In Defence of Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus

/ by Michael Amherst

Depending on your view, one of the joys or irritants of Coetzee’s later work has been a sense that the author of them is hiding in plain sight. Arguments are advanced in Elizabeth Costello, for example, and at once frustrated. Any attempt to find a coherent line or meaning stalls, because Costello’s arguments are often incoherent or expertly rebuffed. Some argue that Coetzee, the postmodern ironist, is simply satirizing all these positions; others that he wants it both ways; or, more simply, that he does not have the courage of his convictions and is hiding within a mess of contradictions. Similar criticisms have been levelled at his most recent novels, The Childhood of Jesus and its sequel.


However, when struggling with these inconsistencies, it is worth remembering his first exchange with psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz, in Salmagundi (2010). Here, Coetzee concludes: “I think back to The Brothers Karamazov, where the storyteller distinguishes between those of us whose thinking is disordered, and those whose minds work tidily and efficiently…he sees the Karamazovs as cautionary examples of where disordered thinking can land one. I hear what he says. Nevertheless, my sympathies are with the Karamazovs.”


The action in The Schooldays of Jesus picks up where the earlier novel left off: Simón, Inés and the boy, Davíd, arrive in Estrella, having fled the authorities. Their new city seems less “utopian” than the old, with ascetic rationalism giving way to a range of appetites – from material wants, for fashions and meat, to sexual desire. Three, mysterious sisters pay for Davíd to attend the Dance Academy. This is chosen in preference to the Atoms School, a turgid place of empiricism, where one watches “the atoms through the microscope, doing whatever it is that atoms do.” The Dance Academy, a monastic-like institution with dormitories and a refectory, is the novel’s primary location. There, rather than learning to count, Davíd learns to call the numbers from the sky through dance. Simón is deeply skeptical about the Academy’s methods and those of Davíd’s teacher, Ana Magdalena, a cold beauty who fascinates both him and Dmitri, the academy’s dubious janitor. When Dmitri murders her, Davíd is caught up in the aftermath.


Appetites, or desires, are significant in this novel. Señor Arroyo, the Academy’s head, tells Simón, “A man goes out and scours the world for the answer to his one great question, What is it that I lack?” To break the interminable cycle, Arroyo advises him, “we should be scouring the world not for the true answer, but the true question.” Later, Arroyo’s mother-in-law, Mercedes, reflects as to what question so many found Ana Magdalena the answer, causing Simón to ponder “What is it we lack when we lack nothing, when we are sufficient unto ourselves?” The answer would seem to be something like humanity, as evidenced by the bloodless characters that largely populated Novilla, in the earlier novel. Yet, if our desire makes us human, then the price we must pay for the wants of our flesh would appear to be sin. Estrella’s greater appetites result in a commensurate breakdown in social order, right down to Dmitri’s murder of his lover.


One wonders what debt the Jesus novels owe to Gnosticism, with its rejection of the material world, rejection of the creator-god as a false god, and its embracing of intuition as a means of understanding the universe. We are told that intuitions are not part of Simón’s “stock in trade.” To which Señor Arroyo replies that intuitions are like shooting stars, “If you don’t see them, perhaps it is because your eyes are closed.”


At this novel’s heart is a thrilling argument for art’s own innate value, a way of understanding what is intuitive and beyond the confines of reason. Simón enrolls in a composition class, believing it is time for him to “write clearly, logically, and with good style.” Yet, he is overcome by a creative urge that exceeds the bounds of the set tasks. When he expresses his concern that what he writes should “ring true,” as opposed to being “one long lie from beginning to end,” he appeals to art’s potential as a means to truth. This has echoes of Davíd’s faith in the power of dance.

Art is also integral, in and of itself; it does not require further explanation. When two of the three sisters funding Davíd’s place at the Academy ask him to explain his dance, he refuses. It is left to the third, Alma, to respond that there is nothing to explain. The point is developed later by Mercedes, who tells Simón, “If your son explained his dance, he would not be able to dance anymore…That is the paradox within which we dancers are trapped.” Simón himself repeatedly observes how he dislikes paradoxes; he is tired and frustrated by the “claptrap” and “mystical rubbish” he gets by way of response to his questions. His frustration is maybe mirrored in those readers seeking a consistent line from this novel: narrative as argument, literature with a clear message. But as Arroyo observes of “music-dance,” art “is its own way of apprehending the universe,” a way that prevailed before the hegemony of rationalism and empiricism, before we distinguished “between mind and body.”


Before the Enlightenment elevated the role of reason, epistemology was concerned with the balancing of the conflicting demands of reason, passion and faith. Our way of being in the world is not wholly rational, after all: we do not select a love object on the basis of reason. The artist can be seen as a metaphor for the need to balance these competing forces. Dmitri observes that Simón is, “Parsimonious with words, that’s you. Each word checked and weighed before you send it out.” This is the writer’s paradox – a creative passion, but one which must also be measured and regulated. In this, Simón mirrors Coetzee himself. When Arabella Kurtz first approached the South African, he told her he would prefer their exchange took place via email, “It releases me to go back over what I have said, revising and improving it. I have never believed that the first words that slip out, unchecked, unrevised, constitute the truth, ‘what one wants to say.’ Which is another way of saying that I am, by constitution, a writer.”


Reviews for The Schooldays of Jesus have varied between confused and damning. One reviewer said he found “it hard to muster any feeling whatsoever” about the novel; another that its most affecting page lists Coetzee’s other works. Yet, the novel’s close is profoundly moving. As the crowd of people turn away from Davíd, and Dmitri challenges the boy’s belief in causation – “maybe there is no why” – we witness a child’s loss of faith in an ordered universe. From this moment on, he asks no further questions. Meanwhile Simón, the “cold dullard,” returns to the Academy, where he asks Mercedes to teach him to dance the numbers. The final page is tragi-comic, as this old skeptic falteringly moves, “eyes closed…in a slow circle. Over the horizon the first star begins to rise.” If we cannot live like Davíd, then nor can we live the exclusive rationalism of Simón, either.

This is fiction, not as dogma, but as an alternative means of understanding, or to use a word that recurs time and again, “apprehending” the universe. In rejecting a purely rationalist view of the world, Coetzee also rejects anything like a position that is systematic or consistent. It is hard not to get sucked into the minutiae of this novel; to attempt to “decode” it. I can’t help feeling this is a deliberate ploy – that the rich tapestry of allegory and allusions are rewarding, but ultimately a dead end. It is a continuation of the challenge to textual scholarship advanced in Elizabeth Costello. It is as though Coetzee is issuing an instruction, asking us to give over to something other than logic.

In an essay on confession, he defended Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” as a piece by an author “set[ting] down the truth…as though after a lifetime of exploring one had acquired the credentials, amassed the authority, to do so.” I sense something similar at work with The Schooldays of Jesus. Coetzee is breaking his usual tools. But, unlike Prospero, he is not renouncing his art; he is making a claim for it. By claiming art as a means of apprehending the universe in a manner beyond reason, he is risking a fiction that also must be reached through something like faith and intuition. Art is not merely coded argument; it deals in nuance and paradox. As Coetzee himself has observed, “People rarely – in fact almost never – act on the basis of reason: people act on the basis of impulse or desire or urge or drive or passion or mood, and dress up their motives afterwards to make them seem reasonable.” These tensions are the stuff of life. If they are not also the stuff of art, then what is?

Michael Amherst

is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His work has been published internationally, including the GuardianNew Statesman, the SpectatorThe White Review and Contrappasso magazine. He has been shortlisted for the 2012 Bridport Prize and longlisted for the 2014 BBC Opening Lines and 2015 Bath Short Story Prize.