Slow Man – J M Coetzee

Read August 2015
This is a study of age, loneliness and what makes a good life. It tells the simple story of Paul Raiment who has his leg amputated after a cycling accident. Already an ageing man, the accident isolates him and leaves him longing for contact, but too embarrassed to get in touch with his old friends, who are already few and far between.

He falls for Marijana Jovik, his nurse, a Croatian, and foolishly declares his love to her. He eventually offers to pay for her son, Drago, to attend a private school and bails out her older daughter from a minor offence. His declaration of love – entirely unrequited – briefly drives a wedge between the family members but not for long. Her full family life, with both quarrels and love, stand in stark contrast to his solitary life and they come together, with Paul remaining outside, alone and a figure of pity and amusement.

The plot is complicated by the appearance of an ageing novelist, Elizabeth Costello, who camps out at Paul’s house and provides a running commentary on the desperation and loneliness of him as a childless single man.

As a narrative device Costello works well, and adds a level of entertainment that, without her, would have meant for a narrower and sadder book. But nevertheless she is an odd addition – how does she got into it, and where does she come from?

As well as the themes of ageing and the question of what makes a good life (alone and negatively free or embedded in tying but meaningful relationships) is the issue of invention in the novel. There’s a striking point when Paul describes his leg as a loss, as if he is now his old self but minus something, whereas Elizabeth (I think it’s her) says a different way to look at it is that he’s entered a new stage and he’s become something new.

It resonates with the idea that we are always ‘becoming’ found in the philosophy of Foucault or Deleuze. This is echoed in the lives of the Joviks too, who have moved to Australia but their lives, rather than replicating their old ones or starting afresh, instead become something new that emerges and grows from the old and the new together.

Without ever saying it, then, Coetzee manages to write a study in ageing and loneliness that addresses major philosophical questions about how a life changes over time and what makes a good life.

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