Toward the end of his life, the writer indicated similar aspirations to compose Kenny K.K. Ng historical novels in expansive and ever-going sequence (while eliminating the bourgeois French elements in his discourse).
It is also noted that Li’s role model in this period changed from the French masters to the Soviet author, Mikhail Sholokhov. Sholokhov’s lengthy epic And Quiet Flows the Don (published in four parts between and 1940, and later would earn the author the Nobel Prize in 1965) was about the civil war in the Don Cossack region. The Soviet historical novels are said to be under the influence of Tolstoy.5 Li must have found himself sharing similar temperaments and experiences with the Soviet writer as a regional writer, a partisan intellectual, and an author ignoring the demands of the ideologues, and dreaming of writing a monumental narrative ever since his youth. The Quiet Don has been praised as a work that ‘present(s) a wider river of (life) as it flows, and it’s up to the reader to draw his own influences about the complexities of human existence.’In 1959 the eminent leftist writer Zhang Tianyi, allegedly representing the Writers’ Association, talked to Li about the ‘deficiencies’ of the revision of The Great Wave. In a roundabout way, Zhang pointed out the novel’s indulgence in detailed descriptions of social mores and native customs, and its obliteration of class distinctions and the lack of concrete analyses of the social characters in the course of the revolutionary. In other words, the main characters in the renewed narrative still failed to conform to the standard leftist stereotypes of intellectuals, the ruling class, and working people. The denigration of Li’s fiction for an overabundance of detail or an excessive number of secondary characters, no doubt, overlooked the epistemological implications of the narrative by setting ordinary characters in a naturalistic, prosaic world. When the rewrite of The Great Wave came out in the late 1950s, critics and reviewers contended that the novel failed to satisfy their usual reading practice or experience. Innumerable incidents, characters, and details in the novel’s complex scheme simply stunned the readers. The scheme of panoramic fiction with multiple personages and interlaced plots inevitably digressed from the state-sanctioned format of Communist novels, which underscored the centrality of larger-than-life characters and heroic plots, and the aesthetic norms of prevalent Communist fiction.
Besides the aesthetic-ideological conflicts in narrative formats, Li’s endeavours run into the formal dilemma of the historical novel, that is, the troubled relationships between truth and fiction. How should history be presented faithfully as well as imaginatively and artistically in fiction so as to include innumerable incidents, contingencies, and chance occurrences that are largely left out of official historical accounts As early as in 1937, shortly after he completed the trilogy in one go, Li expressed his intention to rewrite the whole series. The Great Wave, in particular, was not yet completed and ‘full of flaws.’ It was the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War that had 142 The Last Epic Storyteller impeded his plan of revising and expanding the novels. The main reason, one can speculate, is the writer’s incessant drive to uncover historical ‘truths.’ As a novelist, Li would surely recognize the heterogeneity of historical novels, setting one foot in fact and the other in fiction. In revising The Great Wave, Li was drawn to meticulous research and erudite learning of Chengdu’s local history (to the extent that his materials would be used by historians). For him, the writing of the historical genre humanizes as well as authenticates history itself. His novels are invested with descriptive passages documenting the actualities of Chengdu life in a near reportage tone. The historical novelist functions not only to preserve local memories, but also to generate dialogue with the community to shed light on the past. Li’s longing for completed factuality in conjunction with fictional narrativity may mean a world of difference in a social-political context in which official history has been actively shaped by the ideological imaginary. In practice, the socialist realist writers of the PRC took ‘reality’ to mean success stories of the revolution or the economic and social engineering of the 1950s. On the other hand, by creating unresolved tensions between fiction and the reader’s knowledge of the past, Li’s ongoing and growing narratives illuminate the fundamental problematic of the historical novel (and elude the ideological critical lens) as what Alessandro Manzoni has pondered in On the Historical Novel (1850), in which the popular Italian novelist and critic questioned the form as a hybrid genre. Manzoni heightens the novel’s limitations in reconciling histoire and discours, its empirical and fictional tendencies. Nonetheless, Li’s concern with historical writing had strong ethical and philosophical dimensions;
namely, how the novel strives to communicate truthfully and imaginatively in order to effect social, perhaps even political, change.
Notes See, for example, DW Fokkema, Literary Doctrine in China and Soviet Influence, 1956-1960, Mouton, The Netherlands, 1965; M Goldman, et. al.
(eds), China’s Intellectuals and the State: In Search of a New Relationship.
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987; K Denton, The Problematic of Self in Modern Chinese Literature: Hu Feng and Lu Ling, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998.
CT Hsia, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1999, p. 348.
RG Wagner, ‘The Cog and the Scout: Functional Concepts of Literature in Socialist Political Culture: the Chinese Debate in the Mid-Fifties’, in Essays in Modern Chinese Literature and Literary Criticism: Papers of the Berlin Conference 1978, W. Kubin & R.G. Wagner (eds), Studienverlag Brockmeyer, Bochum, 1982, p. 336.
Kenny K.K. Ng M Guo, ‘Zhongguo Zuo-la zhi daiwan (In anticipation of China’s Zola)’.
Zhongguo wenyi, vol. 1 (2), June 1937.
M Slonim, Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems, 1917-1977, Oxford University Press, New York, 1977, pp. 188-197.
H Ermolaev, Mikhail Sholokhov and His Art, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1992, p. 90.
Bibliography Denton, K., The Problematic of Self in Modern Chinese Literature: Hu Feng and Lu Ling. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998.
Ermolaev, H., Mikhail Sholokhov and His Art. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1992.
Fokkema, D.W., Literary Doctrine in China and Soviet Influence, 19561960. Mouton, The Netherlands, 1965.
Goldman, M., China’s Intellectuals and the State: In Search of a New Relationship. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987.
Guo M., ‘Zhongguo Zuo-la zhi daiwan’ (In anticipation of China’s Zola).
Zhongguo wenyi, vol. 1 (2), June 1937.
Hsia, C. T., A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1999.
Manzoni, A., On the Historical Novel. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1984.
Slonim, M., Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems, 1917-1977.
Oxford University Press, New York, 1977.
Wagner, R. G., ‘The Cog and the Scout: Functional Concepts of Literature in Socialist Political Culture: the Chinese Debate in the Mid-Fifties’. Essays in Modern Chinese Literature and Literary Criticism: Papers of the Berlin Conference 1978. W. Kubin & R.G. Wagner (eds), Studienverlag Brockmeyer, Bochum, 1982, pp. 334-400.
Imagining the Unimaginable: The Importance of Storytelling for J.M. Coetzee’s Intellectual Practice Claire Heaney Abstract Despite Coetzee’s well-documented reluctance to adopt the role of interpreter of his own work and his determined eschewal of the role of public intellectual, his oeuvre nonetheless represents a sustained meditation on the role of the intellectual in contemporary society. In nearly all of his novels Coetzee takes as central protagonist a scholar, often retired or at the fringes of mainstream academia. In addition, Coetzee himself has worked for over four decades as an academic and has published extensively in the fields of linguistics and literary and cultural criticism. My paper traces Coetzee’s simultaneous invocation and rejection of the role of public intellectual in both his critical and his fictional works, arguing that Coetzee’s demonstrable discomfort with the role of the public intellectual does not signify a rejection of the intellectual per se, but instead suggests a need to modify our conception of the intellectual in order to allow for a recognition of the limits of rational argument. This recognition would in turn create the potential to rehabilitate the role of the artist and the storyteller, not as a rebuke to the public intellectual but rather as an attempt to reconfigure what constitutes knowledge in the public sphere.
Key Words: Intellectuals, J. M. Coetzee, knowledge, storytelling, narrative, Practical Wisdom, Martha Nussbaum, academia, reason, emotion.
***** In a 1992 interview with David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee reflects upon Milan Kundera’s Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech of 1985, which took the form of a tribute to Cervantes:
Reading that address, I believe I knew as well as anyone else what it meant that a Czech should choose to speak about Cervantes in Jerusalem in 1985, namely, a certain defiance of the role imposed on him by history (if you look at it one way) or by fashion (if you look at it in another). (A decade earlier Kundera had remarked, even more provocatively: ‘Today, when politics have become a religion, I see the novel as one of the last forms of atheism.’).
146 Imagining the Unimaginable There is part of me too that longs to be an atheist la Kundera. I too would like to be able to go to Jerusalem and talk about Cervantes. Not because I see Kundera or indeed Cervantes as a socially irresponsible person. On the contrary, I would like to be able to say that proof of their deep social and historical responsibility lies in the penetration with which, in their different ways and to their different degrees, they reflect on the crisis of fiction, of fictionalising, in their respective ages. But [...] I can’t do what Kundera does (or, to be fair to him, what he says he is doing). Cowardice on my part Perhaps. History may be, as you call it, a process for representation, but to me it feels more like a force for representation, and in that sense, yes, it is unrepresentable.What is interesting about this passage is the way that it reveals Coetzee’s ambivalence about his own role as public intellectual. It reveals Coetzee’s yearning to be able to speak freely, to frustrate the critical reflex that transforms every word written by South African writers (or uttered by Czech intellectuals) into a commentary on the state of the nation. But at the same time, Coetzee’s reluctance to follow Kundera’s example amounts to an expression of political commitment, a recognition that the writer is inevitably constrained, and rightly so, by the weight of history.
In South Africa, Coetzee explained, the brute reality of history impedes the play of free expression, undermining any straightforward humanistic faith in writing. History ‘short-circuits’ the imagination, drawing the writer forcibly back to the real in a movement which limits creative expression: ‘Therefore,’ he concludes, ‘the task becomes imagining this unimaginable, imagining a form of address that permits the play of writing to start taking place.’There is evidence to suggest that in recent years Coetzee has made some headway in his quest to discover such a form of address. From the midnineties onwards, Coetzee has developed a specifically fictional mode of public speaking.4 I want to begin by tracing the reasons (pragmatic, philosophical, and ethical) that inform Coetzee’s attempt to refigure the dominant terms of intellectual discourse; before going on to look at the question from a reverse angle, by asking to what extent Coetzee’s fiction is itself motivated and constrained by intellectualism. My thesis suggests that Coetzee’s approach is motivated less by a straightforward rejection of intellectualism than by a desire to positively refigure our understandings of the intellectual in a way that is more responsive to the specifically literary concerns of writers, and which would allow for emotions and the imagination to be recognized as legitimate sources of public knowledge.
Claire Heaney What does it mean to be a writer who is induced to speak in the public domain Stefan Collini identifies a basic structural tension underlying the concept of the public intellectual:
[E]ach individual intellectual is inevitably caught in some version of the following tension: the source of the initial standing or claim to attention will always include distinction in at least one relatively specialized activity, but effective speaking out will always entail going beyond this attested level of achievement or expertise. In other words, the intellectual must, by definition, build out from a relatively secure basis in one specialized activity and simultaneously cultivate the necessarily more contestable perspective of a ‘non-specialist.’The tension that Collini identifies is compounded in Coetzee’s case by his status as a South African writer, a condition which means that not only is Coetzee put under pressure to express himself in a medium that is not his preferred one (that is, he is induced to speak, rather than to write), but he is further compelled to speak on issues that are presumed to be of importance to South African writers - namely, history and politics. Coetzee’s resistance to this compulsion goes back at least as far as 1987, when, in a speech to the Weekly Mail Book Week, the writer complained: ‘I do not even speak my own language [but a] fragile metalanguage with very little body, one that is liable, at any moment, to find itself flattened and translated back and down into the discourse of politics, a sub-discourse of the discourse of history.’Coetzee’s defence in this speech of storytelling as ‘another, an other mode of thinking’ is intended not as a denial of historical or political responsibility, but instead reveals a keen sensitivity to matters of form, to the ways in which the shape of a narrative necessarily determines its content. His defense of storytelling represents a plea for complexity in public discourse, a preference for dialogic engagement over abstract modes of thought, and a recognition of the limits of rational argument.