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4.1 out of 5 stars
21
Diary of a Bad Year
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on 2 October 2017
Coetzee at his Finest. I am running out of superlatives for this guy.
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on 11 November 2014
Great - and very conscientious - dealer.
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on 22 August 2016
If I could give this book more stars I would. This is the forth Coetzee novel I've read and in my opinion, the most outstanding. You do not have to be familiar with this writer to see that he is something exceptional.

The story is explained in the form of a journal, and told from a multiple point of view. This may not seem nothing new but the way in which Coetzee has structured the book on the page, means one is turning the pages back and forth to keep up with the narrative. This gives the effect that the reader is reading three books at once - if that makes any sense! The prose is beautiful and precise and modulates between each of the three characters.

The main story is about a writer, who's given the name Senor C. He has been commissioned to write on various topics and as a result he hires a typist, Anya, to help type his thoughts and opinions. Her boyfriend, Alan, however becomes suspicious of his girlfriend's new found role and relationship with the ageing writer and thus starts to plot. Simple, yet suspenseful.

Diary of a Bad Year is an exceptional piece of literary work and one I can't recommend highly enough.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 December 2014
I have not read any books by the 2003 Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee, b. 1940, and until I began ‘Diary of a Bad Day’, 2007, I was unaware that he had lived in Australia since 2002, taking citizenship in 2006. He certainly has a lot to say about his new country and so called ‘Western democracies’.

The main narrator, C, is a Nobel Prize-winning author, newly resident in Australia after being raised in a white family in South Africa. He is writing a collection of contentious essays, along with five other eminent writers, for a book, Strong Opinions, to be published by a German printing house. Whilst the French rights have been taken up, no English publisher has yet shown interest.

His essays, of varying lengths, for Strong Opinions are dated 12 September 2005 - 31 May 2006 and address topics as diverse as ‘On democracy’, ‘On Al Qaida’, ‘On the body’, ‘On intelligent design’, ‘On apology’, ‘On Tony Blair’ and ‘On authority in fiction’. Thereafter, in a section named Second Diary, written after submission of the manuscript for Strong Opinions and which Anya refers to as Soft Opinions] we find entries such as ‘My father’, ‘On ageing’, ‘On being photographed’, ‘On Dostoevsky’ and ‘On boredom’.

Separated from these texts, at the bottom of the page, is a smaller area where C describes his developing relationship with Anya, a young Filipino woman who lives in his apartment block and whom he has hired to type up his work - largely on the basis of her short skirts and erotic backside. Then, in a third block of text newly inserted at the bottom of the page, we begin to hear Anya’s story, her background is not what we imagine, and her ongoing conversations with her investment consultant partner, Alan. Alan’s voice is finally heard in the Soft Opinions section by which time his relationship with Anya is irreversibly damaged.

It took me some time to get used to this unusual page layout and reading the two minor stories in a continuous manner was not easy. Anya’s inputs are the briefest and, unfortunately, her voice is not given the space to develop and this somewhat undermined Coetzee’s narrative planning. The author requires the reader to either follow the narrative or follow the pagination. However, this same choice is presented on every page so that every reader will travel a different route between pp3-217. Clearly, there is no single correct route, rather each one will offer a different overall impression.

A central theme of C’s politico-philosophical writing is the War on Terror, which he considers from a broad range of perspectives. Most of C’s/Coetzee’s points are very pointed and will appeal mainly to left of centre readers and, I am sure, to literary academics able to identify his textural references, some of which are referred to in a page of Notes at the end of the book. Very occasionally, C’s serious addresses are counterpointed by comical asides, as when he considers a ballet called Guantanamo, Guantanamo! that shows a man in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writing and dancing ecstatic little jigs in a corner.

Anya begins to worry that her ‘Señor C’ will begin to write about her whilst Alan, motivated by jealousy, uses illegal computer techniques to hatch a plan to defraud the writer. Fissures and fractures begin to split the three characters apart.

The book raises the question of the shifting boundary between fiction and non-fiction. Since the average reader uses such categories to navigate literary excursions, the book is sometimes difficult, some times confusing – but never boring. However, because of the separation of the voices I found that the speed of my reading was much reduced.

I suspect that, as a reader new to Coetzee, I selected a difficult volume to begin with. At one point C writes ‘Of late, sketching stories seems to have become a substitute for writing them.’ Sketches tend to be simplifications for the final canvas but here Coetzee’s sketching accentuates the complexity. It was just about worth the journey but then I should really have prepared myself by loosening up with some of the author’s earlier books.
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on 27 February 2015
Not unlike his Elizabeth Costello, Diary of a Bad Year sees Coetzee creates a literary doyen shadow puppet, where the celebrated mortal, besides burning the candle on the podium to opine and muse on a slew of contemporary socio-politico-literary themes, balances an interpersonal dilemma: here it is the lecherous old author dreaming up a life-of-sorts with his Filipino neighbour who is freelancing as a manuscript typist for him.

Quite against my expectations, I wasn't much into the non-fictional aspects as I was in Costello as the key refrain, that of an exasperation with creating, writing, expecting and absorbing from fiction is something I don't particularly spend my waking hours despairing over, but I could see for those creating it, a fatigue to inevitably kick in from time to time.

The half-hearted, sometimes opaque, sometimes meandering, sometimes predictable and just sometimes on-the-dot snippets of commentary on the state of the world lacked conviction, which in retrospect, could have been deliberate as they really added to driving home the apathy and the creatively numbed mindspace of the lonely, ageing intellectual writing them. In addition, they added credibility to the parallel monologue from the presumed philistine typist, who almost functions as a reader-surrogate, and is seen privately and in-correspondance humorously castigating her learned employer's view of life and opinions. Coetzee's project, by this self-aware turn gets an endearing modesty. I also did not expect Coetzee to drive these seemingly peripheral characters of the typist and her investment consultant boyfriend to be drawn with such particularity. He offers himself very little space to create their interpersonal landscape, but gets the tone right.

For its reading time, Diary of a Bad Year kept me infinitely engaged, not least by its playful and inventive division of the typed page into three parallel narratives, in a microfiche of life itself: stories and narratives unfolding in parallel and not in a serialised fashion, as most fiction falls prey to. Its experimental and fleeting, but gives one much to ponder while it lays open in front of you.
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on 4 December 2013
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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on 8 January 2009
Lets set out our stall and say that this is a very good book. It is written very well, is full of insight and emotion and is an entertaining read. It follows, despite what others may say, with themes traditional to Coetzee's works. Despite the highly original way in which the text is structured, readers will feel familiar with the need, even the desperation, for human contact and connection that the novel evokes.

Old man Coetzee of the novel is lonely. He has no living relatives, no friends, and his only communication is with a German publishing company about a contributuion he is making to a book entitled 'strong opinions.' So when he meets a lovely young woman he understandably yearns, not sexually, not with his loins, but with his soul. Many of Coetzee's novels are about a need for understanding and compassion and this text does not fall short of the mark.

Ok, the innovative style. Each page is set into three sections; part of his work for 'strong opinions,' Juan Coetzee's own narrative, and finally the narrative of his young Philipino typist. You will read other reviews here that say this detracts from their enjoyment of the book. Not at all. The segmented style only illustrate how seperate the three naratives are from eachother, each in isolation just like it is to be human. We are all alone however much we have company. Yet it is the interplay and the subtle influences that the three narratives have on eachother that is the true revelation and delight. As the typist is influenced by his strong opinions, he is influenced by her and her by him, yet each in a sort of bubble. It is subtle but endearing.

The 'strong opinions' sections of the book are not Coetzee's excuse to have a rant. He is a very good essayist and has published several books of essays. He has no need to try and disguise his motives like this. They are very readable and come in bite-size sections that can easily be digested. In fact they suggest heavily about the way we should react to the charcaters in the novel. For instance one essay, 'On Zeno,' about numbers shows how we should read the typists partner, the accountant. Another on morality suggests how we should view a projected crime in the narrative. The essays are essential in leading our views on the narrative.

Finally there is a second diary at the end where Juan Coetzee takes the advise of the typist and writes about his 'soft opinions,' about birds and music and so forth. We see here that they have effected eachother profoundly and have achieved the compassion they both desired - A happy ending.
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on 2 March 2015
I found this quite a gripping read. The contrasting thoughts of the two main characters really draw you in and you find yourself really immersed in their lives and you can't turn the pages quick enough. By using the diary format we really get a meaty and compelling insight into the psychology of the characters. This is the most enjoyable book I've read by Coetzee yet.
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on 4 January 2010
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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on 10 May 2011
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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