The first thing to be said about The Schooldays of Jesus is that like its predecessor, The Childhood of Jesus (of which it is the continuation), this new book is remarkably odd. The second thing to say is that like its precursor it is a masterpiece: it comes across as Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two does, despite naysayers, as the second part of the same masterpiece. And who could ever have imagined that J.M. Coetzee, the celebrated South African Nobel Prize winner who expatriated himself to Adelaide as if its sandstone and the symmetrical grid of its cityscape were the recapitulation of a kindred colonialism, should now be writing what are essentially—or at any rate incidentally—parables about the lost childhood of some chosen child called Davíd, like a teasing joke of genealogy, who is somehow (the title seems to suggest) the Messiah, the Christ Child, whose ego is the sum of all the becauses in the world, and every high priest will rip up his garments in awe either at the blasphemy of it all or because this is the apparition of the shadow of the Most High.
It’s a strange intimation, if that’s what it is, of late Coetzee, who had seemed to reach a terminus beyond fabulation if by that we mean the racketing drama, the life and blood flow and colour of traditional narrative. We know what this was like in Disgrace, the novel about the English literature don who has to quit the university because of an affair with a student and who experiences the enormity of contemporary post-apartheid South Africa at its rawest and most confronting when he has to deal with his daughter having been raped. John Malkovich is in the essentially Australian film of Disgrace, and though the film is only a shadow of the book it points to the power of a novel that is vibrant with the ambivalences of politics and the horrors and heartbreaks it can entail.
It’s after Disgrace that the author of The Life and Times of Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians and The Master of Petersburg, the Dostoyevsky novel, seems to give up on the luminously articulated drama that descends from the great Russian tragedian like a destiny.
Late Coetzee, Australian Coetzee, is much more indirect and subtle, much more ludic in its strategies and inclined to stare in bewilderment or irony at the mysteries of the self. Some people can’t abide Elizabeth Costello, which seems a marvel of a book to me with its tongues of fire, its dislocations and bitsiness, its deliberate blurring of the lines between a character who is the distinguished Melbourne-born novelist Elizabeth Costello and the spectre of John Coetzee with whom she shares an opinion or two and an eminence. Elizabeth Costello also appears as a familiar compound ghost in Slow Man.
There is in the later Coetzee no falling off in powers but there is a fiddling with the mechanics of narrative, an artiness that is unashamed and plays ring-a-ring-a-rosy with the algebras and decorums of technique. Think of Diary of a Bad Year, the novel about the dirty old man and the girl, which allows you to read its disjunctive narratives every which way and out of a pattern of potentially coordinated narratives creates a hypothetical unity that is going to vary from reader to reader like a collage, a bit, indeed, like Charles Marowitz’s Hamlet, which reduces the tragedy to the play of its different signifiers (by playing around with the order of the lines) without any determination to make sense, without a familiar through line. Although Diary of a Bad Year does have a through line. It’s just a dramatisation of the fact that in reading, as in table-making according to Dr Johnson, it doesn’t matter which part you read (or, if you are a carpenter, make) first.
And so it goes. Late Coetzee, while less palpably dramatic—less traditional in its beginnings, middles and ends—is full of feeling and drama, comedy and poignancy. Summertime is an overt joke on the death of the author and is a quest for a shadowy, unbearable character called J.M. Coetzee. But then there is the overwhelming emotional quality—lifelike in its intensity and you suspect in its origin—which depicts the illness of the author’s father. It is strange meat, some of it raw, some of it refined beyond a lot of palettes but not a diminution in seriousness; nor, by and large, in its ambition, its formal intensity, or (if you insist) in the moral power of its implications.
But this fiction of the shadowlines, this playing with the everyday as well as with the lineations of the mundane, the preoccupations with the ways we can capture life by the game of being literary, the ways in which art may yield stories and feelings that outstare the satisfactions of mere storytelling have not been things that would allow us to predict these fable-like representations of an older man, Simón, the young boy Davíd, and the adoptive mother Inés. These two Jesus books are weird, grave, plangent, and they move with the starkness and the speed of fable. And then there are the titles—The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus. Of whom? as Buck Mulligan might have asked. Part of the game surely when it comes to this work is to highlight the power and glory, but also the mystery of that name, the name of the second person of the Blessed Trinity when it’s made integral to a book. Jesus indeed.
When Joyce met the young Nabokov at a party once, he said that the superstructure of Homeric correspondences in Ulysses was simply ‘an advertisement for the book’, and Hugh Kenner—the coolest intellect among his interpreters—said that if you suppressed the title and all the guff Joyce told Stuart Gilbert and someone tried to argue that the book was dominated by the idea of the figure of Odysseus also known as Ulysses, the smart Ithacan who devised the Trojan horse and wandered long years trying to get back to his wife Penelope, buffeted and assailed by monsters and by every sea, it’s not hard to imagine how definitive the counter-arguments would seem.
So ‘Jesus’ is at some level a trick of staging, a trick of lighting. Almost—not quite—an arbitrary haloing of symbolic significance, one that might be deemed (if you were feeling the insinuation of irony) an advertisement for the book, though not one that the author would have any cause to deplore. According to Alfred Appel’s report of Nabokov’s remembered conversation, Joyce said that calling the Bloomsday book Ulysses (or at any rate allowing Gilbert to carry on about the Homeric correspondences, bearing in mind that Joyce suppressed at the last minute the Homeric chapter headings criticism has never been able to do without—‘Penelope’, ‘Calypso’ and all the rest of them) was ‘a terrible mistake’. Would we view The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus differently if these books about a boy who is a being of wonder (but also just a boy, whatever ‘just’ means) if they came with chapter headings such as ‘The Flight to Egypt’ or ‘Preaching in the Temple’? I have no idea what headings you might attach to which parts but if you proceeded with the same free hand and symbolistic indirection as Joyce did, with Hades for the funeral although no Achilles says he’d rather have bare life than be lord of all the underworld, you could probably create a lot of potential interpretive fireworks. So why not the titles?
The central characters, the Joseph figure Simón and the boy Davíd as well as Ana Magdalena (the Madonna by default who shares a name with Bach’s second wife), are in a Spanish-speaking world and the epigraph to the new book The Schooldays of Jesus is in the Spanish of Cervantes and comes from the second part of Don Quixote, that story of the spirit of Christ reborn as foolery. And in the Spanish-speaking world it is not altogether uncommon for a child to be called Jesus.
All of which makes us ask where on earth we’ve encountered the figure of Christ represented directly or indirectly or in ghostly outline in literature or drama. Visual art, of course, is too rich for enumeration, from Piero della Francesca’s radiant geometries in his Resurrection through the terrifyingly dead God of Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, the art of the Renaissance and its aftermath is dazzlingly rich in its infinite variety of images of Christ and, indeed, of the Child Jesus. Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, is there to be seen through every phase of innocence and maturity.
And it’s there too, differently and more diffidently, in the movies that we have made about the life of Christ, which range from the silent Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings to the remake in 1960 with Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and the great Pegeen Mike and Saint Joan and Molly Bloom, Siobhan McKenna as the great Mother of God Mary Most Holy, with Hurd Hatfield (the forties famous Dorian Gray) as Pilate, with Robert Ryan of the noir classics as John the Baptist and Australia’s own Frank Thring as Herod, who apparently had a fling with the Son of Man and is supposed to have said—this is, after all, an area where everyone prints the legend—‘He’s a fucking awful Christ, but Christ he can fuck.’
There’s also Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth made for British television with the English classical actor Robert Powell (who would later play Richard Hannay) as a very beautiful and beautifully spoken Christ and with lots of psalms and Hebrew stuff to satisfy the Jewish producer Lew Grade. Between them there was The Greatest Story ever Told, which had the apparition of a very great actor as Christ, Ingmar Bergman’s Max von Sydow, and it included at least one sequence by a great director because David Lean anonymously did the raising of Lazarus with von Sydow staring into the lens with great intensity and tears in his eyes as he tells Lazarus to come forth.
Great directors have certainly put their signature to scripture. There is, after all, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, dedicated to John XXIII, which must be the greatest Jesus masterpiece to come out of Italy since the seventeenth century, which feels eerily like a great social realist doco by someone who did some intimate travelling, some spiritual journeying with the Man himself. As truly evangelical a work of art as the world has seen—in its way as much so as the great Bach oratorio to which it pays tribute—because it offers a parallel universe to Matthew and a palimpsest and it uses his words, almost only his words, like a found object or an oral history.
And then there’s Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, his version of Kazantsakis’s Christ Recrucified with Willem Dafoe, which comes across like a massive footnote to a post-Christian world. Just as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, with its black German legends and its massive insertion of an Ur-Gospel story in the Aramaic we do not have (though it is the language, or one of them, that Jesus would have spoken). And then in a category almost by itself there is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (famously done in Australia and London by Jim Sharman when he was almost a boy), which is one of those musicals that remembers the classic through the lens of famous films (as Oliver! was made possible by the David Lean – Alec Guinness Oliver Twist and My Fair Lady by the Asquith – Leslie Howard – Wendy Hiller Pygmalion).
We have what is arguably Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest and catchiest tune, Mary Magdalene’s lament of longing, ‘I Don’t Know how to Love Him’. It comes with Tim Rice’s beautiful simple litany of a lyric, ‘I’ve had so many men before in many different ways, he’s just one more.’ So sixties, so forlorn, so erotic and so wasted.
I don’t know how to love him. Well, who does? It’s been the perennial lament of churchling and agnostic down the ages. Is some answer to that question—at some farfetched corner of allegorisation—to be found in these late strange novels of a boy and a man who looks after him with love and wisdom in these novels set in some Australia of the mind writ Hispanic by this South African who was educated a lifetime ago by the Marist Brothers?
What literary scribblings has the world added to scripture when it comes to Jesus? I’ve read Norman Mailer’s turgid Christ story, The Gospel According to the Son, and remember nothing about it. It was Jewish, it was conflicted, it was (to imitate Leonard Cohen) just some Jacob wrestling with an angel.
As a child I was aware of the fact that Dorothy L. Sayers, the inventor of Lord Peter Wimsey and the translator of Dante, had written a set of radio plays about the life of Christ that had been broadcast by the BBC during the war and in which Jesus had been played by the English actor Robert Speaight, who created the role of Becket in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, and whom I’d seen as a child in the JC Williamson production of A Man for All Seasons at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre.
The Man Born to Be King is an impressive enough cycle of radio plays with a plausible colloquial script that avoids all grandeurs of King James Reformation/Renaissance reverberation (perhaps needlessly), but it comes with Sayers’ very elaborately argued notes on her intentions and the matter she was dramatising, which are critically brilliant and are as learned and vivid a suite of intellectual essays, full of religious and aesthetic insights, as anyone could wish for, and have the coherence that comes from Sayers’ very lucid holistic Anglo-Catholic perspective. If you want the greatness of the Jesus story told by a believer who adheres to the faith in its literal truth and who has all the learning in the world, who knows her Aramaic and her Koine and every other kind of Greek and wants to make sense of the story she has had to dramatise as a serial (made out of semi-separate plays) for a mass audience that is also deemed to be a religiously and a gen-erally literate audience, very much in keeping with the Reith model, Sayers is superb.
I have a remote memory of the religious bestseller The Greatest Story ever Told, which I read as a young teenager, which is confined almost entirely to its penultimate moment. Jesus has just died on the cross and Annas, the sidekick and second-in-command among the high priestly villains, has been watching the spectacle and has heard Jesus give his great cry, the only words of the New Testament in anything like Hebrew or Aramaic: Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Annas turns to his companion Caiaphas, the great cynical intellect among Jesus’ enemies, the one who anticipates Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor by saying, ‘It is expedient that one man die for the sake of the nation.’ Annas says to him jeeringly, ‘Ha, so the would-be Messiah has died in despair realising all his dreams have come to nothing!’ Caiaphas turns to him in cold fury and says, ‘You absolute ninny. You fool. Do you not know that it is written that when the Messiah comes he will die saying just those words?’
In other words, the archvillain, the man who would live in infamy because he declared they should sacrifice the Son of Man for the sake of the general good, is conceding, shaken and bitter, just what the Roman centurion admitted on his knees: this was indeed the Son of God. It’s a more than 50-year-old memory but it stays in the mind more than anything in Mailer.
Not much except for a great sense of drama and strangeness stays in the mind about one of the most distinguished of all Jesus stories or jump offs, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. This is the great Soviet novel that follows in the wake of Gogol and uses a two-time structure with great seductiveness to jump between the world of Stalin and of the sinister felines of the world of Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator, who washed his hands and said he was ‘innocent of the death of this just person’; who asked ‘What is truth?’ and sneered ‘Am I a Jew?’ and who said ‘What I have written I have written’ after the high priests objected to the inscription above the cross, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
One of the most striking things about The Master and Margarita, as I recall, is that it works a lot of Russian ostranenie, the process of making it strange, articulated by Victor Shklovsky, on the figure of the hook-nosed prophet Pilate has to cope with. He is as it were historicised—almost as he was by the learned Irish biblical scholar who depicted him as a Mediterranean peasant—as a rather homely unheroic-looking Jew, which immediately, at one stroke, defamiliarises and deconstructs the sense of destiny, or heroism of Jesusness: it’s a kind of Life of Brian strategy.
The childhood of Jesus, let alone the schooling, are gaps in the Gospel accounts: we pretty much jump from Simeon saying ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’ to the moment when Mary and Joseph come upon the young Jesus, at 12 or so, disputing among the scribes of the Law and he says to them, ‘Know you not I must be about my father’s business’ to the moment when John the Baptist hails the One who is coming, the One whose shoe he is unworthy to untie, the 30-year-old Jesus whom he baptises and of whom the great voice speaks from on high, ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’ The childhood of Jesus is not unknown to mythology, however, nor to the human imagination. There are accounts of Jesus as a child among the Apocrypha, ‘Infancy’ Gospels in which he cures girls of leprosy and snakebites and, at various points, people are falling dead around him at his great power. Here is a representative part of one of them:
13 And when they were come to the nest, the Lord Jesus said to the boys, Is this the serpent’s lurking place? They said, It was. 14 Then the Lord Jesus calling the serpent, it presently came forth and submitted to him; to whom he said, Go and suck out all the poison which thou hast infused into that boy; 15 So the serpent crept to the boy, and took away all its poison again. 16 Then the Lord Jesus cursed the serpent so that it immediately burst asunder, and died. 17 And he touched the boy with his hand to restore him to his former health; 18 And when he began to cry, the Lord Jesus said, Cease crying, for hereafter thou shalt be my disciple; 19 And this is that Simon the Canaanite, who is mentioned in the Gospel.
These apocryphal narratives have a disconcerting quality because they exist in effortless, presumable Victorian or Edwardian, pastiches of the Authorised Version’s style while obviously sounding a bit folkloric and hokey so that their lack of familiarity (Jesus was not a boy hero and if he were he wouldn’t have been playing sinister magic tricks) becomes quite ambiguous and seasawing because that chronicling cadenced style fits easefully enough into a traditional diction immemorially associated with the word of God.
These stories must also in a sanitised and embellished version be the origin of the childhood of Jesus stories I encountered as a young child in the 1950s and that came with coloured ink drawings of a cute cherubic Jesus running around in a Palestinian headdress and performing miracles, I think, which I also seem to recall had the quality of adventures in the process of retelling. I have no idea whether these boy Jesus stories would prove to be cloying or off-putting if they were encountered again, a lifetime later, though it would hardly be surprising if they did. I do recall though that they were enchanting for children and that they had an uncanny quality because the boy Jesus was someone you identified with and were also aware of as the master of the universe.
The retellings must have been highly skilled in playing on and invoking the sympathies of the reader while also playing with the mysteries that were sacred and came from on high. Then again children are adept at identifying with all manner of heroes and heroines, ancient and modern, and there have always been people who were good at presenting them in an accessible idiom—Odysseus and David, Sir Lancelot and Ivanhoe, right down to the current crop of superheroes (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, etc.) are not simply seen at a distance, whatever their grandeur in the mightiest and most panoramic, the most cosmic field of battle.
They always say that if you put a detective in a monk’s cowl, as Eco did, or if your good woman or your wise woman is in a nun’s habit, you will add unusual lustre. So calling a kid Jesus—or rather insinuating that might be his real name, or destiny—is a hell of a shtick if you can get away with it.
The new novel by J.M. Coetzee, The School-days of Jesus, continues the story of the child looked after by a man (not his real father) and by a woman who takes maternal responsibility for him. It is a gravely told wonder of a book, which uses the form of something that might be a parable and is also akin to the sort of fabulism once thought of as magical realism to tell a story that plays with our deeper feelings and is at the same time always in reach of the far stretches of fancy. It is the tale of the boy wonder, Davíd, whom the older man Simón loves and looks after, in the environs of a dancing school that also seems to be the nursery of the thaumaturgical, of a magic that the narrative works to make as normal as rain.
When he told the sisters the boy was having dreams of Ana Magdalena, it was less than the whole truth. In all their time together, first with him, then with Inés, the boy had been able to fall asleep at night without a fuss, to sleep deeply and wake up bright and full of energy. But since the discovery in the basement of the museum there has been a change. Now he regularly appears at Inés’ bedside during the night, or at his bedside when he is visiting him, whimpering, complaining of bad dreams. In his dreams Ana Magdalena appears to him, blue from head to foot and carrying a baby which is ‘tiny, tiny, tiny, as tiny as a pea’; or else she opens her hand and the baby is revealed in her palm, curled up like a little blue slug.
He tries his best to console the boy, ‘Ana Magdalena loved you very much,’ he says. ‘That is why she visits you in your dreams, She comes to say goodbye and to tell you not to have any more dark thoughts because she is at peace in the next life.’ (Text edition, 2016, pp. 144–5)
This is a breathtaking style because it has such sobriety yet it is forever showing wonders. The story Coetzee unfolds in The Schooldays of Jesus has a logic like that of a dreamscape even though everything in the book is emotionally coherent, despite the wildness or, if you like, the improbability of its action.
Davíd now has a scholarship from the rich old sisters to study at the Academy of Dance, even though this Estrella (which sounds suspiciously like a Hispanic slurring of Australia) seems less intent on the patterned movement of feet than on the mathematics that makes the world move. And throughout all this is the uncanniness of the fact that Davíd is both a child and something else, and this aspect of the mythology of the book, the way it is just a bit like a Shakespearean romance, is conveyed with great care and precision, as if the measures of realism, rendered bare and minimal, could transmit a music that might move the spheres:
Inés gives a snort of exasperation. Though his heart is not in it, he, Simón, takes up the baton. ‘It doesn’t matter how special we are, Davíd, there are certain things we all have to sit down and learn. We have to learn to read—and I don’t mean read just one book—other-wise we won’t know what is going on in the world. We have to be able to do sums, otherwise we won’t be able to handle money. I think Inés also has in mind—correct me if I am wrong, Inés—that we need to learn good habits like self-discipline and respect for the opinion of others.’
‘I do know what is going on in the world,’ says the boy. ‘You are the one who doesn’t know what is going on in the world.’ (p. 197)
We always feel or half feel that Davíd was born to be king and, more particularly, that he must be about his father’s business, even though one of the most striking aspects of The Schooldays of Jesus is the quiet authority and wisdom of the Joseph figure, the substitute father Simón. He is the character who may not at any moment know how to love Davíd, but who knows he does. At times The Schooldays of Jesus has an odd, unearthly pedagogic quality that is a little like Plato and a little like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
It comes across as a fabulation of a writer’s sense of truth. It has the strange whereof-we-cannot-speak aspect of Shakespeare’s late plays, and there is a quality of the novel (this very fable-like novel, which nonetheless employs no economy of formulas) that gives it the air of a book of wisdom, although Coetzee is pretty obviously playing with the idea in this book—like its predecessor The Childhood of Jesus—that this will be seen as an act of aesthetic dotage, in the same way that Lytton Strachey (and long before him Ben Jonson) saw Shakespeare’s last plays.
These two novels about the chosen child are characterised by the blanched precision of their style and the weird exuberance of their narrative licence. They take place in a nowhere world, at once Hispanic and desert-like, and they have a fairytale quality that is at the same time programmatic and under tight control. In one way they allow any bright narrative idea to gleam like a coin that has caught the sun and yet the remarkable thing is how coherent and full of feeling the fictional outcome is.
J.M. Coetzee is one of the greatest masters of fiction alive and in his Jesus sequence he deploys a style that is apparently plain but nonetheless works to create effects that are grave and still and spellbinding. The Schooldays of Jesus—now there’s a contradiction worth riding—is set, like its predecessor, in an imaginary world with a fundamental resemblance to the real one and the one honoured by realist fiction, which is nonetheless skeletal and in a broadly symbolic and structural sense flexible enough to accommodate any audacity or improbability conventionally considered that the author wants to twist it with. It is in other words a world that other people can leave—terminally, pursued by bears—where oracles might give sudden wise judgements, and figures might rise from the dead and statues come alive.
All this seems possible because the narrative voice and the voices of the dialogue have a vibrancy that can defy the logic of expositional expectation in a way that it’s not absurd to compare to Shakespeare’s late notably free verse, which allows him to contract Othellos into compressed spaces and where children can sound like the voice of god.
The dialogue can sound like this:
‘Do you have passions, Inés?’ asks the boy.
‘That is none of your business,’ says Inés.
‘Why don’t you ever want to talk to me?’ says the boy. ‘Simón talks to me.’
‘I do talk to you,’ says Inés. ‘But not about private matters. Now brush your teeth.’
And the action—at a climactic moment—can unfold like this:
Without a word the boy slips off his shoes. Joaquín and Damian make way; in silence he begins his dance. Arroyo watches, eyes narrowed in concentration, then raises the flute to his lips. The melody he plays is right and just and true; yet even he, Simón, can hear that it is the dancer who leads and the master who follows. From some buried memory the words pillar of grace emerge, surprising him, for the image he holds to, from the football field, is of the boy as a compact bundle of energy. But now, on the stage of the Institute, Ana Magdalena’s legacy reveals itself. As if the earth has lost its downward power, the boy seems to shred all bodily weight, to become pure light. The logic of the dance eludes him entirely, yet he knows that what is unfolding before him is extraordinary; and from the hush that falls in the auditorium he guesses that the people of Estrella find it extraordinary too.
The numbers are integral and sexless, said Ana Magdalena; their ways of loving and conjugating are beyond our comprehension. Because of that, they can be called down only by sexless beings. Well, the being who dances before them is neither child nor man, boy nor girl; he would even say neither body nor spirit. Eyes shut, mouth open, rapt, Davíd floats through the steps with such fluid grace that time stands still. Too caught up even to breathe, he, Simon, whispers to himself: Remember this!
The action is simple and absurd, a dream sketch of a story that aims to contain and display multitudes. Davíd, the child, is placed by the older man Simón and the elected older woman, Inés, in a school. He has turned seven so he is enrolled in a school of dancing that also doubles as a school of music and is in any case somewhat enigmatically intent on teaching its pupils about the mystery of numbers, the deep science of a music that can move the stars.
If that sounds like remote memories of Pythagorean mumbo-jumbo it doesn’t matter because The Schooldays of Jesus makes the reader suspend disbelief. Davíd, the child, is real and asks real questions with a lot of intelligence and gets replies that strive for wisdom and sanity and useful advice from ‘He, Simón’.
There is a lot of recycling half-quotational apparatus in this book and just as the father figure is referred to using a verbal mannerism that recalls Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian master of ventriloquial monologues of vituperation (whereas The Schooldays of Jesus is about asking for the truth and being told it and then questioning it). So the book is littered with literature and the history of culture—a central figure shares a name with Bach’s wife, everyone wears a hat that might be an echo—as if the only way to construct a world was to fiddle with the textual only to produce an imaginary museum of a world as credible in its sketchy way as a shopping mall.
One aspect of the book is like Herman Hesse at his most wrapped and mystical, striving all at once for a possible ecstasy and a possible wisdom (those contrasted qualities for Yeats that are exemplified in Hesse’s Narziss und Goldmund, a book once adored by an agnostic world yearning for enlightment like a drug at a time of drug culture, which seems now like the emanation of a Lost World from the dark and backward abysm of time to invoke the language, once again, of Shakespearean romance). But all sorts of modernisms and expressionisms glide like incidential ghosts through this Coetzeen world of Estrella.
One of the central characters—and the most histrionic and extraverted of them—is a sex murderer like the colourful, creepy nutcase Moorsbrugger in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities. He is forever leaving and entering the mental hospital to which he is nominally confined and he is the counterpoint to the ‘wise’ restraint of the foster-father figure, as if every Joseph had to confront a Barabbas sooner or later.
It’s also part of the very texture of The Schooldays of Jesus that characters will have names such as Dmitri and Alyosha and that one will be turbulent and the other saintly so that the collocation of the names inevitably suggests two of the brothers Karamazov though more in the manner of a circus trick nomenclature that you get in Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’, that pop art Waste Land that Dylan told Keith Richards he couldn’t have written though he—Dylan—could have written ‘Satisfaction’, ‘And Einstein disguised as Robin Hood / With his memories in a trunk, passed this way an hour ago, with his friend / A jealous monk.’
There is no end to the mad scribble that makes up the scripture of The Schooldays of Jesus but the upshot is lean and alive and glowing. It’s as if Coetzee has elected to use the detritus of a massed heap of cultural worlds as the trappings of an invented world in which anything can seem to go but every-thing is foreshortened by a man who tries to be good and kind and wise, a child who has, somehow, the whole world in his hands and the way in which they illuminate each other with a woman on the sidelines and with all the threat of death and sex—and the potential deadliness inherent in desire gone mad as lust—all around.
If all this makes The Schooldays of Jesus sound like a mad book or at least a cabalistic cavalcade going the Lord knows where, that can’t be helped. It is full of angels, dark and crooked and gleaming, it is full of gnostic and gnomic pieces of simplicity that are oracular in practice. And yet the book has its own self-sustaining drama as it traverses its shrines and clichés of reverence.
In the late sixties—a time that was like the fufilment of Allen Ginsberg’s prophetic utterance at the start of ‘Howl’, that he had seen the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness—a lot of people, drug addled to use the Indians’ phrase ‘god-mad’, were fond of that mystic work, Gnostic in origin, but overtly mystical in emphasis, which presented the world with a Jesus who said, ‘When you become like little children and take off your clothes and stamp them under your feet, you will become without fear’; who preached a specific aesthetic spirituality—analogous to John of the Cross and the Buddha of the Fire Sermon and the Krishna of the Bhagavad-Gita—but not just beloved of hippies. Vincent Buckley said to me once that the Gospel According to St Thomas was ‘the poets’ gospel’ and parts of it were recorded in an anthology of Christian poetry and verse (along with ‘I sing of a maiden who is makeless’ and Traherne’s ‘I saw eternity the other night and St Francis de Sales’) by Alec Guinness, the man who really does make the fire and the rose seem one when he recites Eliot’s Four Quartets.
In the Gospel According to St Thomas—the mystical, non-canonical Gospel that nonetheless sounds like the real thing to a generation keen for the enlightenment of a meditative wisdom or an ecstasy through meditation—Jesus says of himself, ‘I am a movement and a rest.’
Is that where we’re headed in this blanched, quixotic quest by Coetzee? We do seem on the track of some divine comedy, whatever the acrostic and parodistic elements. Are these Jesus books dotages and romances, or guides to the perplexed or seven-storied mountains? Who in the name of God knows.
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