In 1880, Turgenev visited Tolstoy at his country estate after a long period of estrangement, only to discover that the great novelist had, in the interim, renounced art in favour of ethical enquiry. Turgenev was appalled, and dashed off a letter complaining that
I, for instance, am considered an artist. But what am I compared to him? In contemporary European literature he has no equal … But what is one to do with him. He has plunged headlong into another sphere … He has a trunk full of these mystical ethics and various pseudo-interpretations. He has read me some of it, which I do not understand … I told him, ‘That is not the real thing’; but he replied ‘It is just the real thing’.
The reader of Diary of a Bad Year should be forgiven a similar perplexity. J.M. Coetzee has used his formidable skills to produce a novel whose overriding concern with ‘the real thing’ also plunges it into a sphere outside of art. Given a main narrative that purports to be a work of non-fiction by the author of Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), one that battles quixotically with a world gone awry, and in a manner not so far removed from Coetzee’s own public efforts, it is hard to escape the connection with Tolstoy’s didactic period: a time when the author’s ethical impulses – the agonising question of how to live well – overwhelmed aesthetic ones, in what the critic Philip Rahv called a ‘willful inflation of the idea of moral utility at the expense of the values of the imagination’.