Coetzee Rocks the House

Posted By: Katy Carr, 23 June 2010

Now suddenly it’s Wednesday and we are feeling pretty buzzy after last night’s event at Norwich Playhouse with Gabeba Baderoon, CJ Driver, Zoe Wicomb and of course JM Coetzee.

We started proceedings on a beautiful summer’s evening, with students and their families milling about for their art show down the road, and a sense of mounting excitement as the audience gathered and chatted outside as did we, waiting  in the sunlight for Coetzee.

Then he walked up to the venue, smiled for the cameras, walked around people with last minute glasses of wine and went backstage to say hello to his fellow readers before taking his seat for the first half.

What was great about last night was the variety and breadth of work. Gabeba Baderoon read first, a beautiful set of poems setting us on journeys of love and loss, allowing us to contemplate these big topics through sensuously crafted language which almost lulled the listener into the poetic landscape and which was received enthusiastically by the packed house.

Next came CJ ‘Jonty’ Driver, who, talking of a friend who asked why didn’t he give up and just accept that he is English (having lived half his life in England) he quoted the epitaph: old age has no country.

The atmosphere in the house was jolly and there were laughs as he read his poems, followed by quiet as some of the implications of his thoughtful poetry sank in.  His response to that question of his identity was very striking, and all of his poems arced in some way around belonging with some reaching back to the homeland; Jonty left South Africa having been detained for a period in solitary confinement in 1964 by the South African Security Service.

Then something completely different; Zoe Wicomb took to the stage with her striking, relaxed style, reading work from her novel which she ‘just grabbed from the shelf on the way out the door because I couldn’t find the one I wanted!’ This delightful style was echoed by her narrator –whose third person voice felt like first person and whose outlook was quirky, upbeat (widowhood means there’s more time to get things done – why be downhearted?) and involving from the off. The pace was fast, the writing and voice sharp and we clapped heartily at the end of what had been a great first half.

When we settled back in after the scrum at the bar, Coetzee took his place at the podium with a small smile. He read a short story, (not a new piece but virtually unpublished), that was vintage Coetzee. The story moved between humour, anger and pathos and he read with great expression, taking the whole audience on the journey of a young boy wondering what the stone circle on his farm means – could it be fairies? The young boy grows and eventually his father explains that the stones were used for threshing. The boy is incredulous; where was the wheat from; how was the land ever fertile enough to create it?  Trying to paraphrase Coetzee’s work is probably unwise, so I’d just advise that you try and catch this sometime – the story takes us thoughtfully round the issue of disconnection from the land, and the sense of civilisation almost going backwards.

Afterwards, Coetzee signed books as did the others, and the great atmosphere continued, perhaps as the audience contemplated the width, depth and variation in these voices.

A great evening and thanks to all the writers for taking part; I don’t think anyone who was there will really ever forget it.

Onwards now to the rest of this fantastic week at the Worlds Literature Festival...

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