Foe by J.M. Coetzee

Call it a simple title for a complex book. Foe is the retelling of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. So it’s a story about a story. But Foe is also a story about an Englishwoman named Susan who is cast away in the Atlantic by Portuguese mutineers on a deserted island. From the beginning of her ordeal, Susan is obsessed with having the story of the island told, an obsession that torments her long after her safe return to England, where she asks novelist Daniel Foe to convert her hastily sketched memoir — “a sad, limping affair,” in her own words — into a novel that conveys “the substance of truth” about her experience. But even in England, with the hustle and bustle of civilized life, Susan is utterly dismayed to learn that “the world is full of islands.” Because it’s a Coetzee novel, Foe is not only a story about a story nor only a story about Susan’s ordeal and lingering torment, but it’s also a story about the origin of itself as a story. See, for a thin, 157-page novel, the complexities are piling up, fast. Coetzee’s prodigious intellectual talents are everywhere on display. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of super smart people. They make excellent physicists and mathematicians and logicians. But when the purely intellectual component predominates in storytelling, the prose lacks the grace of inspiration. In Foe, there’s no sacred fire. At best it’s a meditation on the frailties of life and the vulnerabilities of storytelling that is a lot more intriguing than it is enjoyable.

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24 Responses to Foe by J.M. Coetzee

  1. Trevor says:

    To date, this is my least favorite Coetzee (well, and a not very pleasant read in relation to many other books, too), certainly because, as you say, it is missing “the grace of inspiration” and some “sacred fire” — though I usually do find those in Coetzee.

    • Me, too. I still think his Big Three are Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Diary of a Bad Year. Although now that Foe is safely behind me, it is beginning to work a subtle magic. My thinking about the book is trending toward actual enjoyment.

  2. Chelsea says:

    I wrote my children’s literature thesis on different retellings of Robinson Crusoe, and I can’t believe I missed this one! Thanks for the great rec and bringing this book to my attention!

  3. You guys are such Romantics! I don’t want any sacred fire – I hate sacred fire! I’m OK with inspiration, but am delighted when its source is something other than grace.

    I’ve never read Coetzee, but now I’m going to read Foe.

    • Good for you Amateur Reader. I like your spirit. I’ve read a few Coetzees but the oldest one is Disgrace, and I have a feeling this one is pre Disgrace. It’s not one on my TBR, as there are others I want to read first, but I’ll read your review of it! Now there’s an offer too good to refuse!

      Oh, and thanks Interpolations for a provocative review as usual!

    • I positively can’t wait to learn if you discover any inspiration in Foe! I tremble in anticipation. AR, I must confess that, having just now finished Robinson Crusoe, the foundational story upon Coetzee exerts so much intellectual vigor, Foe is definitely an interesting (and perhaps even enjoyable read) if I dare give my blog post the lie. Coetzee is interested in the opacities of the original story, like how the hell did it get written, among other things. Very eager to get your take on BOTH stories, because I suspect that my take on Foe would have been different had I read RC first. Cheers.

  4. “A liveliness is lost in the writing down which must be supplied by art, and I have no art.” (40)

  5. Colleen says:

    I don’t think Kevin is being Romantic per se…if Coetzee admitted to a workman-like approach to writing akin to Anthony Trollope’s, I don’t think he’d be disappointed. Well, I wouldn’t. Maybe I shouldn’t even gesture towards speaking for Kevin. The problem with Coetzee is that his writing is too often like a husk of intellectualism covering…nothing. He’s not multi-dimensional except in his displays of cleverness upon cleverness upon cleverness. I personally find it unsatisfying and tiresome, even if his writing is exquisite, which it often is.

  6. A husk of intellectualism, ay! Hope things are going well, and I look forward to Curious/Creepy. K

  7. “I had not guessed it was so easy to be an author.” (93)

    Wow, Kevin, I can hardly imagine reading this one without Robinson Crusoe. Coetzee’s novel is not about the Crusoe myth or story – it’s about the text! And not just Crusoe – there’s a lot of Moll Flanders and who knows what else.

    There’s a funny hiccup where Coetzee name-drops a truly obscure Defoe book, but then decides he has gone too far: “a memorial of the life and opinions of Dickory Cronke (who is he?)” (50). Of course, this was pre-Google. Now any obscurity is fair game.

    Has anyone here read Michel Tournier’s Friday (1967)? I wonder what he does with the story.

    “But a time comes when there are more important things than books.” (100)

    • With all of these citations, you’re clearly knee deep already! K

      • “In every story there is a silence, some sight concealed, some word unspoken, I believe.” (141)

        I found that “sacred fire” passage (126) – whole dang thing is pornographic. Your entire post was just a trap, wasn’t it?

        The Elizabeth Costello business now makes more sense to me, without having read that book. One could as well label Foe literary criticism as fiction.

  8. Yes, I remember that passage at 141. It’s the kernel around which much Coetzeean meat is wrapped. Will you spend some time on Foe at Wuthering Expectations? As for your last sentence, I agree, except the lit-crit part feels like intellectualism at the expense of ecstatic storytelling, as if Derrida tried his hand at prose fiction.

  9. I don’t know that I have the germ of an idea to write about this book. I might try the Tournier novel and see if anything gels.

    I put a quite high value on intellectualism, not that ecstatic storytelling is not all right sometimes. Maybe I should mention that I’m an awfully cold reader.

    Speaking of germs, I have a hint of a joke about your Derrida line, but don’t know where to go with it. The punchline, or perhaps setup, is “Waddayamean, ‘as if’?”

  10. I hope you write about Foe. In fact, I command you to – for what it’s worth. I’d like to hear your extended thoughts on DeFoe, Foe, Coetzee, and everything else sans Derrida, which if I were to add to your punchline might go something like this: you never always already had me at as if.

  11. I hope you write about Foe. In fact, I command you to – for what it’s worth. I’d like to hear your extended thoughts on DeFoe, Foe, Coetzee, and everything else sans Derrida, which if I were to add to your punchline might go something like this: you never always already had me at as if.

  12. […] Interpolations sparks great discussion and adds two to my TBR with a post on Coetzee’s Foe. (To be fair, anything by Coetzee is already on the TBR, but still….) […]

  13. […] Paradoxically Foe by Coetzee and Vanity Fair by Thackeray make honorable mention precisely because I only enjoyed them retrospectively and well after the fact. […]

  14. dwknight912 says:

    Just read Foe myself and agree with you that it can be a little dry. Definitely interesting when you consider Coetzee’s position in his society (privileged minority) which explains his need to question narrative authority.

  15. […] helped refine my appreciation for works I didn’t like at first blush, as was the case with Foe and Vanity Fair. It’s uncovered some gems I wouldn’t have otherwise read like Embers and […]

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