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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Encompasses much of the contemporary ache
Coetzee, as he approaches old age, and the dark backing of what lies beyond, seems to share with that other great contemporary of his, Philip Roth, an obsession with eros, and thanatos, and the metaphysical wistfulness and ache of the heart this creates - in other words, the longing of old men who can't shag attractive young women any more.

Roth is the jazzier...
Published on 21 Sep 2007 by Sirin

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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Barely fiction
Literary heavyweight J.M. Coetzee returns with... well I'm not exactly sure. Is it a fictionalised excuse for Coetzee to air his thoughts on the world we are living in? Is it a subtle critique of the idea that everyone should have `strong opinions'? Is it a biography of an aging man thinly veiled under the guise of fiction?
The plot revolves around a seventy year...
Published on 31 Aug 2007 by Sam J. Ruddock


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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Encompasses much of the contemporary ache, 21 Sep 2007
By 
Sirin (London, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Hardcover)
Coetzee, as he approaches old age, and the dark backing of what lies beyond, seems to share with that other great contemporary of his, Philip Roth, an obsession with eros, and thanatos, and the metaphysical wistfulness and ache of the heart this creates - in other words, the longing of old men who can't shag attractive young women any more.

Roth is the jazzier of the two stylists, Coetzee the more philosophical, the more willing to stare deep into the hard essence of things, but both men these days are producing short, magnificent metafictions that encompass so much of the great poetic wisdom they have accumulated over their writing lives.

Diary of a Bad Year has echoes of Disgrace (which now looks like it will be Coetzee's last 'conventional' novel), in that an elderly writer develops an infatuation with a young, beautiful woman - this time, Anya, a half Phillipino woman acutely aware of her sexual magnetism and the power it holds over men. The writer, Juan Coetzee, who is a sort of fictional projection of the real JC, is commissioned to write a series of cultural and political essays for a German anthology entitled 'Strong Opinions' (clear Nabokovian echoes). The book is set out in a curious manner - divided horizontally by ruled lines in three sections. The top section contains the essays Coetzee writes - on a vast number of subjects: the state, democracy, terrorism, music, Tony Blair, the kiss, animal rights (but nothing, curiously, on global warming, probably the definining issue of the era - I would be interested to read Coetzee's views on the subject). The middle and bottom sections are the novel proper parts of the book - contrapuntal voices of Coetzee's telling of the story as he commissions Anya to become his typist for his manuscript, and her version of events as she becomes more involved in the life of this curious, melancholy, solitary old writer and the suspicious attentions of her boyfriend, Alan, an investment consultant whose world view and male jealousies are predictably at loggerheads with Coetzee.

How to read such a novel? Unclear. You can read the strong opinions first in each chapter, then turn your attention to the thin slivers of story; or you can do what I did - alternate between them, sometimes hunkering down to engage with the ficto-factual opinions of Coetzee, sometimes (more likely) spooling a way along the fictional rope and turning back to pick up the essays.

Some reviewers have criticized this book as offering thin fare, not a proper novel with meat to bite into, but I found the book, with its curious playfulness with form, built up a compelling picture of contemporary clashes in world view, politics, lifestyle, masculinity, and generational change that stiches an uneasy and formidably perceptive seam close to the surface of the anxieties of millions of people living in relative democratic security at this time.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Diary of a Bad Year - J.M. Coetzee, 6 Sep 2007
By 
Jonathan Birch (Cambridge) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Hardcover)
I'm a J.M. Coetzee fan -- one of the biggest, probably. But even I have to admit a tinge of frustration with his output since his last conventional novel, Disgrace, appeared in 1999. He's given us autobiography (Youth), philosophical stories (Elizabeth Costello), essays (Inner Workings) and a metaliterary oddball (Slow Man), but nothing resembling the towering oeuvre of fiction that made him one of the 20th Century's greatest novelists. So what, then, is his latest book, Diary of a Bad Year? None of the above -- again.

Each page is divided into three unequal parts. The top part is given over to essays, mainly political in character but increasingly personal as the novel progresses. In the middle part: a diary, by the fictionalised author of the essays, JC (an elderly man who bears no small resemblance to Coetzee). JC records how he recruits a secretary, Anya, to type his essays, while fending off the interference of her boyfriend, Alan. In the bottom part, Anya presents her diary: her side of the story. All three sections run continuously from one page to the next, leaving the reader with a tricky choice: does one read all the essays at once (then go back and read all the accompanying "diaries") or read all three parts in the chopped-up bitesize chunks in which they appear on the page?

It's a fascinating experiment. But be warned: in practice, the essay part occupies at least two thirds of the space, while the diaries amount to little more than short stories. And there is as much empty space in this book as there is fiction. I'm not exaggerating. In this 231pp volume there are 35 blank pages, and huge gaps between the three sections on each page. In real money this is a 150pp novella, containing two 25pp diaries. Thin fare.

The two diaries, though lightweight, are at least very good for what they are. Coetzee fictionalises himself as JC, a grumpy, lonely old man who stumbles his way through a series of awkward scenarios: the "diary" almost invites comparison to HBO staple Curb Your Enthusiasm. Funny, thoughtful and diverting, they are vital in holding the reader's attention (and I personally, therefore, recommend reading the diary entries as they appear -- intertwined with the essays).

Ultimately, the primary function of the diaries is to offer counterpoints to the essays. Diary of a Bad Year displays with excruciating comedy the impotence of the columnist: the stupid, meaningless everyday frustrations that underpin ostensibly political anger. Behind every ferocious argument (from Swift to yesterday's Guardian) lies a sorry JC-esque figure, venting spleen with no real reward to justify the exertion.

But how good are those political essays? So much of the book is given over to them that one assumes that, even while he masochistically portrays JC as a deluded loser, the real J. Coetzee still hopes (against hope) that they will persuade his reader. At times, they succeed. Some of the longer essays, ranging across South African politics, anarchism, mathematics and more, are feats of sustained brilliance. There's no word wastage, no rambling: it's all wonderfully readable. The political issues will be strangely familiar to lovers of Coetzee's postcolonial fiction, but, pleasingly, more writerly topics (notably Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) creep in among the tirades during the novel's second half.

In short, Diary of a Bad Year serves as a superb companion piece to Coetzee's fiction. The leftist postcolonial concerns that lie implicit in the novels of past decades are brought to the fore here, and Coetzee emerges as (in JC's words) the "pessimistic anarchistic quietist" you always suspected he was.

And yet many of the essays are just 200-300 word nuggets, rumps of columns that would never be published by a newspaper. So much of the book is given over to single-page chapters and half-baked ideas. On terrorism and Guantanamo Bay, for example, Coetzee could be quoting the Independent leader for all I know -- he has very little new to say.

Short, thought-provoking, intermittently brilliant and strangely captivating, Diary of a Bad Year is one of the most bizarre novels (if you can even call it a novel) I've ever read. But it's also a little irritating -- for its brevity and for its staccato rhythm, as Coetzee hops from one political bugbear to the next. At one point JC, commenting on Tolstoy, argues that, as authors age, their interest in plot and character wanes, to be replaced by an ability to address the "big questions" more clearly. He may be right, but I fear I'm just one of those naive young people who'd prefer a novel a bit less oblique than this, with a bit more of a story between its covers.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Diary Like No Other, 26 Jan 2008
By 
Patrick S. Geary (Glasgow, Scotland) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Hardcover)
Some random observations on the book and reviews of it:

1. Not sure why some people criticise this for not being a proper novel. I don't see where Coetzee ever claimed this to be a novel. Although it's fiction, it's in the form of a diary (which the title makes clear) plus what the auther calls a "miscellany" (the essays grouped as "Strong Opinions" and "Second Diary"). So you're getting two brilliant literary creations for the price of one.

2. I never noticed how many "blank spaces" there were in the book. I was too busy enjoying the content of the non-blank spaces. Criticism that the project is "too short" imply that value for money in literature is quantitative rather than qualitative. Surely you jest. These criticisms bring to mind diners at a Michellen-starred restaurant complaining that the portions are smaller than at their local greasy spoon.

3. The most satisfying aspect of the book for me is Coetzee's incisive analysis of so many subjects in the essays. Just simple things like pointing out that fire is unique because the more it is fed, the more it consumes, insatiably, without end. "If water burned, too, the world would long ago have been consumed by fire" (I paraphrase).

4. The only disappointment in the book for me is when Coetzee/Senor C. turns to the subject of US foreign policy, he inevitably (and, sadly, predictably) works himself up into a Pinter-esque lather that spirals into hysterical absurdities (e.g., the suggestion that morally upright Americans might consider topping themselves due to the shame of Guantanamo prison conditions...steady on, JM...)

But, I also realise that Coetzee may be intentionally heightening the intensity of the opinions expressed, as they are supposed to be as strong as possible, based on the request of the publisher of the fictional miscellany. Also, Coetzee/Senor C. admonishes his typist/muse Anya that he is not necessarily revealing his true opinions in the essays.

5. The bottom line: this man is a brilliant thinker and author. The form of this book is totally unique and the challenge of how to read the various parallel sections is richly rewarded by the extraordinary insights within. Read it.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Barely fiction, 31 Aug 2007
By 
Sam J. Ruddock (Norwich, England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Hardcover)
Literary heavyweight J.M. Coetzee returns with... well I'm not exactly sure. Is it a fictionalised excuse for Coetzee to air his thoughts on the world we are living in? Is it a subtle critique of the idea that everyone should have `strong opinions'? Is it a biography of an aging man thinly veiled under the guise of fiction?
The plot revolves around a seventy year old writer (who happens to be Coetzee himself) who is asked to contribute to a book entitled `Strong Opinions'. He uses the opportunity to air his views on the world, writing essays on the nature of the state, Al Quaida, Tony Blair, and music. But he is losing muscle control in his arms and cannot type up his notes so he hires a beautiful young woman to act as his secretary come surreptitious muse. What ensues is typical old man fiction: slightly perverted, slightly pathetic. Familiar in a sense to the plots of both Disgrace and Slow Man but scaled down. It is a very short book.
Does that sound simple? I can assure you it anything but. Each page is separated into three separate sections: one the essays he is writing; one with his voice on what is happening; and one in the voice of his graceful young Philippino secretary. I am not sure if you are meant to read it page by page, or as three separate stories one after the other.
Overall it is billed as "a thoroughly contemporary novel" and in a way it is. It is post-modern in structure and airs views on the complex world we are living in. The essays are interesting, at times controversial and deeply philosophical. At one point he laments that no one reads political discourses anymore and you get the impression that this is really what he is trying to accomplish - but in a format that will reach a wider audience. If so that is a shame.
I enjoyed reading this but I fear it is a novel that will not live long in my mind. There are some really interesting topics discussed and as a work of non fiction it is intensely interesting, but as a novel, either I missed something, or it doesn't really quite work.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The master at play, 10 Mar 2010
By 
Christopher Brown (UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Paperback)
John Maxwell Coetzee seems to have moved beyond merely writing great novels, but onwards to work with the artform of writing. In this one not only is there marvellously controversial content, but also JMC challenges the reader almost subversively about they way they choose to read the book. To start with I rebelled and decided to read it my own way, until I realised I was probably doing just what he intended.
Well done Mr Coetzee, I enjoyed both the novel and the contest.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, bleak, challenging, 2 Sep 2009
By 
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Paperback)
This is not the book to start with if you are new to Coetzee's work. The structure, which shifts from different points of view, can be disorientating, and there is an underlying bleakness to this depiction of an old man struggling to come to terms with his changed life and a changing world. That said, it has more wisdom and clever observation than most contemporary fiction, and a voice of complete assurance and authority.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intellectual and yet soulful, 24 Jan 2009
By 
JamieJ (London, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Paperback)
As a fan of a number of some other Coetzee books, I thought I'd try one of his more recent novels.

This book features simultaneous multiple narratives tracking the elderly protagonist's thoughts on a number of big contemporary cultural/political themes, set against his private dramas told in the thoughts of his typist/secretary as she decodes his handwriting and types them up. This creates a powerful counterpoint between his abstract opinions and his daily life, and between intellectual thought and practical experience. It also makes for interesting reading, as you cut between the grand themes he addresses and the personal stories and readings of his typist as she observes and interacts with him. This structure allows Coetzee to not only develop two different sides to his protagonist, but to discuss two different worldviews in conflict as an aging intellectual is set against a modern pragmatist.

Coetzee creates a believable world and as the story progresses, the sexual tension between the main characters develops in unpredictable ways. So in short, the premise and development of the book all work very well. My only reservation was that the ending did not do as much as it could have, and that the issues raised throughout the book were insufficiently served by the ending, and I finished the novel slightly frustrated.

Still well worth reading, and highly recommended, but it loses a star (or probably just half a star if I could) for the slight fizzle at the end.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly accessible, 4 Dec 2013
By 
M. READ (London) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Paperback)
To have a novel divided into three sections on each page sounds a bit of a gimmick, but actually it reads quite easily--and is it really that much of a gimmick? After all, many novels reflect the reality of things happening simultaneously, and this is quite an elegant way of conveying this. My doubt is whether the philosophical sections, which seem fairly clearly Coetzee's own views, are really the centre of the book. On balance, I think not. Another reviewer has cited Philip Roth as a comparison, and I think this is fair. Not only do we have the old man/young woman relationship, but also the wisdom/foolishness motif. The 'essays' embodying Coetzee's views have an almost ex-cathedra solemnity, undercut by the childlike naivety of the central character's thoughts and actions. This doesn't mean we reject the wisdom: but we do recognise it comes from the mouth of someone just as weak and vulnerable as the rest of us--which in a way gives it more force and depth.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A fragile little miracle, 10 May 2011
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Paperback)
That the approaches and reactions to 'Diary of a Bad Year' differ so wildly is perhaps testament to the unsettling power of Coetzee's experimentation with the form.

Read in a conventional page-by-page way, each narrator taking their turn, it seems to me that this is an uncompromised and exquisite novel, a fragile, intricate miracle made of the threads drawn between the essays, their author's infatuation and the subject of that infatuation. Once you find the rhythm in the unusual form, the interplay between the essays and the stories becomes utterly captivating, full of subtle shifts in tone and delicately-placed explosions and echoes.

Frankly, I've no idea if some, all or none of the essays represent Coetzee's own opinions, wholly or in exaggerated form. I care even less: his place in my life is as a writer of the most wiry, complex fiction, of novels that are so dense that a first reading feels like peeling away the outer layer. Of novels like this one, in fact.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Best when least abstract, 4 Jan 2010
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Paperback)
One should not confuse narrative voice with author, not in a novel, even an autobiographical novel, and perhaps not even in an autobiography. One of the sophisticated games Coetzee plays in this book is to seduce the reader into doing precisely that. The first-person narrator is five years older than the author but otherwise looks like a pretty close copy, a South-African novelist living in Australia commissioned to elaborate his political and other opinions for a compilation of writers' views. The centre of the book is his relationship with a much younger and very attractive woman (something of a high-class bimbo) whom he engages as secretary, and a sort of triangle to her abominable money-making partner. The narrative structure is that of a book relating its own composition in three typographically separated layers: the writer's elucubrations together with his and her accounts of the relationship. This structure then gets varied a little in ways one should not disclose, just as with many novels one should not disclose the plot.

On the whole, reading three narrations at once works pretty well. The problem lies in the first and thickest skein of this triple structure, the writer's (the author's?) opinions. He's a nice enough left-liberal chap who rightly abominates such things as the neo-cons in America, hysteria over terrorism and paedophilia and the commercialization of universities, and talking about concrete matters there is a lot of moral perception, but he can't resist the temptation to philosophize, not only on such things as the nature of the state, but also on science, evolution, and even mathematics and probability where what he says just gets increasingly ignorant and silly. Ah, you will say, don't confuse character with author! Indeed the character himself confesses near then end that `I have never been easy with abstractions or good at abstract thought', so it's just part of the character to be a curmudgeonly old buffer reinventing long-refuted philosophical wheels. But then why do they have to be inflicted in such detail on the reader?

In the last third or so the abstract philosophy falls away to be replaced by touching diary entries. (There is a particularly sweet passage about a magpie, where it may help the reader to know that the Australian `magpie' is considerably more aggressive than the European bird of the same name.) The human story also becomes more central and the book becomes a joy to read (perhaps particularly for us male pensioners who would like to be loved by a 29-year-old). The clash of generations and cultures and attitudes is wonderfully handled and the ending is strangely moving. If only he had left out the `abstract thought'!
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Diary of a Bad Year
Diary of a Bad Year by J M Coetzee (Paperback - 2 Oct 2008)
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