‘Why should I be expected to rise above my times? Is it my doing that my times have been so shameful? Why should it be left to me, old and sick and full of pain, to lift myself out of this pit of disgrace?’
These are the words of Mrs Curren, the elderly narrator of J.M. Coetzee’s under-appreciated mid-period novel Age of Iron (1990), but it would be easy enough to find similarly anguished sentiments being expressed by the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), or Dostoevsky in The Master of Petersburg (1994), or David Lurie in Disgrace (1996), or the eponymous protagonist of Elizabeth Costello (2003). It has long been apparent that there is a recognisable Coetzeean type, who appears in various guises in his many novels. These characters tend to be educated products of their relatively privileged social positions. They are conscious of the pain and injustice in the world, conscious of their own suffering, and conscious of their impotence in the face of overmastering contexts. Their common instinct is to philosophise about these problems. Many ironies, gruelling and subtle, arise from their desire for redemption and their simultaneous awareness of its impossibility, not least of which is that their penchant for metaphysical high-mindedness has a distinct tendency – on display in Mrs Curren’s lament – to bend back on itself in a way that resembles self-absorption or even self-pity.