Yoshiki Tajiri (University of Tokyo, Japan)
Beckett’s Legacy in the Work of J. M. Coetzee
It is well known that Beckett has been one of the most important authors for J. M. Coetzee. Coetzee’s Ph.D thesis was on Beckett’s early novels and he has written several critical essays on Beckett. Moreover, Beckett’s influence is clearly detectable in many of Coetzee’s novels, Life and Times of Michael K (1983) in particular. In this paper, I aim to reconsider the relation between modernism, postmodernism and postcolonialism by examining how Beckett’s legacy was taken over in Coetzee’s novels.
In many ways, Life and Times of Michael K resembles Beckett’s Molloy. Like Molloy, Michael K is an outcast alienated from society, who journeys around South Africa with strong attachment to his mother. In a sense he is Molloy placed in South Africa in the 1970s when the country was afflicted with political and social disorder. But since he is so aloof from the political context surrounding him, he is at the mercy of political authorities and forced to go through painful experiences. In the process, stories are arbitrarily imposed on him and his life. Violence inherent in story-telling is thus put in question in a postmodern way.
But why does Molloy, who does not seem to be bound to any particular cultural context, have to be placed in the very particular South African context? Coetzee’s representation of a Molloy-figure in South Africa sheds light on some modernist features of Beckett’s work. Modernist enterprise was possible in European capitals which had the “magnetic concentration of wealth and power in imperial capitals and the simultaneous cosmopolitan access to a wide variety of subordinate cultures” (Raymond Williams). The “metropolitan perception” arising in this milieu is the basis for the modernist aspiration for universalism which seems to characterize Beckett’s major works as well. Beckett indeed appears to play down reference to particular cultural contexts in his mature works.
As decolonization goes on, the “metropolitan perception” linked to the empire fades out and with it goes the modernist disposition to universalism. Particular cultural contexts come to gain weight. Coetzee’s use of a Molloy-figure might be deemed typical of such a general tendency. With this in mind, I wish to consider questions such as: To what extent do Beckett’s major works share the modernist universalism? ; How are they related to the France’s decolonization process and the position of Paris in international politics in the 1950s?