Lying on an analyst’s couch

Shreevatsa Nevatia | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on July 24, 2015


The Good Story: Exchanges on truth, fiction and psychotherapy JM Coetzee & Arabella Kurtz Harvill Secker Non-fiction Rs 599

With typical heft and gravitas, JM Coetzee conjures up a self-help book that addresses the big questions of life

The first author to have won the Man Booker twice, JM Coetzee didn’t once show up to pick up his prize. For someone so avowedly reclusive, the author, it turns out, is quite the conversationalist. Released in 2013, Here and Now made public the letters that the Nobel laureate had exchanged with American author Paul Auster. Kafka, typewriters, baseball — all made for cerebral entertainment, and at long last, the book provided Coetzee fans a rare glimpse into the private life of a literary icon who had finally let his guard down. A little more than two years later, the writer again betrays his predilection for stimulating discussions. In the recently published The Good Story, Coetzee finds an interlocutor in consulting clinical psychologist Arabella Kurtz. Unlike the playful banter with Auster, however, Coetzee now seems to have considerably weightier matters such as truth, fiction and psychotherapy on his mind.

Though the prospect of the author promulgating his views on the mind’s workings is enticing, The Good Story demonstrates Coetzee’s curiosity more than his erudition. At different points, he attacks and defends the notion that “the stories we tell about ourselves may not be true, but they are all we have”. The exchanges between him and Kurtz dwell not entirely on the narratives a novelist imagines, but more on the confessions a patient might make to his therapist or on a story he or she might invent in order to get by. Guided by their common interest in human nature, experience and language, Coetzee and Kurtz busy themselves with questions that seem at once common and difficult. Coetzee, for instance, asks, “When I tell other people the story of my life ... should I be neutral, objective, striving to tell a kind of truth that would meet the criteria of the courtroom; the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

All through this book, truth, for Coetzee, appears to be a preoccupation of sorts. He starts by questioning Kurtz about why therapists force patients to be veracious. He makes a case for an “empowering fiction” that could allow patients to feel good about themselves, allowing them to work and love better. Thoroughly professional even when not in her therapist’s chair, Kurtz is patient with Coetzee’s prodding. Admitting that “it is the task of psychoanalysis to try to tell the deepest truth,” she adds that psychoanalysis does not assume truth to be fixed. She says that the ‘truth’ which her version of psychotherapy is based on “is always dynamic, provisional and intersubjective.” The psychologist’s explanations are lucid. She explains to Coetzee that we can only fully understand our changing selves through others and our experiences with them.

An unpredictable Coetzee, a self-confessed “trader in fictions”, soon changes tack. He goes on to confess a longing for the “one and only truth”. His subsequent question to Kurtz even seems a touch adversarial — “Do therapist and patient nowadays agree to trade only in fictions?” Kurtz deflects Coetzee’s exasperation with a fitting case study and says, “The aim in psychotherapy is to help the patient fill in parts of a puzzle, which is their puzzle — the puzzle that is their mind.”

With Coetzee as the primary questioner, The Good Story does sometimes feel like the transcript of a therapeutic session. On more than one occasion, Coetzee brings into play his personal experiences. He talks about his life in South Africa and Australia. He recounts memories of his childhood and if that weren’t enough to please Freudian conspiracy theorists, he even makes mention of his mother. Traces of Freud, though, are hardly imperceptible. They can be found right through The Good Story. Oedipus, for instance, becomes contentious much after Coetzee has delivered this pithy line — “Oedipus is both the owner of the buried past and the detective.”

In Kurtz, Coetzee clearly finds an ally who can match the rigour of his intellect. But more significantly, her evident engagement with literature allows for a rather rare brand of literary criticism. Together, they discuss the possible psychology which informs the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, WG Sebald, Fyodor Dostoevsky and others. Coetzee launches into his analysis of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed by saying, “Anyone involved in the therapeutic process ought to read Dostoevsky closely.” Kurtz’s subsequent psychoanalytic deconstruction proves that she has more than done her homework. There are also occasions when Kurtz seems to be goading Coetzee into talking about his own work, but unfortunately he seldom rises to the bait.

The Good Story cannot be described as light reading by any measure, but if your appreciation of Coetzee borders on adoration, it is gratifying to see him discuss a stray Jonathan Franzen article and a Juliette Binoche speech. (Coetzee was impressed with the actress’s confession that she preferred the relationship with her director to be an erotic one.)

If you happen to be reading the book with a pencil in hand, it is impossible to put it down. Sentences on almost every other page deserve to be underlined. At one point, for instance, Coetzee writes, “The past, individual or collective, is always messier and more complicated than any account we can give of it.” By tackling concepts such as truth, guilt, sympathy and memory head on, Coetzee and Kurtz have given their readers the script of a dialogue that can be enriching. The headline above should perhaps be revised. ‘Nobel winner co-authors self-help book.’ Now that is the good story.

Published on July 24, 2015

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