Coetzee & co: failure, lies and autobiography

Paul Sheehan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


The most recent critical studies of J. M. Coetzee's oeuvre have paid little attention to the writer's autobiographical fictions, either downplaying their importance or ignoring them altogether. In this essay I make a case for the their formal and thematic significance. Focusing principally, though not exclusively, on the Scenes from Provincial Life (2011), I demonstrate how this trilogy of works is written against the generic impositions of life-writing. Those impositions turn on the notion of triumphalism: every memoir, auto/biography, confessional narrative, and so on, implicitly or explicitly affirms a teleology of achievement, in showing how the self-reflecting subject becomes a self-writing subject capable of narrating its own development. Coetzee's auto-fictions, by contrast, stage a kind of agon with this generic demand by focusing on failure, on solipsistic distraction, and on the nature of belonging. In addition, and following clues from Coetzee's unpublished notebooks, I suggest that the spurs for these textual reworkings can be found in French literature – in particular, the auto-fictive writings of Roland Barthes and Alain Robbe-Grillet. The Scenes are finally shown to be not only central to Coetzee's wider novelistic concerns, but also to his ethics of the outsider and the ordinary or everyday.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)451-468
Number of pages18
JournalTextual Practice
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2016


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