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A glimpse into J. M. Coetzee’s bound drafts: "Life & Times of Michael K"

By Molly Schwartzburg

The day-to-day work of a special-collections curator does not leave much time for actually reading manuscripts, despite assumptions to the contrary on the part of outsiders. I sometimes look with envy at researchers who sit with one document for hours at a time. So it was with great anticipation that I set aside time to survey a shipping carton containing drafts of J. M. Coetzee’s 1983 novel Life & Times of Michael K. I chose it because I was halfway through my first reading of this, the writer’s fourth novel and the recipient of his first Booker Prize. After my brief encounter with this novel’s drafts, I could only imagine the rich research potential of the Coetzee archive as a whole.

The novel concerns Michael K, a gardener of unidentified race who may or may not be mentally challenged. When his mother, Anna, becomes ill, he leaves work to care for her. Anna works as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple and lives in a tiny room beneath their expensive apartment in Cape Town. When the city erupts into violent unrest, the wealthy couple flee, and Michael and Anna briefly inhabit their apartment and then begin a long trek to escape the war-ravaged city for the countryside where Anna once lived; I won’t give away the remainder of the story. The portion of the story described above is told in a flat third-person voice, the distanced narration contrasting dramatically with the appalling physical and emotional conditions of the two main characters.

Like the remainder of the Coetzee papers, the drafts of Michael K arrived at the Ransom Center in remarkably good order, carefully arranged by Coetzee (my pleasure in perusing these materials was enhanced by Coetzee’s elegant, eminently legible handwriting—a rare boon for archival researchers). The novel’s nine drafts are held in five hand-bound volumes, and all but the last are titled simply “#4.” Each draft is numbered and bound in sequence. All of the drafts are written (and in one case typed) in one or more yellow or blue University of Cape Town examination books; each of these is likewise carefully numbered and marked with the appropriate version number. Coetzee appears to have bound the volumes together himself, using whatever materials were near at hand: while some are anchored in large file folders using brads, others are bound in large sheets cut from heavy cardboard shipping boxes, held together by hand-cut pieces of thick metal wire bent and pushed through the hole-punched manuscripts. The resulting artifacts have a charm that belies the novelist’s very serious and explicit intent to preserve a linear record of the novel’s composition.

This compositional record is indeed replete with opportunities for scholars of Michael K. The earliest versions of the novel reveal that Coetzee settled upon several foundational elements of the finished novel early on: the characters are named Anna (or Annie) and Michael. They are related. Anna lives in a room on the ground floor of an expensive apartment complex, and her employers flee. She is ill, and Michael comes to help her. Even some wordings in the earliest drafts appear in the finished novel.

But these similarities are accompanied by profound differences. The first five versions are perhaps best described as windows into alternate realities for the characters of Michael and Anna K, who are reimagined anew by Coetzee as he seeks to determine the nature of the novel’s central relationship. In the first version, Michael is Anna’s son, but he is a brilliant poet, not a gardener who is perceived as dimwitted. In the second, Michael is again her son, but is married and has a child; his wife is killed, and his child taken away before he comes to stay with his mother. In the third, Michael is Anna’s young grandson and worships his absent father (notably, this draft is told entirely in the first person by the child). In the fourth, he is her adult grandson who works as a gardener. In the fifth version, he is Anna’s common-law husband.

Only in the sixth version does Coetzee settle upon the published relationship; this heavily annotated draft is much longer than the ones that precede it and appears to mark a major shift in the compositional process. I skimmed through the later drafts and found further interesting changes too numerous to mention here, but found myself repeatedly returning to the variant Michaels and Annas, wondering how many further variations Coetzee may have considered, and wondering, too, at the elements that he apparently never doubted. For instance, he knew from the beginning that Anna’s legs would be swollen—this detail is described in grim detail in the published novel and appears often in the early drafts—but did not know whether the woman’s son, grandson, or husband would cope with this ailment.

The Annas and Michaels have stayed with me, and I have already started reading the novel again from the first page, seeking traces of those lost characters and viewing the swollen legs, the room beneath the apartment, and the names “Anna” and “Michael” with fresh attention.

 

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Primp My Book: A brief history of the customized reading experience

By Molly Schwartzburg

Long before viewers watched Pimp My Ride or American Chopper—in fact, long before the combustion engine—readers personalized, customized, glamorized, and just plain peacocked their books. Whether encrusted with jewels, adorned by portraits of queens, or scribbled upon with ballpoint pens, the books pictured here demonstrate post-market enhancements, or primping, as a recurring phenomenon in book culture across centuries. These volumes embody fantasies of transformation through the act of dressing up. The story of the custom book starts with medieval illumination, a process that primped a book on the inside. The remaining books mediate the relationship with the text through their covers.

The warmth of red velvet, the chill of a silver hinge, the sparkle of precious jewel, or the smell of fine leather can create a sensory experience that complements, critiques, or even contradicts the words within the covers. Using these diverse materials, as well as techniques from inlay to Cosway, these covers make statements, sometimes even jokes, about their books’ contents.

 

Students in The University of Texas at Austin Professor Janine Barchas’s fall 2010 graduate seminar, English 384k: Graphic Design & Literary Text put together a display case at the Ransom Center with these examples of various bindings. This display can be seen during Reading Room hours through the end of January. Students who worked on this project include Lynn Cowles, Colleen Eils, Jennifer Harger, Brianna Hyslop, Aaron Mercier, Michael Quatro, Robin Riehl, Jessica Shafer, Connie Steel, Laura Thain, Joanna Thaler, and Jay Voss.

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

By Molly Schwartzburg

Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.

Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.

I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:

As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.

Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.

First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.

Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.

There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.

The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.

Corporal Dashiell Hammett’s "The Battle of the Aleutians: A Graphic History, 1942–1943"

By Molly Schwartzburg

A few weeks ago, the Ransom Center received as a gift an unusual volume to add to our holdings of hard-boiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961). Kevin Berger, a journalist from New York, donated this booklet, which Hammett wrote for the U.S. military while he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska Peninsula during World War II. Berger’s father was a draftsman who also served in the Aleutians, and Berger had found the volume among his father’s drawings. We enthusiastically accepted the gift knowing that it would remedy what we call a “want”—a gap in our holdings. The Ransom Center is an important research site for scholars of Hammett in part because we have a small collection of Hammett’s papers and the massive archive of his longtime lover, the playwright Lillian Hellman. This gift is a boon to Hammett scholars not just because it fills a bibliographical gap, but because the Hammett papers, it turns out, contain a series of letters Hammett wrote to Hellman while stationed in the Aleutians.

In June 1942, the Japanese attacked a United States military base in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and went on to occupy two far western islands in the Aleutian chain. After more than a year of air, sea, and land battles fought in brutal conditions, the United States defeated the Japanese in July 1943. Hammett was posted to the island of Adak almost immediately after the crisis ended. From that time on, the island was under little threat of invasion, and Hammett was assigned to keep the 50,000 troops stationed in the islands informed of current affairs through an official newspaper, The Adakian—a sleepy journalistic assignment, since news arrived in this remote outpost well out of date. As part of his work, Hammett composed the history The Battle of the Aleutians in September 1943, a project for which he and his collaborators received a commendation. Its narrative has the feel of hard-boiled suspense writing, as in this passage describing the U.S. preparing for a counter-attack:

And then trouble came, a williwaw, the sudden wild wind of the Aleutians. Nobody knows how hard the wind can blow along these islands where the Bering meets the Pacific….The first morning the wind stopped landing operations with only a portion of our force ashore and, by noon, had piled many of the landing boats on the beach. The men ashore had no tents, no shelters of any kind. They dug holes in the ground and crawled into them for protection against wind and rain and cold. When the wind had quieted enough to let the others come ashore, they too dug holes and lived like that while the cold, wet and backbreaking work of unloading ships by means of small boats went on. And they did what they had to do. They built an airfield. They built an airfield in twelve days.

Hammett undertook related projects such as working at the radio station, offering film screenings, and delivering evening lectures on current events.

The famous writer was admired by his young staff at the newspaper and was himself an appealing curiosity for an isolated community often suffering from low morale. In letters to Lillian Hellman, he wrote detailed descriptions of life in the Aleutians; in the example shown here, he covers subjects such as his living conditions, his Texan bunkmate, Fred Astaire, and his thoughts on another work of war writing by Ralph Ingersoll. Biographer Diane Johnson (whose research materials on Hammett are part of her archive at the Ransom Center) writes that “if there were a happiest year for Hammett, it might have been this one, 1944.” Despite the austere landscape and the lack of news—not to mention fresh food—he stopped drinking and found himself to be unusually content. Hammett remained stationed in Adak—interrupted by a brief, unhappy period at Fort Richardson on the mainland—until the summer of 1945.

Hammett’s decision to enlist had seemed strange to those close to him—he was almost 50, he had long suffered from tuberculosis, and he had a well-known distaste for mainstream American politics. But his hatred of fascism was stronger, and he performed the service he was assigned with vigor, as this little booklet shows. As Diane Johnson tells it, a confusion over Hammett’s given name may be the only reason he made it to the Aleutians in the first place: over the course of several months in 1943, the office of J. Edgar Hoover issued memos to the General Staff office seeking validation of a rumor that Hammett—a known Communist Party sympathizer—had somehow made his way into the U. S. Military, but they assured him there was no such serviceman. The fact was only confirmed in 1945. By that time, Hammett had been reassigned, and the magic of Adak was over. He returned to drinking and after a short time requested a discharge; he officially left the military in August 1945.

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