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Bare Lives
Part 1 – Spectrality and Hospitality

Dispossession and Dislocation in J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron

Dépossession et dislocation dans Age of Iron de J. M. Coetzee
Pascale Tollance


Coetzee écrit Age of Iron, son sixième roman, pendant les années les plus sombres de l’apartheid. Il y décrit une expérience de dépossession et de destitution radicale à laquelle la narratrice consent volontairement en réponse à l’état de décomposition avancée de son pays. Tandis qu’elle est amenée à pratiquer à plus d’un égard une « hospitalité inconditionnelle » (Marais, Derrida), Elizabeth Curren vit une forme de dislocation qui fait d’elle une étrangère et une sans-abri dans sa propre demeure. Délogée de sa situation de maîtrise et mise dans la position d’objet et de déchet, le personnage fait l’expérience de la dépossession dans sa chair mais aussi à travers le langage même. C’est dans l’espace textuel qu’elle tisse que la narratrice doit également apprendre « l’hospitalité inconditionnelle », s’exposant sans cesse au risque de la parole et de la tentative de « mettre à nu quelque chose » pour quelqu’un qu’elle n’atteindra peut-être jamais. Tandis que le désir proclamé de « laisser aller » reflète le ton désespéré du roman, le choix volontaire de la dislocation se donne aussi comme condition pour faire bouger les limites imaginaires et redessiner le corps — qu’il soit organique, textuel ou politique.

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1Opening a Coetzee novel is like entering a bare and stark landscape. ‘Dénuement’ or dispossession is a condition shared by a number of victims of history in Coetzee’s work; it is also an ordeal to which his more fortunate characters and narrators are subjected or willingly subject themselves, as well as a condition embraced by a writer who ceaselessly strips and exposes discourse to a limit which questions its very possibility. Written during the final, and perhaps darkest, years of the apartheid regime, Age of Iron, Coetzee’s sixth novel, chooses to address the political situation of South Africa in a more direct manner than any of his other novels—as critics have not failed to point out. Yet while plunging us into ‘the cauldron of history’ (Coetzee 1983, 151), the text never ceases to lay bare its discursive nature. The novel takes the form of a long letter written by a mother to her daughter who has fled the country. On the day she learns she is terminally ill with cancer, Elisabeth Curren, a retired academic, sees a tramp put his cardboard house down in her private alleyway. Little by little she makes room for him, at the same time as she allows her house to be invaded by the victims and actors of a bitter strife involving her black servant and her son.

  • 1 ‘Bare life remains included in politics in the form of exception, that is, as something that is inc (...)

2The voice which resonates in Age of Iron responds to ‘a stubborn will to give’ (8). It expresses, on the threshold of death, a vital need to ‘let go’ (‘Letting go of myself, letting go of you, letting go of a house still alive with memories’ (130)). As it turns out, ‘the old lady who lived in a shoe’ (35, 67) does not simply find that she has more room in her house and in her heart than she thought; she gets dislodged from the position she occupied, displaced in more ways than one. In opening her home to strangers, Elizabeth Curren is led to experience her own homelessness; she faces something alien not just outside but inside herself. That which presents itself as singularly undesirable ‘is not to be refused’ (4) in her own words; but, equally, that which she must welcome cannot be fully accommodated. Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’, his notion of ‘inclusive exclusion’ or ‘exclusive inclusion’ or what he calls ‘the structure of exception’1 prove illuminating when looking at the novel, or at Coetzee’s fiction as a whole for that matter. One may remember the words of the Medical Officer in Life and Times of Michael K: ‘Your stay in the camp was merely an allegory […] of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it’ (166). ‘Bare life’ is endowed with a crucial critical power, not least because the ‘scandal’ or the ‘outrage’ inhabits language itself.

3In Age of Iron, Elizabeth Curren finds herself even more helpless than the Medical Officer who tries to take care of Michael and ‘save’ him (151). Here exclusion clearly takes the form of abjection: what is ‘not to be refused’ is a ‘derelict’ alcoholic ‘eating out of refuse cans’ (4); simultaneously, it is the news that the body has started to turn against itself and, somehow, to reject itself. Welcoming bare life means exposing oneself to the risk of a form of dislocation synonymous with disintegration. Vercueil the tramp is a messenger of death. And yet the ‘visitor visiting himself on [Elizabeth Curren]’ (4) is also an angel who announces that something might be born of disintegration itself. What can never become ‘a term in the system’, what threatens the system is also what prompts the need to conceive things anew. Even in this very dark novel, dispossession is not simply synonymous with deprivation, it becomes, in the most paradoxical manner, a precious gift.

Homelessness: Hospitality and Dislocation

  • 2 ‘Disons oui, à l’arrivant, avant toute détermination, avant toute anticipation, avant toute identif (...)

4In the study which he devotes to ‘the idea of hospitality’ in Coetzee’s oeuvre, Mike Marais sees in Age of Iron a path towards the acceptance of what he calls after Derrida ‘unconditional hospitality’, the ability to receive difference ‘before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification’.2 From the stranger one takes in, the stranger ‘who does not knock’ (Marais 23), one must ask and expect nothing. After a few attempts to give Vercueil some small jobs, Elizabeth Curren abandons the idea that he must earn his food and lets him be. As she takes him in, she forgoes the rewards of all form of altruism and accommodates the impossibility of reciprocity. But hospitality takes Elizabeth Curren further. In the dialogue she engages with Derrida on the question, Anne Dufourmantelle underlines the radical ‘dislocation’ that hospitality involves in the philosopher’s view:

Pour offrir l’hospitalité, s’interroge-t-il, faut-il partir de l’existence assurée d’une demeure ou bien est-ce seulement à partir de la dislocation du sans-abri, du sans chez-soi que peut s’ouvrir l’authenticité de l’hospitalité ? Seul peut-être celui qui endure l’expérience de la privation de maison peut-il offrir l’hospitalité. (56)

Guillaume Le Blanc stresses that same point when commenting on Derrida:

Derrida indique que l’hospitalité correspond à un moment de trouble dans lequel l’accueillant et son hôte ne savent plus très bien qui ils sont. Ce trouble des identités produit une inversion heureuse lors de laquelle l’accueillant finit par perdre sa qualité d’accueillant pour devenir dépendant de son hôte. (188)

5Vercueil the vagrant and his dog bring homelessness into the home of the cat woman, forcing her to reconsider what she owns, what is truly hers, as she writes to her daughter: ‘So this house that was once my home and yours becomes a house of refuge, a house of transit’ (136). Simultaneously, from the moment she opens her door to strangers, the old lady gets involved in a number of situations which force her to leave the comfort of her home. The improvised hostess ends up paying several trying visits to inhospitable places, from unwelcoming hospitals to the nightmarish township of Guguletu where she drives her black domestic Florence through night and rain in search of her missing son. Eventually, the old lady turns herself out of her home one night after the police have hunted and shed the blood of a black teenager who had taken refuge in her house. As she lies under a bridge where the homeless sleep, she tastes hospitality to its bitter end when some boys force a hard object into her mouth—a piece of wood with which they try to find out if she has gold teeth. That night her rescuer is no other than Vercueil, the homeless.

6Elizabeth Curren, the former classical scholar, feels growingly like an outsider in another area which is her particular province, where one knows how to talk and write and lecture, judging her voice to be out of place: ‘Who am I to have a voice at all? […] I have no voice; I lost it long ago; perhaps I have never had one’ (164). At the same time, the narrator feels she has to answer for ‘a crime that was committed long ago’ (164). The need to ‘give’ informs the narrative itself which is described from the start as the ‘baring of something’: ‘This letter is not a baring of my heart. It is a baring of something, but not of my heart’ (15). Later on, as the old lady finds herself talking to a group of military men in the inferno of Guguletu, this need to lay something bare finds another form of literal expression:

What did I want? What did the old lady want? What she wanted was to bare something to them, whatever there was that might be bared at this time, in this place. What she wanted, before they got rid of her, was to bring out a scar, a hurt, to force it upon them, to make them see it with their own eyes; a scar, any scar, the scar of all this suffering, but in the end my scar, since our own scars are the only scars we can carry with us. I even brought a hand up to the buttons of my dress. But my fingers were blue, frozen. (106)

  • 3 ‘Both Elizabeth and Don Quixote are old-fashioned fools confronting a reality that, conceived metaf (...)
  • 4 To continue the discussion with Hayes, one may stress the blindness of the heroine, but her impulse (...)

7Baring things is in no way easy or straightforward, even when the determination is clear. Elisabeth Curren is fully aware that she runs the risk of increasing her debt as she talks, that she exposes herself to further liability—at the same time as she exposes herself to contempt or laughter. While many critics dwell on the narrator’s desire for penance and the value of her ethical stance, Patrick Hayes raises a dissonant voice, considering her as a quixotic and grotesque figure.3 Although one may not entirely agree with Hayes’s analysis, his approach is a corrective to the temptation of turning Elizabeth Curren into a saintly figure. In this novel which is saturated with religious language, Coetzee binds together the figure of the saint and its parody, shedding a crude light on the paltry significance of the old woman’s abnegation and yet suggesting with genuine power that to give and to give oneself may be the only meaningful gesture in the circumstances. Exposing oneself to derision somehow comes with the acceptance of one’s vulnerability. Whatever the result, the impulse towards self-denial or the desire not to die ‘in a state of ugliness’ (136) cannot be said to be simply ridiculed.4

8The old lady is shorn of many illusions: at the same time as her body is breaking apart, her narrative is constantly turning itself against itself and its author inviting us to read her words not with her but in spite of her:

So I ask you: attend to the writing, not to me. If lies and pleas and excuses weave among the words, listen for them. Do not pass them over easily. Read all, even this adjuration with a cold eye […]. Do not read in sympathy with me. Let your heart not beat with mine. (104)

9By undermining her own narrative, Elizabeth Curren does not so much assert the possibility of baring a truth beneath the ‘lies’ as she suggests the existence of what she calls ‘a body of truth’ (130) which both presents itself and absents itself with every word she utters. Discourse is not dismantled so that a counter-discourse may emerge and its rewards reaped. It too obeys a logic of sacrifice which includes the recognition that there is no end to this sacrifice, an ‘economy’ which Jacques Derrida calls in Donner la Mort, ‘l’économie infinie et dissymétrique du sacrifice’ (145). What matters and makes sense (whether one holds the knife or the pen) is the gesture itself, the pure act of giving, outside all form of accounting and retribution. After Life and Times of Michael K and its provocative questioning of heroism, Age of Iron continues to express defiance towards what the narrator calls ‘a mystique of death’ (150). It maintains the existence of ‘something’ (106) that will not be solved by self-sacrifice: while deploring living in an age where mothers turn into ‘Spartan matron[s], iron-hearted, bearing warrior sons for the nation’ (50), Elizabeth Curren rejects her own impulse to indulge in an act of self-immolation, recognizing ‘something false about that impulse, deeply false, no matter to what rage or despair it answered’ (141). It is no coincidence that the man who remains with the old lady throughout the narrative (and is meant to remain after her) is Vercueil, the derelict alcoholic, a perfect instance of the ‘homo sacer’: a man who is utterly vulnerable, whose life could be easily taken but who is entirely removed from the ‘economy of sacrifice’.

  • 5 In the words of Derek Attridge who talks of ‘an experience in which unlearning is as important as l (...)

10Even as she speaks, Elizabeth Curren welcomes that which ‘cannot become a term in the system’, a remainder to language which testifies to the permanent dislocation which comes with the act of speaking. As she learns to ‘unlearn’5 and be displaced by her own words, the narrator potentially becomes the recipient rather than the author of her own text, but also its product, object or reject. In that respect, one can draw from the correspondence Agamben establishes at the beginning of Homo sacer between Aristotle’s opposition between bio and zoe on the one hand (life reduced to animality vs life in the polis), and phone and logos on the other hand (the voice which men and animals have in common vs articulated speech). In his study on voice, Mladen Dolar offers us a very clear comment on that correspondence:

Voice is like bare life, something that is supposedly exterior to the political, while logos is the counterpart of polis, of social life ruled by laws and the common good. But the whole point—the point of Agamben’s book—is of course that there is no such simple externality: the basic structure, the topology of the political, is for Agamben that of an ‘inclusive exclusion’ of naked life [...] This then, yet again, puts the voice in a most peculiar and paradoxical position: the topology of extimacy, the simultaneous inclusion/exclusion, which retains the excluded at its core. For what presents a problem is not that zoe is simply presocial, the animality, the outside of the social, but that it persists, in its very exclusion/inclusion, at the heart of the social—just as the voice is not simply an element external to speech, but persists at its core, making it possible and constantly haunting it by the impossibility of symbolizing it. And even more: the voice is not some remnant of a previous precultural state or some happy primordial fusion when we were not plagued by language and its calamities; rather it is the product of logos itself, sustaining and troubling it at the same time. (107)

11To shed light on the extimate or the remainder which persists both ‘at the heart of the social’ and ‘at the core of speech’, Dolar explores the twofold aspect of Lacan’s ‘objet a’: an ‘impossible’ object—not an object as such but an empty place, a haunting void which both sustains and challenges symbolisation. Objet a cannot, however, be reduced to a structural hole or a logical operator; it also needs to be approached phenomenologically as that ‘bodily missile which separates itself from the body and spreads around’ (Dolar 70), that cast-off which has the singular ability of turning into agalma or palea, treasure or reject. Dislocation does not simply challenge positions and places in Age of Iron, it is a bodily experience where the ethical encounter with what ‘cannot be refused’ (4) forces the subject to handle refuse in the most literal manner.

Exposure to Abjection

  • 6 That is also where the figure of the saint can be invoked. What Elizabeth Curren shares with the sa (...)

12The ‘body of truth’ which the narrator hopes her letters will carry, in spite of everything, can be seen both as the rock against which meaning is broken up and what remains in the wreckage. Mike Marais defines the encounter with alterity in Coetzee’s novels in the following terms: ‘Alterity is the excess of what I say when I try to represent the other; what is left over after signification has taken place. The other is what remains to be said’ (xii). But as Dolar insists, this ‘left-over’ which haunts language at every step possesses a corporeal dimension—the dimension of the sacer as object and abject. Age of Iron goes further than Coetzee’s other novels in exploring what could be also called after Bataille, ‘l’hétérologie de l’abject’. It insists that what we call in French ‘le monde’ cannot be accounted for without ‘l’immonde’.6 When she first spots Vercueil, Elizabeth Curren describes him as follows:

The first of the carrion birds, prompt, unerring. How long can I fend them off? The scavengers of Cape Town, whose number never dwindles. Who go bare and feel no cold. Who sleep outdoors and never sicken. Who starve and do not waste. Warmed from within by alcohol. The contagions and infections in their blood consumed in liquid flames. Cleaners-up after the feast. Flies, dry-winged, glazen-eyed, pitiless. My heirs. (5)

13At this point, however, the waste over which the carrion birds circle does only lie out in the streets. It is the old lady’s own body which has become painful and alien, a collection of spare parts which she now has to lug around:

What do I care for this body that has betrayed me? I look at my hand and see only a tool, a hook, a thing for gripping other things. And these legs, these clumsy stilts: why should I have to carry them with me everywhere? Why should I take them to bed with me night after night and pack them in under the sheets, and pack the arms too, higher up near the face, and lie there sleepless amid the clutter? The abdomen too, with its dead gurglings, and the heart beating, beating: why? What have they to do with me?
We sicken before we die so that we will be weaned from our body. (12–13)

  • 7 The text is very explicit in that respect: ‘To have fallen pregnant with these growths […]. How ter (...)

14The sickness which turns the body into a castoff of its former self is welcome here as it confirms the sense of a life reduced to waste in the cycle of violence in which it is caught: ‘My life may as well be waste. We shoot these people as if they are waste, but in the end it is we whose lives are not worth living’ (104). The stranger within, the cancer which started in the breast and has now moved to the bone or ‘the crab sitting inside licking its lips’ (112) turns into the grotesque inversion of a pregnancy7: this other body will not be delivered from the body of its mother for it is taking over and will cause her to be expelled from her own body.

15But for the old lady who is trying ‘to bare something’ as she speaks, the sense of abjection is felt most acutely in her handling of words—in the void in which they drop once they are spoken, especially when faced with somebody who gives resonance to their hollowness or their worthlessness. The object which Mike Marais calls ‘the excess of what I say’ (xii) takes a clear bodily form in front of Elizabeth Curren’s eyes right at the beginning, when she tries to lecture Vercueil and when he comes up with a wordless, but pretty clear response:

With a straight look, the first direct look he has given me, he spat a gob of spit, thick, yellow, streaked with brown from coffee, onto the concrete beside my foot. Then he thrust the mug at me and sauntered off.
The thing itself, I thought, shaken: the thing itself brought out between us. Spat not upon me, but before me, where I could see it, inspect it, think about it. His word, his kind of word, from his own mouth, warm at the instant when it left him. A word, undeniable, from a language before language. (8)

16In a narrative where language flows so easily, ‘the thing itself’ puts an end to any discussion. The text turns into a succession of short, broken, nominal sentences. The former teacher has lost her momentum. Unable to get over that ‘word’ which is no word, she almost stammers. This collapse of discourse in front of another language is what Elizabeth Curren exposes herself to once more when she is summoned to speak by the people of Guguletu, where, to say the least, she is not welcome. After her poor attempts at saying something, she is suddenly interrupted: ‘“This woman talks shit”, said a man in the crowd. He looked around. “Shit” he said. No one contradicted him.’ (99). But it is sometimes simply the silence which comes as a response to words which turns them into rejects, such as the silence of John, the boy Elizabeth Curren tracks down after going from one hospital to the next: ‘My words fell off him like dead leaves the moment they were uttered’ (79). While she multiplies comparisons and metaphors and relies heavily on allegory, the narrator keeps stumbling upon that ‘language before language’ (8) which interrupts the flow of her prose and yet forces her to have recourse to more images. At the same time, the ‘thing itself’ does form an alternative language, a body language to which the narrator finds herself resorting when she stands dumb and powerless in front of the officers patrolling Guguletu:

Under the eye of a boy in an olive rain cape I got out of the car, so cold in my wet clothes that I might as well have been naked.
I had hoped the words I needed would just come, but they did not. I held out my hands, palms upward. I am bereft my hands said, bereft of speech. (105)

17The raised hands, like the gob of spit which is ‘brought out between’ (8) the old lady and the tramp mark a failure, a fault line, and yet they do get ‘something’ across. ‘Bereavement’ is not simply the final punishment faced by someone paying for ‘a crime that was committed long ago’ (164). It is also somewhere from which to begin—an inheritance the mother is determined to pass on as she continues, right to the end, her long letter to her daughter.

Litter/Letters: Dispossession and Redistribution

  • 8 Not only is the reader very quickly led to infer such a correspondence, but the text is at times qu (...)

18The extimate, especially as it takes the form of the abject, does not just strip human relations and language of their veneer; it generates a collapse of semblance which makes it possible to rethink connections. Dispossession and dislocation become the means of remapping the body, in every respect an allegory of the body politic,8 a means of pushing ‘imaginary’ barriers to their limit without denying their existence. Paradoxes are reeled out throughout the narrative: ‘I trust Vercueil because I do not trust Vercueil. I love him because I do not love him’ (131). Or alternatively: ‘What I give [Vercueil] does not forgive me for giving’ (131). The stranger who finally lies next to the old woman is ‘I and not I’: ‘Why do I write about him? Because he is and is not I’ (9). And it is precisely because he is not the fellow-man in whom one may easily recognise oneself but the ‘neighbour’ who just happens to be there that Vercueil teaches Elizabeth the true meaning of love. Hence her insistence that he came ‘uninvited’ (91), that she never chose him: ‘I did not choose you, but you are the one who is here, and that will have to do. You arrived. It’s like having a child. You can’t choose the child. It just arrives’ (71).

19Irony must then partly be cast aside when we reread the first pages describing the arrival of the tramp as ‘this other annunciation’ (5), the first ‘annunciation’ being the news that the old lady’s body is host to what can only be compared to an obscene pregnancy. The need to remap the body and extend the meaning of love is accentuated by the fact that, as she writes, the memory of another body still lives inside Elizabeth Curren, the memory of ‘the flesh of her flesh’ (11), that daughter to whom she is pouring out her love on every page, ‘sniffing’ the air, ‘in the hope that across ten thousand miles of land and sea some breath will reach [her] of the milkiness [she] still carries with [her] behind [her] ears, in the fold of [her] neck’ (6):

So day by day I render myself into words and pack the words into the page like sweets: like sweets for my daughter, for her birthday, for the day of her birth. Words out of my body, drops of myself, for her to unpack in her own time, to take in, to suck, to absorb. (9)

20The sweets or the potion can be sour for it is no longer from the full motherly body, but from a wasted body that Elisabeth Curren is extracting some dregs. Besides, these words ‘vomited up from the belly of the whale’ (140) contain all the nastiness and the ugliness of a political struggle that Elizabeth’s daughter has run away from. And yet the letters are still a gift—a gift for which, once again, the mother expects nothing in return. To a certain extent, writing remains a way of holding on to something: the sweet memories of motherhood, or, equally, the last scraps of a vast body of knowledge, texts, and dead languages which has formed over the years and in which the former classicist regularly delves as she addresses her beloved daughter. But as she distributes these last bits and pieces, Elizabeth Curren also disposes of them, for it is the need to ‘let go’ which presides over the fate of the letters which enclose them:

These papers, these words that either you read now or else will never read. Will they reach you? Have they reached you? Two ways of asking the same question, a question to which I will never know the answer, never. To me this letter will forever be words committed to the waves; a message in a bottle with the stamps of the Republic of South Africa on it, and your name. (32)

21The letters might never arrive, as Elizabeth Curren has entrusted Vercueil, the man she cannot trust and who ‘will make no promise’ (32), to post them after her death. They might never leave in the first place, but rather, in the hands of the vagrant, get scattered, left in a corner and forgotten, become litter among the litter. Finally, the most flimsy part of her body that the narrator is sending across is her voice, a reject of the live voice erased by the written text, all the more so as the only thing that can ever reach her daughter (and the reader, for that matter) is a voice from beyond the grave.

22To write is not to exchange, it is not even exactly to share but perhaps to return what one only holds in share. One may remember the moment when the old lady struggles to close the wound of John, the Black boy, feeling she must ‘stop the flow’ (63):

Why? I ask myself now. And I answer: Because blood is precious, more precious than gold and diamonds. Because blood is one: a pool of life dispersed among us in separate existences, but belonging by nature together: lent not given: held in common, in trust, to be preserved: seeming to live in us, but only seeming, for in truth we live in it. (63–64)

23If dispossession turns out to be precious, it might be because it is the only way to learn the true meaning of giving which is to give what one does not have, what is only ‘lent’. The same goes with words. The narrator in Age of Iron constantly questions and belittles what she offers us: remembering the boy bleeding on the pavement, she exclaims: ‘How thin, by comparison, my bleeding onto the paper here’ (137). And yet she does hang on to the existence, beyond herself, of a ‘body of truth’ which must ‘take on flesh’ (130)—a truth, we may conceive, which she does not own but ‘in which she lives’.

  • 9 ‘La démocratie est proprement le régime de l’écriture, le régime où l’errance de la lettre orphelin (...)
  • 10 ‘This letter has become a maze, and I a dog in a maze […] God is looking for me but he cannot reach (...)

24Among the various things which the old lady and the tramp share after all, we find the three letters which form the beginning of Curren, ‘c-u-r’, and which are to be found in the name of Vercueil in a different order, ‘r-c-u’. As Jacques Rancière suggests, once detached from their origin and orphaned, words can circulate in a ‘democratic manner’9; whilst remaining ‘mute’, the letter can be made to talk in many different ways, it becomes hospitable to various meanings. The ‘cur’ which brings the two characters together can be read as another name for the ‘dog in the maze’, a literal avatar of a ‘God’ who is just ‘another dog in another maze’10: short of anything else, it is as two curs, two castaways / cast-offs that the characters finally come together in their cold ‘embrace’ (196). Alternatively, in a novel which takes the form of a long meditation on the heart, and considering Coetzee’s knowledge of French, we can hear in the ‘cur’ that cœur in which the narrator desperately tries to find a remainder of hope (interestingly one of the few organs that cannot be affected by cancer)—the word which she likes to imagine as the root for caritas:

What is the point of charity when it does not go from heart to heart? […] Charity: from the Latin word for heart. It is as hard to receive as to give […] A lie, charity has nothing to do with the heart. But what does it matter if my sermons rest on false etymologies? (22)

25We can also decide that with this ‘c-u-r’ the text, which otherwise constantly weaves its way between the literal and the metaphoric, grounds itself in the materiality of a mere few letters, stripped of all semblance of meaning. The letter inscribes on the page something which is shared in silence—in spite of everything that can or cannot be shared—something which connects the two characters before Vercueil arrives and after Elizabeth Curren dies. ‘Dispersed among us in separate existences’, the letter is ‘precious’, ‘held in common, held in trust’, it is to be ‘preserved’ (63–64). In order to do so, it must nevertheless be allowed to go and journey freely. At the risk of getting lost, it must be ‘committed to the waves’ (32).

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Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 1995, trans. Daniel Heller Roazen, Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1998.

Attridge, Derek, J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading, Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2004.

Bataille, Georges, Œuvres Complètes, Paris: Gallimard, 1972.

Coetzee, J. M., Life and Times of Michael K (1983), London: Vintage, 1998.

Coetzee, J. M., Age of Iron (1990), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998.

Dolar, Mladen, A Voice and Nothing More, Cambridge, MA.: MIT P, 2006.

Derrida, Jacques, Donner la mort, Paris: Galilée, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques, De l’hospitalité, Anne Dufourmantelle invite Jacques Derrida à répondre, Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1997.

Hayes, Patrick, J.M. Coetzee and the Novel. Writing and Politics After Beckett, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, Dedans, Dehors, Paris: Seuil, 2010.

Marais, Mike, Secretary of the Invisible. The Idea of Hospitality in the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009.

Rancière, Jacques, La Parole Muette, Paris: Hachette, 1998.

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1 ‘Bare life remains included in politics in the form of exception, that is, as something that is included solely through an exclusion’ (Agamben 11).

2 ‘Disons oui, à l’arrivant, avant toute détermination, avant toute anticipation, avant toute identification’ (Derrida 1997, 73).

3 ‘Both Elizabeth and Don Quixote are old-fashioned fools confronting a reality that, conceived metafictionally in terms of literary genre, has no time for them and their assumptions’ (134). Hayes also sees Elizabeth as ‘a parody of the epistolary heroine’, ‘a Pamela grown old, sexless and hopeless’ (142).

4 To continue the discussion with Hayes, one may stress the blindness of the heroine, but her impulse is towards blind self-denial rather than blind assertion.

5 In the words of Derek Attridge who talks of ‘an experience in which unlearning is as important as learning’ (92).

6 That is also where the figure of the saint can be invoked. What Elizabeth Curren shares with the saint is the fact that there is ultimately no outrage to which she and any remaining ideal will not be exposed, no sublime sacrifice which does not include the need to face one’s own abjection. The tension which binds the sublime and the abject is conversely what keeps the character at a distance from the perverse temptation of abjection.

7 The text is very explicit in that respect: ‘To have fallen pregnant with these growths […]. How terrible when motherhood reaches a point of parodying itself’ (64).

8 Not only is the reader very quickly led to infer such a correspondence, but the text is at times quite explicit in this respect: ‘I have lived too long. Death by fire the only decent death left. To walk into the fire […] to leave the world clean. Monstrous growths, misbirths: a sign that one is beyond one’s term. This country too: time for fire, time for an end, time for what grows out of ash to grow’ (65).

9 ‘La démocratie est proprement le régime de l’écriture, le régime où l’errance de la lettre orpheline fait loi’ (84).

10 ‘This letter has become a maze, and I a dog in a maze […] God is looking for me but he cannot reach me. God is another dog in another maze’ (137–138).

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Pascale Tollance, « Dispossession and Dislocation in J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2017, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Pascale Tollance

Pascale Tollance is Professor of English at Université Lumière–Lyon 2 (France). She has written extensively on British/Canadian author Malcolm Lowry, as well as on British contemporary authors such as Graham Swift, Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Angela Carter, and Rachel Seiffert. She is the author of a book on Graham Swift (Graham Swift. La Scène de la voix. Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2011) which focuses on the staging of voice in Swift’s fiction. She also works on the relation between text and image and has published with Laurence Petit two collections of articles on punctuation (Point, Dot, Period… The Dynamics of Punctuation in Text and Image and Photographic Text(ure): The Grain and the Dot). She is on the editorial board of L’Atelier, has co-edited vol. 5.1 (Survivance) and 6.2. (La Transmission). Her interests include post-colonial literatures (with publications on Janet Frame, Alice Munro and J.M. Coetzee).

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