Thursday, July 12, 2007


''But seen from too remote a vantage, life begins to lose its particularity. All shipwrecks become the same shipwreck, all castaways the same castaway, sunburnt, lonely, clad in the skins of the beasts he has slain. The truth that makes your story yours alone, that sets you apart from the old mariner by the fireside spinning yarns of sea-monsters and mermaids, resides in a thousand touches which today may seem of no importance, such as: when you made your needle (the needle you store in your belt), by what means did you pierce the eye? When you sewed your hat, what did you use for thread? Touches like these will one day persuade your countrymen that it is all true, every word, there was indeed once an island in the middle of the ocean where the wind blew and the gulls cried from the cliffs and a man named Cruso paced about in his apeskin clothes, scanning the horizon for sail."

I have just reread J. M. Coetzee's Foe for the first time since I wrote my final undergraduate paper on it back in 1987, right when the novel was published. I had always remembered it as a powerful book, and in the meantime I have become a enthusiastic reader of Coetzee, but still, I was taken aback by just how powerful a book it is. I should not have been surprised to discover that JMC writes great books, but just how great they are never ceases to amaze me.

Here, the castaway Susan Barton is speaking to Robinson Cruso; she arrived as a new castaway on "his" island many years after he first landed on it with Friday (who, in this book, is mute because he had his tongue cut out).

Or rather, Susan Barton, having returned to England with Friday (Cruso died on the return voyage), has written a sketch of her experiences for one Daniel Foe, whom she has asked to write a book about her (and not about Cruso and Friday alone). In that sketch, she includes this comment she made to Cruso, who was completely uninterested in producing any sort of "version" of his story (whether oral or written), and who did not want to return to England.

The "thousand touches" of everyday life are necessary to make a story (whether the adventure story of a castaway, in this case, or the story of a disillusioned professor who loses his job because of an affair with a student, as in Coetzee's Disgrace, or the story of a young wizard at a wizarding school) into an individual story, rather than an archetypal one.

It almost reads like advice in a good workshop for beginning or intermediate writers: stop treating writing as an attempt to produce archetypes, and focus instead on the details that both ground and undermine the archetypal elements of the stories you want to tell.

Or in the language of my post on Arthur Ransome's Great Northern?, you cannot get away with writing that is just in your "favorite style"; you have to ground that style in "the simple dreadful truth" — in the physicality of the experience that renders it individual, precise, and perceptible for others who have not shared that experience (be it real or imagined).

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