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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
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 21 September 2007
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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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 26 January 2008
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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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 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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VINE VOICEon 6 September 2007
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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on 11 February 2010
Having run out of good ideas for a novel, the author tries something new: three different viewpoints as we progress. As others have already noted, it makes for difficult reading - you have to keep flipping back and forth to follow each thread. There's no direct link between the three sections of the page, as far as subject matter goes, and only the first viewpoint fits the chapters.
The first viewpoint is the author giving his opinions on everything from politics to probability, sometimes this is interesting and sometimes it seems rather irrelevant, even pointless. A lot of it is just stating the obvious. Do we really want to read a random selection of comment pieces? The politics is out of date as soon as the book is published. We already know about Bush and Blair, and they're gone now anyway. Who cares? And to suggest a whole nation should feel guilty about electing a dumb leader is absurd.

There's another problem I have with this book: Can a man write convincingly as a girl or a woman? I think not. The part of this novel that is supposedly written by Anya is so obviously written by the same author as wrote the other two viewpoints that I find it impossible to believe in the girl.
A back cover blurb says in red capitals: 'You must read this book'. Apart from being obviously wrong to the point of being insulting, this suggestion that you should have the author's opinions rammed down your throat does at least hint at what you get if you can be bothered to read this stuff.
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on 31 August 2007
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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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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