“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”: you could say that this Yeatsian adage is the bedrock on which J. M. Coetzee elaborates the architecture of his sequel to The Childhood of Jesus. In his latest instalment to this story of a boy and his foster parents, we see the young David assert his sway over his slightly bemused parents as they attempt to cope with the difficulty of raising a strange unacademic yet over-gifted child.
At the opening of the novel, the family has fled Novilla, the somewhat austere utopian city they arrived in (after having had memories of their past lives erased). The school authorities in Novilla were too procrustean in their approach to education. Now clandestinely established in the nearby city of Estrella, David’s parents enrol him in an astrology-inspired Dance Academy, despite some misgivings about its highly unorthodox teaching methods. They have thus gone from one educational extreme to another.
At the Academy, David encounters the inspiring and unbelievably beautiful dance teacher Ana Magdalena and a beguiling murky janitor called Dmitri. Along with Simon, David’s adoptive father figure, the reader struggles to understand this headstrong, complex boy and what goes on in his head.
While there are vague echoes of the holy family’s flight into Egypt, Coetzee’s use of Biblical material is slight. The washing of the feet scene in Waiting for the Barbarians had stronger Biblical overtones than anything in The Schooldays of Jesus. There isn’t a single character called Jesus in the novel and the boy the story focuses on is a far cry from any conventional imagining of what Jesus might have been like as a child: he is difficult, arrogant, egocentric rather than selfless, grateful, and loving and there is nothing supernatural about him, at least on the surface. Yet Coetzee’s choice of title is daring and fruitful.
The titular Jesus is the only word in the whole book that has anything Biblical about it and yet it manages to hover over the story like a suspenseful promise that seems always on the cusp of being fulfilled. The reader is kept in a state of fascinated expectation throughout by the idea that the New Testament narrative will connect in a spectacular or wondrous way at some point with Coetzee’s story. It’s a bit like waiting for Jesus to become Himself.
As in the first instalment of the story, the novel is centred on the notion of psychomachia, a medieval mytheme in which the devil vies with a guardian angel for the soul of man. This narrative nub is enacted subtly and unobtrusively in the novel and to this antithetical struggle Coetzee adds a dialogue between Buddhist/Christian detached selflessness and intensity-seeking passion.
Early reviewers of this novel complained of its dry, even boring, philosophical conversations, some even claiming that The Schooldays of Jesus breaks the rules of novel writing to the extent that it can hardly be considered a novel. But this view seems unfairly prescriptive and mean-spirited: while the plot of the narrative is relatively slight (though not by Modernist standards), it is more than sufficient to hold the reader’s attention. It is quite a bit more eventful than the first instalment, including a horrific murder and redemption subplot that merges powerfully and inextricably with the plainer main plot.
The complaint that the philosophical dialogue is drab does not really hold water either. The dialogue is straightforward and grounded in bread-and-butter issues for the simple reason that it is addressed to a child. This plain attention to the ordinary details of educating and enlightening a child is refreshing in that it defamiliarises ordinary events, drawing us compellingly into the strange world of childhood.
Equally winsome in a very different register is Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, a novel also centred on the centripetal/centrifugal dynamic within a tightly-bound family unit. Like many of the works in the currently evolving series of Shakespeare-inspired novels created especially for the Hogarth Shakespeare imprint, Nutshell reworks the story of Hamlet in a modern setting in a formidably imaginative way.
In Nutshell, Trudy (a modern renaming of Gertrude) is having an affair with Claude (a pedestrian, plodding, cliché-ridden Claudius). Both have decided to dispatch her hapless minor poet husband John. We are not initially told how they are going to murder him and although it is a retelling of Hamlet, McEwan manages to generate suspense over whether or not their cruel plan succeeds or not.
The story is told from the point of view of an unborn foetus who overhears his mother plotting with his uncle to have his sweet, unassuming father murdered. Like Hamlet, the foetus is unable to act other than by kicking his mother at strategic moments in the unfolding of the plot. He does attempt suicide by intra-uterine umbilical cord hanging, however, and is almost murdered himself by Claude’s lustful thrusting.
Not only is the tale masterfully and inventively retold, it also refreshes our view of McEwan as a writer. His usual unadorned, plain elegant style gives way in Nutshell to a style not exactly Shakespearean but rhapsodic in the poetic spirit of the bard. Thanks to McEwan’s skill, the reader is more than willing to suspend disbelief at the inordinately far-reaching linguistic wherewithal of the eight-month-old foetus and his penetrating (if sometimes lecturing) discourse and analysis, Hamletian playfulness and humour.
McEwan succeeds in making this retelling both comic, disturbing and suspenseful with very little means. As often in his novels, the riveting resolution hinges on a tiny unforeseeable detail. In Saturday, it is the reciting of a poem; a single pubic hair almost saves the day in On Chesil Beach.
By Erik Martiny
The Schooldays of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee, Harvill Secker, 2016, £17.99
Nutshell by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, 2016, £15.99