Blog: Diary of a Bad Year by Coetzee

In Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee narrates the story of an elderly writer who meets a young woman in the communal laundry room and asks her to type out his essays. The book itself is interlaced with these essays and the young woman comments on them.

The first series of essays is mostly political. The second series deals with topics like writing, birds and Bach –  often with a personal undertone. The young woman prefers the second series and when I first read the book I disagreed with her: the political essays are far more urgent. After reading the book for the second time, I must agree with her: the humanist essays are far more memorable.

Coetzee about ageing:
“My hip gave such pain that today I could not walk and could barely sit. Inexorably, day by day, the physical mechanism deteriorates. As for the mental apparatus, I am continually on the qui vive for broken cogs, blown fuses, hoping against hope that it will outlast its corporeal host. All old folk become Cartesians.”

Zwarte Piet / Black Pete

It’s Sinterklaastijd in Holland. Literally this means “The period of Saint Nicolas” – not to be confused with Santa Claus. In reality it’s an excuse for throwing all dietary restrictions out of the window. Children and adults alike are consuming unbelievable amounts of high-sugar and high-fat products like kruidnoten, taaitaai and marzipan. The Easter Bunny with its chocolate eggs can’t even compete.

A big favorite in Sinterklaastijd is the chocolate letter. As the Dutch excel in making things personal and educational, most stores are equipped with endless shelves on which they display the 26 letters of the alphabet – each letter exists in different flavors, so you are not limited to buy someone the first letter of their name, but you can also show that you know them a little by choosing the milk, pure or white variety.

Last week a journalist from Rotterdam brought me one of those letters, and as she had read my novel, in which the main character is a health-and-environmental minded person, she had chosen a Fairtrade version with reasonably pure ingredients. The journalist had assumed (not incorrectly) that my novel contained autobiographical elements, and that I would be happy to receive chocolate that was free of slave-labor and bad additives.

The letter, however, did display a small figurine recognizable as the head of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), and I explained that it would tickle a chuckle out of my American husband, who perceives the Dutch tradition, in which we surround an old white man with dark skinned servants, as rather racist. When my husband saw the chocolate letter, he indeed made a comment, and when he saw me cutting a piece off my C, he asked: “Are you going to eat Black Peter?”
As I had already studied the ingredients of this particular chocolate piece and had noticed the E-nummers, I answered, a little too quickly: “No, I won’t. Too many colorants.”
My husband just looked at me baffled, thinking: “I rest my case”.

Magical thinking

On the ever inspiring TED site, I recently viewed the talk ‘The origins of pleasure’ in which Psychologist Paul Bloom investigates our love of art and wonders why we like an original painting better than a forgery.

In his opinion is has to do with the history of the piece of art that somehow enriches our experience. Human beings are essentialists, he claims, and our beliefs about an object interfere with how we experience it. Before we can fully appreciate something, we need to know what it is, who made it, and where it comes from.

I don’t disagree with his theory, but I think that something is missing. Why do we feel betrayed when we discover that we have been looking at a forgery? Not only because our assumptions were wrong, and we are staring at an object with a different, less interesting, history. It’s also because we are magical thinkers.

When I’m standing in front of a painting in a museum and I observe the details from up close, or when I place my hand (when allowed) on a marble statue, I secretly believe that the genius of the artist is still present in his or her work, and that by approaching it, a bit of that genius might jump over to me. An original work of art could therefore inspire us, as a forgery cannot.

But perhaps we have become too rational to admit to this type of thinking. Being an essentialist is much easier to accept.

Symposium (Jolimont 6)

Or what I took away from the mountain.

jolimontThe evening began with a fire. Under the doubtful eyes of four city men, our sturdy Swiss host constructed a pyramid of twigs. He showed no fear of the rain clouds overhead. Inside the house, eight pairs of hands were busy preparing and when the flames died down, various meats and vegetables were put on the grill. The fumes of smoke circled up in the air as a sign to the valley-people that life up on the mountain was good. Later, during dinner, stories and invitations flooded the tables and when the glasses were empty, our whole party moved up to the floor where the wine bottles were kept.
The evening began a second time in the music room. The host and his father took up their positions from years ago, facing each other across two grand pianos. They communicated in their own private language that was nonetheless understood by all. Later, a guitarist joined and another, and then some timid drumming was added and some even more timid singing. It all became clear that we hadn’t gathered to eat together – it was for the music, that we were there.
The evening began yet again around an antique table. After the musicians had grown tired and we had all gathered around a plate of Azerbejdżanian baklava, the uncle of the Polish hostess suddenly tapped his glass. “We will all speak!” he decided. “One by one. About what it means to be here.” And for reasons that became obvious to me later, he chose me to begin.
Of course I was nervous, put on the spot like that, but fortunately I had written something about the mountain the day before. So I quickly recounted my story about languages, the privilege to hear people compose, and the lingua franca of music. Before I knew it, my turn had passed and a cynical guest surprised me by opening up about the emotions he had felt earlier that night. As the circle continued, the stories became more and more personal. One guest returned to the guitar, a second spoke about the beautiful glimpses of family life he had envied and yet another confessed how much he missed his friends in his new town.
The more the others spoke, the more I regretted my own words. How presumptuous of me to have mentioned that I was a writer and therefore not trained for public speech, how cold of me to have quoted something I had written before, how rude of me to have forgotten to thank the hosts. The evening had turned into Plato’s symposium and my failure was weighing heavily on me: I had forgotten to use the word love!
For a moment I considered asking for a second chance. I had to prove that I was just as warm-blooded and touched as the others, but before I could gather up the courage, the host and hostess took over; they were intentionally chosen by the uncle to be the last to speak. They thanked us for having come to their mountain and expressed the hope that we would all take something away with us when we left. Something that would help us cherish and pursue our own special gifts.
Their words soothed me instantly. I didn’t need to speak eloquently about love; the others had done so already. I didn’t need to be better at public speaking. After all: I was a writer, which was perhaps less of a presumptuous statement than a plain fact. I could write about love anytime I wanted in any words I choose. All I needed to do was to silence my critical self and observe. And so the evening began once more.

Call and answer – the pure joy of discovering a magic trick

It’s a sunny day in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I’m walking on one of the raised balustraded terraces along a row of tall trees. Up in a branch, a bird is calling out. It is hidden from sight by the first spring leafs, but its two-tonal call sounds bright and clear.

Seconds later, it is answered by a second bird. Their dialogue continues, with short and regular pauses in between their exchanges. I’m imagining a romantic pursuit, although they might as well be sending out territorial warnings.

As I pass the birds, I notice that the answer doesn’t originate in a treetop, but comes from close to the ground. I scan the gravel surface around me. I’m curious to see which bird is making this distinct sound.

Underneath the tree, on a park bench, sits an older African man.  I look at him, while waiting for the birds to cry out. The call sounds, and when the African moves his lips in synch with the answer, I feel an intense rush of happiness. To my ears, he has mimicked the bird’s two-tonal call perfectly. I send him a warm smile, hoping that it resembles that of a child who experiences the pure joy of discovering a magic trick.

He looks up at the tree, and then returns to me. His eyes ask: do you think the bird has figured it out yet?

My Days Inside

At nine in the morning, the sky above Paris is blue. Great, I think, today I can make a sunny walk on Boulevard Raspail. From my past experiences in trying to find sunlight, I know that this street guarantees unobstructed radiation from eleven till two. Skies in Paris might be cloudless, but with all the narrow streets and tall buildings, the winter sun is eluding.

By ten thirty the clouds have moved in. Too bad, I think, but I could go out later for a pleasant round in the park. No sun, but also no traffic. It’s a second winter favorite.

Around two my stomach is growling. When I am writing, it is often impossible to tear myself away from my book. I decide to have lunch first and go out later, but before I’ve finished my salad, it starts to rain. I comfort myself with the thought that it won’t last all day.

I continue my writing again and get absorbed in my story. In the back of my mind, I must notice that the rain has stopped and patches of blue are calling me. Still, I’m not willing to let this chapter go unfinished.

At five thirty I make some tea and realize: it’s now or never. Within an hour the sun will set and the whole point of the walk, receiving some daylight, will be obliterated. I open the door and stick my head out. The temperature is mild, the clouds are dark. New rain is eminent. I sigh and close the door. This is why I spend my days inside.

The Bureau for Unfulfilled Weekends

I had so much fun with you this weekend.

That’s the added bonus of leaving – when you return,
we are overly excited to see each other.

But I feel the weekend should not be over yet.

Sorry, honey. Reality is hard. Monday will be here tomorrow.

But my weekend did not start until Saturday afternoon.
Friday night was taken from me, I sacrificed it to my work.
Therefore: my weekend was incomplete.

But it’s the quality that counts. You just mentioned how much fun we had.

Yes, but I could have had more fun, if the weekend had been longer.
I feel unfulfilled.

Okay. Then you should file a complaint.

Yes. I’ll do that. Anyone would agree that a weekend without a Friday night is unsatisfying. I need an extra day to complete it.

I don’t think the Bureau will agree with you. Generally they only compensate for weekends that were ruined by natural disasters
like volcano eruptions or the flu.

Of course they’ll agree! The Bureau for Unfulfilled weekends will recognize the necessity of the Friday night for the experience of a Full Weekend.

Like I said: file a complaint and we’ll see.
I bet you tomorrow is still Monday.

Black Dogs

I’m reading Black Dogs from Ian McEwan, trying to proceed slow, be attentive; his prose deserves it. Still, I’m hurrying toward the scene in which the dogs will appear – not only the title, also the storyteller has promised me it will be the novel’s crucial scene. On page 60 the author teases me, makes me believe it’s coming up right now, yet he holds back. I read on, and on, getting more excited, reading faster, trying to slow down my mind; the psychological insights deserve it. When I finally reach the scene taking place in the gorge, the black dogs closing in, on page 144,  disappointment sets in. Is it a bad scene? Not at all – I’m just sad because there’s only thirty pages left of this novel.

Writing frenzy

I don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe in a mysterious force that guides me, but judging from my recent experiences, I would be foolish not to believe in inspiration.

For the past two weeks, my husband and I have been writing. Day and night. He is finishing the first draft of a new screenplay and I am working on the first chapters of what might become my debut novel in English.

Of course, we take breaks from our desks. We sleep and make coffee; we go out and inhale a day’s worth of fresh air. We don’t, however, take breaks from our minds, or from our subconscious, or from whatever it is that tunes us in to the whispering and sometimes howling voice. What we are experiencing is a writing frenzy: we are eating and dreaming and living our tales.

During my yoga sessions in the early morning, I keep my notebook on the mat. Often an idea pops up while my knees are hugging my cheeks. At breakfast, I read: The Great Gatsby, The Elements of Style. I read, and I drift off; it is difficult to concentrate while my head continues to absorb messages from undefined sources. Over lunch, my husband and I barely talk. We discuss the weather, or the food we should purchase, but we don’t get on a subject that might distract us.

The news? Television? Our social life? We are disconnected and rely on others to reestablish the bonds when important matters need to reach us. Occasionally, I take an hour out of my day to phone or respond to an email. Other obligations I note on a list, so I can ban them out of my mind. Without their cluttering noise, I hear much better.

Behind my desk, I create and transcribe, two different writing activities. When I create, I follow a stream I do not know, and trust it will take me to where I need to be; the result is often surprising. When I transcribe, I jot down ideas that came earlier, and just feed them to the manuscript. It’s less thrilling work, but it’s equally important: we need words to communicate ideas, and if I don’t type them, they will never exist in the minds of others.

Sometimes the ideas appear at inconvenient moments. I am able to shut them out for a while, but I won’t: a writing frenzy only happens when I surrender. The potential of loosing an idea, is frightening though. When I’m in the park or at the market, and a flash of ideas makes my heart speed up, I rush back to my desk and turn myself into a typist as soon as possible. On the way, I repeat the ideas in my head, over and over again, avoiding encounters with shopkeepers or neighbors, however friendly they may be, as they can only distract me. Sometimes I memorize entire paragraphs this way, or sketch out pages of dialogue.

And that’s all there is to it; I dream and think, I formulate and rearrange, I brood and wait: I write. Until the fatigue sets in and cuts me off. Meanwhile, my husband goes through the motions of a similar process. Fortunately, our working schedules are almost identical – or perhaps we are just being practical. Preparing and eating our dinner is a jovial happening, as we are both overflowing from excitement, and the feeling of having achieved something. After wine and food the ambiance changes; we are simply drained.

Right before going to bed, we turn on an episode of Dr. House, and we do so with religious loyalty. We sleep well after watching him solve his medical mysteries and fuck up his private life, and we wake up with well-attuned heads. Somehow, Dr. House has become part of our ritual and we don’t want to jinx our inspiration by watching a film.

Sometimes I fear the frenzy will soon be over and my mind will focus on the outside world again; I have a quick look at the newspapers and check the social networks.  Or I draw up a little post like this one. An hour later, I feel that surge again, that physical sensation of the blood rushing through my veins. No, I still don’t believe in magic, but I’m going in for another meal: the Muse is calling me to dinner.

Trots / Proud / Fière (VPRO film site): “Een speelse hommage aan de secretaresse en de eeuwige spanning tussen haar en monsieur le directeur […] Régis Roinsard debuteert met een spitse komedie die uitblinkt door weelderig setdesign en een vlot verteld verhaal…” : “Régis Roinsaird weet wedstrijden sneltypen te verslaan alsof het de beslissende rondes zijn van het WK voetbal.”

NRC: “Roinsard laat tikken eruit zien als een Olympische sport […] Voor iedereen die van Mad Men houdt, maar even geen zin heeft in cynisme.” “Wie had ooit gedacht dat mensen net zo hard juichen voor typen als voor voetbal?”

Le Monde: “Déborah François et Romain Duris dans une comédie romantique insouciante.”

Pariscope: “Un très grande comédie, remarquablement bien produite.”

Elle: “C’est un premier film impeccable, très prometteur, une vraie bouffée de fraîcheur, un moment délicieux à partager.”

Les Inrocks: “Un film plus grinçant qu’il n’y paraît, qui subvertit ironiquement la comédie classique hollywoodienne.”

Le Parisien: “Une aventure pleine de fraîcheur et de tonicité. « Populaire » allie le charme et le kitsch des meilleures comédies romantiques américaines à l’excitation des grandes épopées sportives. On vibre aux exploits du tandem Romain Duris – Déborah François comme à ceux de « Rocky » sur le ring. Les doigts de fée ont remplacé les poings, mais la mécanique de l’histoire est parfaitement huilée, et sa force de frappe tout aussi punchy.”

Le Figaro: “Sans complexe, Régis Roinsard signe une comédie enjouée et très maîtrisée […] Bref, Populaire s’affirme comme une romance dactylographique réussie. Un conte de fées pour claviers survoltés.”

Meer Franse pers: op de site van Premiere