Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Master of Petersburg 2

"So many seeking justice, each with a story to tell."

As Coetzee's Dostoevsky leaves the police building after his talk with Maximov (see my previous post on this novel), he notices all the people waiting in "the crowded ante-room" and makes the above observation (actually, the narrator makes it for him, but it reads as free indirect discourse, D's thoughts paraphrased by the narrator). There's something about this observation that does not seem to me to be subject to the irony of generalization in fiction that I discussed in that previous post. But I cannot put my finger on why. Perhaps it seems less "contextualized" because the idea is not part of a dialogue in which, as Elizabeth Bowen once put it, a novel's characters are trying to do things to each other. It seems more "disinterested" than the comment I quoted before. Does that mean that it is more "at a distance and jeering"?

It is a very fascinating statement in the context of JMC's corpus: those who seek justice, it suggests, do so by telling stories. To be more precise, it is the victims who want to tell stories: perpetrators do not want to do so. So when David Lurie, in Disgrace, is confronted by his committee of inquiry (see my post here), he simply wants to enter a plea and be sentenced, while the committee members want him (the perpetrator who has been accused of sexual harassment, by a young woman who, of course, told a story) to tell them a story, the story of his crime, his remorse, and his willingness to atone for his crime.


mrjumbo said...

Every great work of art is at some level a study of the act of creation. A great novel about a whale is also a tale of the construction of novels; movies from Butch Cassidy to Lawrence of Arabia to Ragtime make a point of including not just the protagonists but also the documentarians. In some works the motif is less pronounced (who is the storyteller in Pulp Fiction?), but it's unusual to find a rich work that doesn't touch on the act of creation in some facet.

Coetzee's theme is justice, and through that prism he touches on storytelling. It's a fine, sturdy pairing. But how many other phrases could have begun that sentence? "So many seeking love . . . redemption . . . someone else's money . . . the Fountain of Youth . . . " "So many going hungry, each with a story to tell." "So many riding motorcycles, each with a story to tell." "So many entering a pig to win a ribbon at the county fair, each with a story to tell."

In each case, the inflection changes somewhat, but the image of storytelling is always what deepens the first phrase, by reminding the reader that we all have our stories, and all of us suffer a compulsion to tell them. Similar to Tolstoy's opening to Anna Karenina, it takes the general crowd and reminds the reader that each member of the crowd is particular, not anonymous. I think of the shot in Diva where you see a crowd at a train station, all generic travelers, and then the camera picks out the one pair of bare feet in the crowd, and you realize that every traveler has some story to tell.

Andrew Shields said...

Mr. J, I take your point, but at the same time, I want to dispute the generality of your claim: not every phrase following by "each with a story to tell" will be as significant as JMC's "seeking justice." Someone who is seeking justice *necessarily* has a story to tell, but someone entering a pig in the county fair does not necessarily have a story to tell. They might just be entering a pig in the county fair, without any background to the act.

mrjumbo said...

Storytelling in the pursuit of justice certainly is more intriguing than in the service of swineherding. Still, I can't imagine having a pig to present at a county fair and not having some kind of story to tell. The rhubarb preserves kids maybe have less of a fully fleshed narrative, with protagonists and cosmic irony. But I bet most hog wards have some magical episode to rattle on about.

Andrew Shields said...

Not every pig at the fair is Wilbur, but anyone seeking justice is.