History: This book was written in 2005.Plot: Paul Rayment, a man of late middle-age, loses part of a leg after his bicycle is hit by a car driven by a reckless young man. He becomes reclusive and retreats to his flat where he is cared for by a succession of nurses. None suit him until Marijana, with whom he shares a European childhood (hers in Croatia, his in France), comes along. Paul's feelings for Marijana, and for her teenage son Drago, become more complex. When Paul offers to finance Drago's education, Marijana's husband becomes suspicious of Paul's relationship with Marijana, which causes trouble in their family and culminates in Drago fighting with his father and moving in with Paul.
It is not until the famed author Elizabeth Costello shows up unexpectedly and uninvited at Paul's doorstep that he confronts his feelings for Marijana and his resentment at the state of his life following his bicycle accident. Costello's sudden presence in his life confounds Paul, who believes she is merely using him as a character in her next novel.
Review: This is the first novel JM Coetzee has written since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003. It displays all his expected pitch-perfect restraint, the language diamond clear, his attention always revealing a great deal more of his characters' intentions than they know themselves. He seems at pains here, though, to examine the nature of these gifts; to dismantle the mechanisms of his storytelling; to let the reader pull back the curtain a little and see him at work on the levers of his fiction and witness his practised pressing of all the right buttons.
Slow Man starts as a simple enough story. In an Australian suburb, a man is knocked off his bike. Paul Rayment enjoys the sensation of his body flying through the air. 'Relax!' he tells himself, as if he knows already that this is the last bit of lightness he will ever feel. He's right, too. When he wakes in a hospital bed, it is to give his consent to doctors to remove his leg above the knee.
The novel, thereafter, examines his reluctance, in the familiar phrase, to come to terms with the loss. To begin with, he can't cope with his nurses and, in particular, the one who calls 'the bedpan the potty; [and] his penis his willie'. When he hires a woman who can talk to him without embarrassment, who can bathe his stump and help him to his lavatory and rub some of the frustration of his new condition out of his back he, not surprisingly, falls in love.
The woman, Marijana, is a Croatian immigrant, married with children and an unfulfilled history that seems part of her attraction. Deluded, a little, Paul believes he can find ways to make her love him, despite his old, knobbly fingers and his singularity - he is a retired, divorced man who collects photographs of old Australian mining towns - and his new circumstances. He tells her of his love and she promptly disappears. It is at this point that into his life, and into the novel, comes Elizabeth Costello.
Readers of Coetzee will know Costello from his previous book. On that occasion, she acted as a kind of crabby alter ego, a novelist in her late sixties, invited to give a series of lectures on her - and perhaps his own - preoccupations, 'The Novel in Africa' and so on. At the heart of Elizabeth Costello, to further confuse matters, was a series of lectures Coetzee gave, partly in her persona, to the grandees of Princeton University in 1999, called 'The Lives of Animals'. In these, Costello argued controversially, fictionally that in the industrial production of meat for food 'we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end ... ' Costello, you might say, therefore comes into Slow Man with a bit of baggage.
For Paul Rayment, this is literally the case. The novelist, now a couple of years older and more frail, of whom he has heard vaguely, arrives on his doorstep with her things, brusquely introduces herself and moves into his spare room and his story. She explains her presence by quoting to Paul the opening section of his novel, the bike and him flying through the air and so on. Far from intruding on his novel, she suggests, he has intruded on hers: '"You came to me [Paul], that is all I can say. You occurred to me, a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion ... where we go from there I have no idea. Have you any proposal?" He is silent.'
From then on, as we are invited to believe she has all along, Costello dictates events, setting up rendez-vous, examining Paul's motivations for him. She has a novelist's sense of always moving things along, without ever quite knowing what will happen next. Her interventions into what, until then, has been a story of some compulsion might threaten, you imagine, to collapse any plausibilty and identification in Paul's predicaments. In fact, even as she reveals her manipulations, they prove what a consummate writer of fiction her creator, Coetzee, can be.
Opening Line: “The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful,like a bolt of electricity, lifting him up off the bicycle.”
Closing Line: “And he leans forward and kisses her thrice in the formal manner he was taught as a child, left right left.”
Quotes: “Truth is not spoken in anger. Truth is spoken, if it ever comes to be spoken, in love. The gaze of love is not deluded. It sees what is best in the beloved even when what is best in the beloved finds it hard to emerge into the light.”