 1, and the first page of Part 2
Part 1 is short, maybe 40 pages, and I suspect it’s the closest we’re going to get to the truth. The story is being told to an unknown second person by someone called Susan Barton. (It isn’t quite her true surname, as she’s told us, but let that pass for now.) Speech marks at the beginning of every paragraph indicate that this is a spoken account, but we only discover at the beginning of Part 2 that she has been speaking to a certain Mr Foe. She considers her account ‘a sorry, limping affair’ and that he ‘will know how to set it right’. I suspect that what we’re going to get is a satire of the ways in which stories can be manipulated, because the story that Susan Barton has told bears only a passing resemblance to the Robinson Crusoe we are familiar with. Perhaps we’ll see how a sorry tale of human limitations can be transformed into a heroic struggle of the conquering white man.

At one level Susan Barton’s account appears to be straightforward. Coetzee has imagined what it would be like to be a young woman cast adrift by mutineers and washed up on Crusoe’s famous island after he has been marooned there for many years. His life, like the island, is bleak. She warns us early on that however we might picture a ‘desert isle’, this is nothing like it. And Crusoe’s life, with a few basic services performed by Friday the former slave (if that’s what he really is), is a drudgery. He has kept himself sane not by counting the days and years – he tells her explicitly that he sees no point in such a project – but in creating terraces from rocks that he has found or dug up. He can’t actually do anything with the terraces, as there are no useful seeds for him to plant, but he isn’t going to stop now. And, from time to time, he stares out into the distance, and both Friday and Susan Barton know better than to disturb him.

The details of her arrival, and of her day-to-day existence from then on, are described just as plausibly. Coetzee describes their unvaried diet and rudimentary sleeping arrangements, and her attempts to make crude sandals for herself – much to Crusoe’s disgust, as she has none of the skills he has polished over years. She is there for a year before the arrival of a ship, and It all seems designed to convince the reader that if such a situation were to arise, they would survive like this. There are periodic fevers that she nurses him through, and after one of them she allows Crusoe, still not restored to full consciousness, to have sex with her. She has not been explicit about details of her life before this, but we can guess that she is no stranger to sexual experiences. (I wonder if the matter-of-fact voice that Coetzee has given her is supposed to remind us of that other great literary figure, Moll Flanders. If Defoe can use Susan Barton’s story to create one great fiction, why not two?)

But this is only what is going on at the literal level. At the same time, Coetzee is playing a very particular kind of literary game. He has reverse-engineered a literary classic – most readers will have some knowledge of the novel even if they haven’t read it – in order to produce a version that could plausibly be its original source. There was a real castaway that Defoe might have had in mind when he wrote – Alexander Selkirk, if I remember rightly – but Coetzee ignores this. Or, rather, he plays with the idea. The novel opens with a narrator we take to be Crusoe himself – until the mention of petticoats, and the sightings of Crusoe and Friday…. But why not have Defoe hear the story from a woman? Won’t that offer Coetzee all kinds of opportunities to show how inconvenient truths can simply be airbrushed out?

Anything else? There are the names, for a start. Susan Barton is in fact Berton, daughter of a Frenchman. Friday… no comment, beyond the fact that ruling races, like ruling classes, have always named their slaves and servants for the sake of convenience. Foe, as any reader of Wikipedia will tell you, is Daniel Defoe’s real surname. And then, most interesting of all, there’s Crusoe. That isn’t the spelling used here, but Cruso – and, at the height of his fever, he speaks not English but Portuguese. Another inconvenient truth?

Finally, for now, there’s the thing I’ve already hinted at: the existential misery of a life of near-solitude, described as plausibly as a Nobel laureate can manage. This is a late 20th Century novel, and I’m reminded of Beckett’s Happy Days and Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes. And I haven’t even mentioned Friday’s mutilation – he has no tongue – or that ‘Cruso’, suffering one of his fevers at the time of the rescue, is unable to recover when taken away from what had seemed to be his prison. Rescue, for him, means death. This is definitely a 20th Century version of the human condition, and we wonder what an author in the first quarter of the 18th Century is going to do with it. Perhaps we already know.

14 May
Part 2
I didn’t see any of this coming. Ok, it’s been clear since almost the beginning that this is a novel about writing, but what Coetzee does with it in this section isn’t what I’d expected. As soon as Foe has made his appearance – not that we see much of him beyond the shadowy figure Susan Barton addresses – he’s gone again. Her letters to him, carefully dated, start to be returned… and she discovers that the man who is going to write her story for her has done a moonlight flit. Bailiffs have moved into his house, and as she finds herself cast drift all over again her letters to him change. They are full of questioning as Coetzee has her being quite explicit about her ambiguous status in her own story. The bailiffs eventually move out and she moves in, and we’re in another limbo of existential uncertainty. Cruso had told her that ‘the world is full of islands,’ and here she is, marooned again.

I’m not being glib when I suggest that for a lot of this section she’s a character in search of an author, because Coetzee has her being explicit about this as well. Who will tell her story if he doesn’t do it? And she wishes he would think about her plight now, not like one of his fictional characters that he can forget about as long as he likes – she has to keep body and soul together, both hers and Friday’s, who is at Foe’s house with her. And just as she used to dream of rescue from the island, now she dreams of the book that will make her fortune.

As if. Coetzee makes no pretence of making her speculations sound like the ruminations of an 18th Century woman with a limited education. She is able to put herself inside the mind of the jobbing writer that she takes Foe to be – she reminds him that she is using his pen, his ink as she writes these unsent messages to him – and she realises that the story she has told him is thin stuff. There aren’t enough words in her account, and she realises that the author depends on them – not for their quality or truthfulness, but for their sheer volume. She can imagine why an author might be tempted to flesh it out with interesting incidents that never actually took place, and in one particular paragraph she sketches out what he might include. Cruso wouldn’t have only saved a single knife from the wreck, but muskets and shot. He would keep a journal, encounter and defeat cannibals…. We recognise these features from Robinson Crusoe, realise that this character is writing her own fiction. And not long after this she writes herself out of it entirely as she decides that it would probably make a better story with just Cruso and Friday in it.

What’s going on here? A plausible account of how Daniel Defoe might accidentally have been given some pointers about improving the basic outline of the story by one of the participants? Or another of Coetzee’s metafictional games, to go with the character cast adrift by the author she needs, drawing the reader’s attention to the artificiality of any supposedly truthful narrative? Both, I suspect. Coetzee seems to be at least as interested in exploring the idea of what it is to be a writer as in creating a plausible narrative of Susan Barton’s plight in the cynical, hard-nosed city that is London in the 18th Century.

Take the girl who appears, watching the goings-on in the house from the street. She is Susan Barton, Susan’s own daughter. Except she can’t be, says the original Susan Barton, because… well, never mind why. Is she a necessary addition, placed there by the writer? The original Susan Barton suspects Foe of sending a spy, but Coetzee, or whoever is the creator of this particular narrative, is just as plausible a suspect. Later, as she makes her desperate way to Bristol to try to get Friday repatriated to ‘Africa’ – she seems to have a very vague notion of the place – she finds a dead baby. She wonders whether at some level it is her own – she has always been coy about her past, and it could provide some welcome back-story – or whether, at yet another level, it is her in an alternative scenario in which she never survived her own birth.

In other words, alongside the plausible 18th Century story that Coetzee has put together for us, there are some complicated things going on concerning narrative, identity, historical truth. The universe Susan Barton inhabits is as full of questions about the meaning of existence as anything by Pirandello (you can read what I wrote about The Late Mattia Pascal by clicking on the link), or those later 20th Century authors I mentioned in Part 1. And I’m not even going to start on Friday, the truly voiceless one. On the island, he developed a way to move on to another plane of consciousness – don’t even ask how an early 18th Century woman is able to convey this – by somehow communing with the sea. Now he performs a circular, formless dance and a circular, formless tune, and at one stage Susan Barton imitates them. It works for her too….

I’ve no idea where Coetzee is going to take this next.

18 May
Parts 3 and 4 – to the end
How experimental is this novel? As we make our way from what now seems like the safe territory of Part 1 – ‘I suspect it’s the closest we’re going to get to the truth,’ I wrote after reading it – we find ourselves in a universe where nothing at all is certain. And I’m not only referring to questions of truth. Susan Barton, the character in search of an author of Part 2, has found the man who is writing her story, but in the course of their conversations she loses all sense of her own identity. It isn’t merely that she doesn’t know who she is any more or why she’s here; she’s losing all sense of where ‘here’ is.

At the beginning of Part 3 she is still in a world she – and we – might recognise as real. She is no longer giving an account or making a report to Foe, and the form of the narrative has changed. There are no longer the opening quotation marks at the start of each paragraph; instead we are in the familiar territory of what reads like a novel written in the first person. This isn’t the first alteration in the form. Part 1 is a written account – not spoken, as I originally thought – of Susan Barton’s experiences. Part 2 starts off as desperate letters, then becomes a series of accounts written as though to Foe despite her having no address for him. These morph, once she has left his house and is on the road, into what are presented as though written reports but can’t be.

Susan Barton herself describes this change later, as she tries to examine her own role as the narrator of her story in Part 3: ‘I presented myself to you in words I knew to be my own… when I was writing those letters that were never read by you, and were later not sent, and at last not even written down, I continued to trust my own authorship.’ She doesn’t stop there. She finds herself narrating the very story she has become a part of, as though Coetzee is taking his metafictional project as far as it will go: ‘in the same room as yourself at last, where I need surely not relate to you my every action… I continue to describe and explain. Listen! I describe the dark staircase, the bare room….’

This is half-way through Part 3, and she feels that her authorship has been called into question to such an extent that she must re-establish her role. Foe has offered her at least one re-writing of her story, in which the island episode becomes just one section of a tale that needs ‘a beginning, a middle and an end’. (I might not be quoting exactly, but it’s close enough.) Not only this, but the other Susan Barton has reappeared – almost all the action takes place in the garret room where Foe hides from his creditors – and there is another woman who seems to be another of his associates. Except he assures her that she isn’t… and, over some pages, we get a philosophical discussion on whether they are real, or inventions, or ghosts. Might not even they, Susan Barton and Foe himself, be merely the products of ‘a conjuror unknown to us’?

This is all very interesting, but seems somehow self-indulgent. At the beginning of this section I was asking myself the extent to which this is an experimental novel. To me, it feels as though such ideas as these belong to a far earlier part of the 20th Century, to those authors I’ve already mentioned. If all this dialogue were taking place on a stage it would seem rather old-fashioned: Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author was first performed in 1921; Descartes’s famous mind-experiment, in which he wonders whether the world we know might be an illusion created by demons, goes back to the 17th Century…

…and it’s as though Coetzee decides to leave it alone. Susan Barton’s story is not the interesting one, as Foe begins to make her realise, and he has been unable to improve it either with additional storylines or her own back-story. He makes her think about the silenced, mutilated, marginalised figure who has been there all along. What they need to tell is Friday’s story and, for the last ten or so pages of Part 3 he takes centre-stage. He can’t speak, so Foe insists that she teaches him to write. She tries, but the project seems doomed to failure. To her, it becomes a new aspect of her sense of carrying him – she tells a story of how by helping him she has turned him into a willing burden – and besides, he seems incapable of learning. By the end of Part 3, having previously mastered only tiny fragments of words which he scrawls endlessly, he is given Foe’s pen. He covers pages with the letter ‘o’, and Susan Barton despairs. This section ends with a bland assertion by Foe: ‘It is a beginning. Tomorrow you must teach him a.’

There are only five pages in Part 4, and Coetzee takes it somewhere else entirely. It begins with what seems to be a continuation of the first-person narration of Part 3: ‘The staircase is dark and mean. I stumble over a body….’ But this is not Susan Barton’s voice, because this new narrator discovers a man and woman in the bed, clearly her and Foe. The skin, ‘dry as paper’, has receded over their lips and it isn’t at all clear from the description whether they are alive or dead. Ok. Friday isn’t dead, although he, too, seems to have been in his alcove in the room for a long time. He has a faint pulse and, eventually, the narrator presses his ear to his mouth. The sounds he describes are of the sea’s roar, the wind, and the cry of a bird. Ok, again.

And we’re into a new section. The narrator has rewound to a few moments before the opening of Part 4, and forward nearly three centuries. Outside the house is the blue plaque announcing that it was once lived in by Daniel Defoe, Author… then we’re back on the staircase with the body again, back in the room. But time has moved on. There are papers, which crumble if touched. On the top sheet can be read the opening sentence of Susan Barton’s narrative…

… which is followed, without a break, by this new narrator splashing into the sea. This is an alternative story in which Susan Barton and the captain with whom she had slept are drowned bodies in a cabin, and Friday is also dead. This is ‘the same water as yesterday, as last year, as 300 years ago.’ The narrator ignores the white people’s bodiesand concentrates only on Friday. The description of his dead face is an echo of that of the man and woman on the bed some pages before: tight skin, lips drawn back. The narrator wants this man’s story. ‘But this is not a place of words.’ From the mouth comes ‘a slow stream, without breath, without interruption’, and it travels ‘to the ends of the earth…. Soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against my eyelids, against the skin of my face.’

So. How experimental does this feel now? For nine-tenths of its length it appears to be one thing, a kind of intellectual entertainment concerning the presentation of lived experience. But it’s white people’s experience, with a disenfranchised black character little more than a damaged, half-invisible presence in the background. But in the last few pages of Part 3, and the last few paragraphs of Part 4, the novel belongs entirely to him. He might not be able to tell his story, those last sentences proclaim, but it is never going to go away.

Ok. But why the 140-page prelude? Is the disproportionate space offered to the story of the white people the very point that Coetzee’s wants to make? We are concerned with historical truth, but ignore the story that beats against our eyelids and the skin of our face. Presumably – and this has only just struck me – it’s because the eyes of people wearing this skin, white skin, are never open to it.

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