Andrew van der Vlies
Andrew van der Vlies is Professor of English at the University of Adelaide, and Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Andrew is author of a number of scholarly articles and chapters on South African literature, visual culture, gender studies and print culture, as well as of the books South African Textual Cultures (Manchester University Press, 2007) and Present Imperfect: Contemporary South African Writing (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is editor of Print, Text, and Book Cultures in South Africa (Wits University Press, 2012), Zoë Wicomb’s Race, Nation, and Translation: South African Essays (Yale University Press, 2018) and of the journal Safundi. He is co-editor (with Rita Barnard) of the collection South African Writing in Transition (Bloomsbury, 2019), series co-editor (with Clare Gill) of the forthcoming Edinburgh Editions of the Selected Works of Olive Schreiner, and editor of the forthcoming volume of Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm with this series. Andrew is also currently co-investigator on an AHRC-funded project (with Jade Munslow Ong) on literary modernisms in South Africa
Speaking to the poet Stephen Watson in 1978, JM Coetzee shared his conviction that South Africa’s was ‘not a great literature’, that ‘there are no really gigantic figures in it’, and that he had little interest in writers ‘who are classed as gigantic, say Schreiner and Campbell’. Yet two decades after this dismissal, in a 1998 interview (only published in
Korean), Coetzee would claim that amongst South African writers only Schreiner had ‘meant a great deal’ to him. Coetzee’s qualification (‘of all South African writers’) is worth noting, as is the fact that he has often disavowed the influence of writers from the country of his birth (in a lecture at UC Berkeley in 1991, he suggested that when he first looked for writing models there simply were none in South Africa). Yet, this chapter argues, it nonetheless remains worth asking quite what Schreiner has ‘meant’ to Coetzee.
Readers of Dusklands (1974) and In the Heart of the Country (1977) – the two books Coetzee had published by the time of the 1978 interview – might be forgiven for assuming a significant intertextual conversation with Schreiner. It is not fanciful to glimpse the shadow of Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897) in Coetzee’s first book, nor to see in his second, in the story of a frustrated farmer’s daughter in the Karoo, an engagement with Schreiner’s own troubling of the colonial pastoral in The Story of an African Farm (1883). A later reader might also see the trace of African Farm’s Lyndall on Lucy Lurie in Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999). On the basis of a page of notes about Schreiner that Coetzee made in 1993, in preparation for teaching a course at UCT, David Attwell suggests that it was less Schreiner’s work than her career – not least her propensity to be drawn into public debate, her frustration at never repeating the success of her first novel – that provided a cautionary model, a ‘mirror in which Coetzee reflects on his own career’. I want to take seriously the proposition that Coetzee might instead have learned more formal and writerly lessons. In addition to the question of how we apprehend Coetzee’s Schreiner in terms dictated by his own reflections, I want to ask how we might trace the earlier writer’s continuing influence on Coetzee’s work over the breadth of his writing career, and what this might suggest about her legacy for perhaps the most famous South African-born writer at work in her wake