Perhaps the wise man has spoken

Novel | Diary of a Bad Year, By J.M. Coetzee, Viking, $24.95. 231 pages.

The temptation to see this new work by J.M. Coetzee as an example of how literature can flex political muscles should be resisted. This deserves emphasis from the outset. We lovers of literature find something vindicating about a writer who takes on political and cultural issues. We want to think that the novels we love matter to the pressing needs of the day, that their wisdom is not simply literary and private, but human and public. And so to have the Nobel Prize-winning Coetzee make declarations about geopolitics and ethics, even through a fictional alter-ego, is satisfying. Someone has bridged the gap between literature and the real world. Someone has illuminated policy with poetry. We want to label such writers prophetic. Coetzee sets up "Diary of a Bad Year" almost as if he is committing to something like that, as if he is posing the work as moral discourse straddling the shoulders of narrative. But then narrative shrugs. The result is a sublime, unsettling meditation on the grief of freedom and the peculiar clarity of art. Not beach reading but winter reading. A companion -- and how we need them -- for the solstice dark.

The protagonist in "Diary," a writer bearing an uncanny likeness to the author, is organizing his "Strong Opinions," essays about the modern world for a German anthology. Señor C, as his secretary calls him, takes on everything from terrorism and mathematics to Intelligent Design and the way we slaughter animals. He is a gadfly in many respects, with testy critiques of American hubris and global capitalism (maybe socialism didn't collapse, he speculates, maybe it was "bludgeoned to the ground"). These radical cries are balanced throughout by archaic calls for honor: "the issue for individual Americans becomes a moral one: how, in the face of the shame to which I am subjected, do I behave? How do I save my honor?"

These pronouncements are the judgments of a fictional voice, of course, but instead of being integrated into the narrative they are bald on the page. The essays are stacked and separated by lines on top of the diarylike commentary of C and also Anya, his secretary, or "secret aria," the beautiful foil of his own relentless pessimism. Impatient with the usual pace of the realist novel, Coetzee hurtles C into the moral dilemma of an obsession with the married Anya. As the essays advance a determined argument, the diaries expose a vulnerable humanity. This structure is surprisingly haunting. The scored pages seem gimmicky at first -- do we read down as we are accustomed, through the line breaks on the page, or do we follow a section forward on its own? -- but then those separate strands seem to eavesdrop on each other, dramatizing the moral tension that is the book's purpose in the first place: How do we describe our obligations to others when our ethical judgments are necessarily provisional, tangled in our own biographies? Our ideas, like the essays here, see from the shoulders of our lives, our private narratives. But if we are grounded in our stories this way, how shall we be people of conviction, people with "strong opinions"? How do politics grow legitimately out of our confessions? And if this is problematic, how can we afford to be skeptics and nihilists in a world of moral disasters? C recommends a kind of quiet withdrawal, an "inner emigration," and yet, banished by his own decree, he still struggles for a way to speak of those larger things. To use his own language, he struggles to preserve his honor.

For all the novel's sense of urgency about the world, however, there is a quiet dissolution of politics in "Diary of a Bad Year." "Strong Opinions" -- that top portion of the pages -- becomes a "second, gentler set of opinions" that take stock of C's own life as he drifts, perhaps in the early stages of Parkinson's, toward death. Coetzee's usual reticence with intimacy makes this series of personal ruptures deeply moving. In a passing meditation on his father, for example, C writes: "He never told me what he thought of me. But in his secret heart I am sure he had no very high opinion. A selfish child, he must have thought, who has turned into a cold man; and how can I deny it?" How strafed that first line is: he never told me what he thought of me. How tender C becomes in the single romantic moment in the book: "She offered me her cheek. Ever so lightly -- I had not shaved, I did not want to offend -- I touched my lips to that smooth skin." For this essayist so out of joint in his world, who wonders about "the dishonor, the disgrace of being alive in these times," how momentous is his confession that he still sobs reading "The Brothers Karamazov." And how hard won are the triumphant notes in the end, in which Coetzee, having heaped praise on Bach, sings gratitude also for Dostoevsky and Tolstoy: "By their example one becomes a better artist; and by better I do not mean more skillful but ethically better. They annihilate one's impurer pretensions; they clear one's eyesight; they fortify one's arm."

Without these intimacies, what Coetzee beautifully describes as "accents of anguish," the earlier opinions are so much rhetoric. Dostoevsky's contemporary Belinsky put it this way: "An idea ... which has not passed through one's own nature, has not received the stamp of one's personality, is dead capital not only for poetry, but for any literary activity."

In what is, to this reader, the argumentative climax of the work, a section called "On Authority in Fiction," C ponders the paradoxical power of Tolstoy: "During his later years, Tolstoy was treated not only as a great author but as an authority on life, a wise man, a sage. His contemporary Walt Whitman endured a similar fate. But neither had much wisdom to offer: wisdom was not what they dealt in. They were poets above all; otherwise they were ordinary men with ordinary, fallible opinions. The disciples who swarmed to them in quest of enlightenment look sadly foolish in retrospect."

Surely, then, this qualification recasts all the boldness that came before and tells us how to read Coetzee's own extraordinary book. The authority of literature is neither monastic nor political. Coetzee offers something here that is fearlessly engaged with the ethical and global but that remains unseduced by certainty. It is the assertion of conviction without location. It is passion that is desolate rather than triumphant. Call it 21st-century negative capability. A winter read indeed, wisdom literature in spite of itself.