“Diary of a Bad Year” by J. M. Coetzee

Diary of a Bad Year” by J. M. Coetzee  (2007) – 227 pages

What to make of this novel?  It is surely unique in its design.  Each page is divided into three parts. The top third of each page is given over to opinions that the main character, affectionately named Senor C by his typist Anya, is writing as part of a compilation book for a German publisher.  The middle part of each page is Senor C’ thinking about Anya.  The bottom part of each page has Anya’s thoughts about Senor C and about her boyfriend Alan.    So if you read this book the traditional way, page by page, there is no continuity whatsoever.

I will discuss each of the three parts of this novel separately.  First will be the top of the page and the opinions of Senor C (Coetzee?).  “Diary of a Bad Year” was published in 2007, and thus many of the strong opinions are about “the war on terror”.  “To the bullying, authoritarian, militaristic strand in western political life,” he writes, “the bogeyman” Osama bin Laden “has been a gift from the gods”.  I found myself largely in agreement with his opinions, but Senor C is a very serious fellow.  I found the opinions somewhat lacking in humor or originality.  I would have struggled with this book if it were entirely these.  I was expecting fiction.

The second part of each page is Senor C’s thinking regarding Anya.  He first sees her in the laundry room where he first notices her short skirt and “a derriere so near to perfect to be angelic”, and he convinces her to become his typist.  If you’ve read “Summertime”, you will know that J. M. Coetzee is merciless when it comes to making fun of himself   I enjoy this humorous aspect of his writing; it lightens things up.

The bottom part of each page is Anya’s.  She knows what effect “my delicious behind” has on Senor C.  It is her boyfriend Alan who has all these schemes to get Senor C’s money either by suing him or by defrauding him.  Senor C, being an intellectual, pays scant attention to his finances, and Alan sees a perfect opportunity. 

Anya does have an effect on the opinions Senor C is writing.  The book starts with all of these strong strident opinions of Senor C, but they change to softer opinions as the book progresses.

Back to the original question, what to make of this book.  I must say I much preferred “Summertime” which is my favorite Coetzee book so far.  “Diary of a Bad Year” certainly gets bonus points for its original design, but it did make for a severely disjointed book. The expressed opinions of Senor C did not completely intrigue me, and I thought the fictional story of Senor C, his typist Anya, and her boyfriend Alan was somewhat routine also. .

7 responses to this post.

  1. Ah Tony, I haven’t read Summertime yet, though it’s in the pile. I have read (and reviewed) this though – early in my blog. You can find it in the Index Authors page if you are interested. I loved the challenge of reading it. I think you do need to read the pages concurrently (well, as much as you can – I would read one strand to a point on the next page that I thought I could stop, then go back and read the next strand similarly, and then go back and read the bottom strand. A lot of page turning but I think the point was to show us different reflections on the world – theoretcial, pragmatic and rational. A fascinating book, really (I thought).


  2. Hi WhisperingGums,
    I read your review, and, not being a classical music fan, I completely missed the associations with Bach. I also missed how the interactions betweem Senor C, Anya, and Alan had anything to do with his strong opinions. I suppose I would have liked “Diary of a Bad Year” a lot better if I had read it before “Summertime” which is my all-time favorite Coetzee. So it goes.


  3. I am holding this Coetzee for later. I almost picked it up when it came out. I waited and waited. Now I think I want to start nearer the beginning and work through his novels that way. (And I recall Whispering’s review which further intrigued me, both with respect to this book and to Coetzee generally. Of course, I already loved Coetzee, but still…..)


  4. Hi Kerry,
    Unlike you, I have not been a big fan of Coetzee; he’s always seemed a little too dour and serious for my tastes, so “Summertime” was a pleasant surpirse for me, because it showed he had a sense of humor about himself. That sense of humor about himself was there in “Diary of a Bad Year”, but if anything it seemed to undermine his serious dour opinions.


  5. The structure of this book is odd, isn’t it? I remember being completely thrown by it, and wasn’t sure how to read it. Page by page, or narrative thread by narrative thread.


  6. Hi Kimbofo,
    Yes, the structure is odd indeed. I wound up reading it page by page, unless one narrative thread continued onto the next page in the middle of the same sentence. I saw this novel as an experiment with only so-so results.


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