Imraan Coovadia responds to Ian Glenn

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Imraan Coovadia responds to Ian Glenn’s Coovadia, Coetzee and the literary field of post-apartheid South Africa.

Let’s start with the easy part. I was misinformed about Coetzee’s middle name, but my point about his use of initials stands. The date for Dusklands and the description of an adjective as an adverb are corrected in the book version of the essay. Nowhere do I say that Eliot’s Wasteland is a pure stretch of dialogue. I don’t reject the value of apocalyptic fiction. I don’t argue that Coetzee limited his research to computational studies. I don’t define Coetzee as a reactionary, nor do I accuse him of being a collaborator, but try to assess his mixed relationship to his political situation. I suggest that Coetzee’s writing in the 1980s and 1990s was the most interesting in the world. If this is such stringent criticism then Ian Glenn’s standards of tenderness are high. I’m delighted to hear that Coetzee once “worked painstakingly on a computer system that would make for more rational and fair marking,” never thought to deny it, and would even be interested to understand its principles of operation. The assessment of the UCT English Department is for the most part that of Kannemeyer and Coetzee himself, as Ian would know if he had cared to read the book he defends. Glenn is keen to march me out of the door of the university, and even the country, but this is obscure bluster. When my university guarantees financial support to every student who needs it, as it just has, I am proud of it for living up to its ideals. When, in 2011, 88% of African undergraduates fail to reach the final year in my department that Glenn once ran, I’m ashamed and want the numbers to change. The need to make departments like English more inclusive is not my prejudice, but a core project of the University of Cape Town endorsed by the Council, the vice chancellor, and the various faculties.

Glenn complains about Kritika Kultura’s obscurity and editing standards. That issue was edited by Peter Horn and Anette Horn, a well-respected comparativist professor and assistant dean at Wits. I won’t speak for Peter and Anette, but note that Glenn is posting his piece, complete with typing mistakes, on a website.

Glenn spins out a very small quantity of Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology into a great ad hominem web. So I’m “spiteful” and “dishonest”, “often wild” and operating under the intoxicant of “cheap irony.” He finds me “gratuitously offensive”, “out to make mischief and wound”, acting at the mere disposal of my “cultural libido”. I am the son of a successful physician. I am about to leave the country. In general, according to Glenn, I am too jealous and incompetent to write at a critical angle about Coetzee. With the exception of my father’s occupation, which Glenn gets right, but which seems irrelevant, and my future plans, which he gets wrong, none of this is provably true or false. It’s not even really arguable. So Ian Glenn thinks I’m “gratuitously offensive”? So what? This wonderful mixture really allows Glenn to arouse his own indignation, higher and higher now, until he can produce his decisive thrust. Because I am “a member of a minority group” – and therefore in a “difficult cultural position” on the sainted authority of Pierre Bourdieu – it is easy to explain when I am found “resorting to denigration, malicious gossip and innuendo”. Will Glenn now tell us if this “minority group” is, in fact, the entire community of Indian South Africans? I’d like to know if he harbours the same views of other Indian colleagues and students. Are they also so easily explained, so “vehement”, so necessarily “insincere” (as Glenn tells us Bourdieu tells us they must be)? Does Glenn hold the same views about Jews, those “intermediaries” who may be given to “malicious gossip”? Does he hold them of women who are, of course, so quick to employ “innuendo”? And coloureds? And Zulus? Why doesn’t he take off the mask of Bourdieu and take responsibility for his opinions? Glenn’s readers will find that he doubles the “may” in his key sentence, hoping to double the distance between his fixable views and what is to me the loud and clear sound of race baiting. And all this, right to the edge of racial hatred, to prevent the fair or unfair scrutiny of a book and a writer?

There is a better explanation. As it happens, in my piece I was interested less in gossip than in the accumulation of a minor mythology around the figure of Coetzee constituted by not very interesting gossip, unexpectedly banal memories, and anecdotes. I don’t want to take away Glenn’s credibility, and I believe in vigorous debate, but part of the story demands an idea of who Glenn is and what he’s doing. As, I suspect, almost anyone who has talked to Glenn knows, he takes considerable pride in being the source of Coetzee stories, not so flattering as one might expect from his double-dealing tone here (Coetzee “made us better in all sorts of ways”). In fact, Glenn is the origin of the “Kristallnacht” episode which he told me as an explanation of Coetzee’s emigration and now revises, putting it twenty years in the past and asserting that nothing of the kind he told me was actually said (“I think we all felt too sheepish to say anything about ‘listening to the message that is being given’”). I don’t know why having one’s car vandalised would make one feel sheepish, but Glenn should have taken the trouble to read the Kannemeyer biography, rather than pretending to have read it, because he would have discovered what I assume is his own account of the episode on page 211. In that account there is no policeman. It is Coetzee and Glenn, rather than “the policeman who came to the scene”, who deduce that the cause of the broken car window is a bullet. (In the LitNet-Glenn account they assume it’s a brick and are corrected by that handy policeman absent in Kannemeyer-Glenn.) These discrepancies make me more impressed with the energy and resourcefulness of Glenn the minor myth-maker, but more inclined to doubt the accuracy and even the sincerity of Glenn the historian, who is, after all, the member of a “minority group”. One sees the former character busily at work even in the Kannemeyer biography: because of Coetzee’s passivity in family affairs, “it was Ian Glenn who had to grab hold of the struggling Nicolas [Coetzee’s son] and put him to bed”. I wish more loyal defenders on Coetzee but even more do I wish better sleeping conditions on the children of the world.

It’s not worth adding up the ironies, except to note that, if Glenn had managed to read what he nevertheless certifies as “Kannemeyer’s meticulously factual account”, he would have discovered that Kannemeyer’s and Coetzee’s disaffection with the UCT English Department had something to do with a history of bitter and unrelenting professorial feuds dating from the 1950s. In this case Glenn the myth-maker is not at his most transparent. After conducting a long and unnecessary feud with me at the university, where I foun d his behaviour more than untoward and told him so, he wants to continue it here under the cover of Bourdieu and Coetzee. So let’s concentrate on what he’s done here. His argument is principally by hateful adjective, and the two faces by which he exploits his proximity to Coetzee and poses as his defender are showing at the same time. Above all, there is his barely concealed joy in being able to make a pseudo-intellectual argument about members of a “minority group” resorting to “denigration, malicious gossip and innuendo”. Here, in these symptoms of absolute disease, we see a glimpse of why our institutions are so difficult to reform and keep healthy.

Click here to read Leon de Kock's review of Kannemeyer's JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing.

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  • Captain Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
    Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
    Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
    Rick: I was misinformed.
    - Casablanca

    In his response, Imraan Coovadia tries Rick’s line as a way of explaining his errors, but he is even more disingenuous. Coovadia originally attributed the Michael-Maxwell name change information to an ‘astute young critic’, unnamed, who now turns out be a misinformer. I think it is a sorry comment on his scholarly standards that he ran with a claim that, had it been reported in a tabloid, would have attracted scathing comments on journalistic incompetence. Any editor faced with a story like this from a reporter would have asked the obvious questions: what do you mean, he changed his name? Legally? When? What evidence do you have?

    None of these scruples seems to have bothered Coovadia who airily says that he was misinformed but did nothing to inform himself. When literary scholarship has lower standards than the tabloids, then it is in trouble. The second misinformer is allegedly me.

    According to Coovadia, I misled him by telling him the story about the shot car window as a story of the 90s and have now changed the story to being one of the 70s. No, he simply got it wrong. In addition, Coovadia turned my analysis of the event, where I saw the incident as being a message of intimidation from the apartheid state, into a direct quote from Coetzee. It is one thing to pick up stompies, quite a different thing to produce a smoking gun of a direct quote, even though he hedges it with a “supposed to have said”.

    By whom? To whom? I was there and this is nonsense. And why did he not do me the courtesy of checking a story which he now attributes to me to see if it was accurate? It was because it was much easier to put his own spin on it. I stick by my original diagnosis: that Coovadia can’t see past his cultural libido to hear what is actually being said.

    The honourable thing for Coovadia and the editors of Kritika Kultura and for the publishers of Transformations would now be to remove or edit the story by admitting the extent of the misinformation and to add a note saying that the unnamed source for the story disputes Coovadia’s version of it strongly and that the biography of Coetzee supports the version of the ‘source’. (As for Kannemeyer’s version of it. I was not the origin of the story in Kannemeyer but I did, when I was shown the manuscript, correct an error of where the incident had taken place. I did not go into all the details but my recounting of the story is accurate. I said Kannemeyer was factual, not that he could provide the full truth of every episode.)

    Coovadia does nothing to justify the claims that Coetzee had his pay docked because, no doubt, he was misinformed there too. Will he retract that claim too? I have not even gone into the many other unsubstantiated biographical claims in his original piece but I hope I have done enough to make fair-minded readers look at them with due scepticism.

    Much of Coovadia’s response is a litany of non sequiturs where he turns from misinformed to misinformer. He shifts ground tellingly. In his original version, Coetzee made everybody in the English Department depressed. I say, not so. Now, Coovadia points out, Coetzee, as quoted by Kannemeyer, says he found the English Department depressing.

    I am sure that Coetzee, like many of us, found the English Department depressing at points – for much of the 70s and 80s, we were fighting a long battle about curriculum and theoretical approaches. But it is a very different thing to say that somebody finds an institution depressing and that that person makes everybody in it depressed.

    I never said that Kritika Kultura did not have editors, but that it did not have sub-editors. Surely the editors were not supposed to be the sub-editors, or we now have three professors of language and literature who do not know the difference between an adjective and an adverb or how to spell ressentiment. This publication history shows the particular problems of special issues of journals edited by guest editors who cajole articles from people that then get run unchanged because they have been submitted, rather than rigorously scrutinised by a peer-review process.

    There are many other cases which I did not mention which I think were misleading and show Coovadia’s animus. One interesting one for literary historians is the claim in the original about the Jerusalem Prize. In Coovadia’s version, Gordimer turned down the Jerusalem Prize. Then Coetzee, the Coetzee whom Coovadia portrays as greedy for prizes, grabs it: “When the prize was offered to him on Gordimer’s refusal, Coetzee turned up in Jerusalem in 1987 to collect, lending his moral probity to the Israeli occupation.”

    The impression Coovadia surely creates, and intended to create, is that Gordimer was offered the prize publically, she refused it, publically, the committee then said to Coetzee, will you, the second best person, take it, and off he flew, in a kind of  pro-Israeli rebuke to Gordimer.

    This is simply untrue, or perhaps a quarter true, according to various accounts. The Jerusalem Prize committee has denied ever offering the prize to Gordimer. She may have been approached informally as to whether she would be willing to accept it if were offered, but even this is disputed. In any event, none of this was in the public realm when Coetzee was offered the prize for Foe.

    Here again, Coovadia is less interested in accuracy or fairness than in disparaging Coetzee and imagining a kind of literary quarrel between the white literary authorities. It is perfectly valid, of course, for Coovadia to condemn Coetzee for going to Jerusalem, or ask whether his speech said anything or enough about Israel, but is his a fair account?

    The issue of the role of minority intellectuals and creative figures in post-apartheid South Africa seems to me crucial, complex and in need of open debate, which I would welcome, but this is not the space for it. I used Bourdieu’s analysis, which obviously draws on Marx and Gramsci, and his claim that minorities in this particular situation ‘almost have to be insincere’ because it seemed the best, most dignified, way I could find of giving some kind of explanation for Coovadia’s attack. It might have been easier to see him as being motivated simply by ressentiment and personal spite but to think sociologically, or psychoanalytically, demands that we look for the structural factors producing those feelings. In the earlier piece, I argued that there was a case for arguing that Bourdieu had underplayed the creative possibility for hybridity.

    Clearly, being in a position of cultural hybridity, fissure, pressure has produced much that is important and useful for our future and for scholarship here and elsewhere. In the case of Coovadia’s essay, however, the pressure did not lead to any profound reflection on the complex legacy of Coetzee, particularly for minority writers (the kind of reflection many critics find in Zoë Wicomb, for example) but to a kind of moral shortcut, a dishonest disqualifying of the past, an insincerity that in his case bore out Bourdieu’s pessimistic analysis. As for the claim that I have engaged in a long and unnecessary feud with Coovadia, this is news to me.

    A feud about what? He must be the tender one here as I barely think this public argument has reached feud status yet, though who knows, given time, it could, cue Casablanca, be the beginning of a beautiful feudship.

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