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Book Club: Reading thread The Childhood of Jesus, JM Coetzee

MistyMeena
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Book Club: Reading thread The Childhood of Jesus, JM Coetzee

#74438

Postby MistyMeena » August 14th, 2017, 10:20 pm

Please use this thread for any comments/discussion while reading or reviewing The Childhood of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee.

As people will be at different stages of reading please preface your posts with an indication of how far through the book you are at the time of commenting or if you have finished - this will help people to know if there are likely spoilers for them.

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Re: Book Club: Reading thread The Childhood of Jesus, JM Coetzee

#88019

Postby midnightcatprowl » October 13th, 2017, 4:19 pm

I found this book un-put-downable even though I did have to put it down at intervals. I'm not entirely sure I found it really enjoyable just 'compulsive'. I'm still sorting out my ideas about it before writing a review, it needs to turn over in my mind for a while.

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Re: Book Club: Reading thread The Childhood of Jesus, JM Coetzee

#88383

Postby midnightcatprowl » October 15th, 2017, 12:44 pm

Spoiler warning: you might regard this as containing spoilers or you might not as it actually doesn't tell you anything about what happens in the book! I nominated this book because it was sent to me by a friend who'd read it for her 'physical' book club as opposed to our virtual club. They go to the trouble of doing a write up of the discussion which takes place at the Book Club meeting and my friend sent her copy of the discussion write up along with the book. So what is written below is a shortened version of that document. I thought fellow book club members might find it interesting. N.B. I read the write up before reading the book - and in fact before nominating the book - I didn't find it spoiled my experience of the book at all as it is about the ideas which are (possibly) behind the book rather than about the story, if indeed it does have a story which is an interesting question in itself.
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D (book club member) started the discussion by reading two reviews, one from The New York Times and the other from Jose Toledo. Both of them point out the parallels with events in the New Testament but also particularly in the N Y Times review referencing Buddhist and Hindu themes. Most reviewers found this a very difficult book to understand and these are the only two reviews which had gone to any depth in an attempt to get to the heart of this novel.

The city of 'Novilla' is a strange mix of Utopia and dispassionate Distopia. Joyce Carol Oates in her review in the New York Times suggested that the novel could be "a Kafka inspired parable of the quest for meaning itself; for reasons to endure when (secular) life lacks passion and purpose. Only an arbitrary mission - searching for the mother of an orphan child, believing in a saviour who descends from the sky - can give focus to a life otherwise undefined and random."

B (another book club member) disagreed with this and thought that it owed more to the philosophy of John Paul Sartre and French literature of that period..............He felt that the novel was mainly about ideas and the characters within the book are used to provide arguments around the themes explored. The events in the novel are not meant to be taken literally as actions; more as symbols, and are used in this way to explore the themes within the book.

Several members of the group were puzzled by the author's intentions. Many thought the novel dull, boring and fanciful and did not really qualify as a novel. They felt there was little in the way of plot and the way the story was told was flat and deadpan. Others felt just the opposite that the deadpan way in which it was told was rather beautiful and suggested a parable or allegory which keeps the reader guessing right to the end. Surprisingly the scores given were much higher than some of the opinions expressed might have indicated. The lowest was 6/10 by two people, ranging up to 9/10 by two people. The average score was 7.4.

Members noted that the author has recently published a sequel called "The Schooldays of Jesus" which continues where "Childhood" ends, just as if he was writing the next chapter.

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Re: Book Club: Reading thread The Childhood of Jesus, JM Coetzee

#91728

Postby midnightcatprowl » October 30th, 2017, 10:52 am

This is my own review of "The Childhood of Jesus", it may contain spoilers so there will be a gap before my review begins
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I enjoyed reading this book. Sort of? I think? Maybe? Or perhaps there was just a compulsion to read onwards whether I was enjoying it or not? I don't feel it is a book I could ever really forget though I'm not sure I'd ever want to read it again and I'm undecided as to whether I want to read the sequel "The Schooldays of Jesus".

I thought the author used language rather beautifully though in a fairly sparse and non-ornate way and maybe that is from where the compulsion to read on comes? Or maybe because it isn't really a story but you don't know that when you start so you read on expecting to find out the action, or for the story to start, or even simply to find out what the book is about and you are almost at the end before realising you still don't know? Or you do know that the book is about the essential question posed by the child David "what are we here for?" - he knows when he originally asks that question that in the first place they are there to look for his mother though this is only because Simon (who is not his father) feels that David should have a mother, but the essence of David's question is the issue of once his mother is found "what are we here for?" The book is addressing the question of not just what David and Simon are here for but what any of us are here for, whether the book helps to answer that question or merely dwells rather bleakly on it is something which I suspect different people will react to in very different ways.

It is tempting, of course, to see links with Buddhist, maybe Hindu, and Christian thought/teachings in this book but it is difficult to get the themes to add up. For example Simon and the boy David have come to this new land via a place called Belstar, though they don't seem to recall much, if anything, of life before Belstar, they do remember their life in Belstar. In fact it seems that everyone (?) in this land came via Belstar though some stayed longer in Belstar than others. So you could interpret 'Belstar' in lots of ways - limbo? pergatory? a waystation before re-birth? a place of preparation to be ready for a new life or state of being? or simply a question of geography that you can't reach the new country in one hop but must go 'ashore' in Belstar and wait for onward transport to the new country? The fact that Simon and the child - and others they meet in the new country - remember Belstar, does that really fit with Buddhist/Hindu thinking?

When it comes to Christian thinking I found some comments on this and other issues in a 2016 book review in The Guardian which is actually about the sequel but inevitably spends a lot of time referring to the 'Childhood' book. The review by Elizabeth Lowry seems to suggest a 'Holy Family' theme where Simon finds the 'suitably virgin' woman Ines to be David's mother but when David, who is very clever but only on his own terms, starts to resist the requirements of his school (which Ines has done everything possible to keep him from attending), David is sent to a reformatory, he escapes and the 'family' - it is not really a family as Simon is excluded from the intense Ines/David relationship and is only handy as a convenience when needed - sets off to a new place where you suspect it will be no clearer than before "what are we here for". If you compare this to Christian scriptures it doesn't entirely add up. The scriptures tell little of the childhood (as opposed to the infancy) of Jesus. The only incident is where the family go to Jerusalem with others and on setting off back discover that Jesus is not with the caravan, he is found discoursing with the elders (might not be the right word) in the Temple but then goes back with his family and is recorded as being 'obedient to them'. In fact, according to scripture, Jesus only went his own way as a man in his early thirties? Jesus in scripture on one occasion stayed behind engrossed in discussion but there is nothing in scripture to suggest defiance or a determination not to learn or not to co-operate with learning as presented with the David in this book?

None of the reviews I've come across address the issue of why Simon is so grimly determined to 'find' David's mother nor why he decides that Ines is going to be David's mother though obviously she isn't. The odd thing is that David seemed to be doing remarkably well until Ines was assigned by Simon as his mother and the problems seem to come once Ines IS designated as his mother. You can't even accuse Simon of trying to pass responsibility for David to someone else as actually while not living with them - and in fact giving up his home to them and pretty much living rough himself as a result - he acquires more difficulties and responsibilities for looking after them. Inside this is another oddity. Why does Simon not ask for new accommodation for himself, why does he go and live in a shed?

The other issue which no one seems to address is the - to me - overtly sexualised relationship between Ines and the child, ranging from the way she acts towards him during their first meeting to her bizarre choices of clothes for him which are mentioned very pointedly but not discussed or rather Simon notices how odd they are but makes no comment.

The Guardian review refers to the place where Simon and David find themselves as a 'socialist utopia'. I must admit that reading the book this interpretation of it had not occurred to me even though I definitely identify with socialism. Regarding it as a utopia (socialist or not) brings up lots of issues. My understanding of socialism (and my shop stewards understanding of socialism) was that the working man/woman should earn enough for adequate housing, adequate food, and have access to adequate health and social care, but also that they should have enough left over for the treats of life be it a holiday or a bottle of wine or a night out or to be able to play in the brass band or to pay for their child to go to ballet class or what have you. In contrast in this 'utopia', if you regard it as that, the basis of existence seems to be not wanting anything much but people are not 'required' to not want anything much, it just seems to be how they are. People are paid it seems more than they really need - this is the experience of Simon with his cargo unloading job - more than they really need because there is little or nothing to spend it on and/or because people don't want to spend it? People are encouraged - by their fellow citizens rather than by any official teaching - to be happy with a diet of bread and bean paste. People are encouraged - by their fellow citizens - to be non-sexual and to spend their evenings in pursuits such as philosophy classes, yet none of these things are compulsory, there just doesn't seem to be anything much else to do than go to evening classes. Sex is not forbidden, in fact when Simon longs for it, David's friend's mother obligingly provides it but she is only being helpful, it means little or nothing to her. Also in this 'utopia' when Simon and David are newly arrived they have great difficulty in getting accommodation or food and someone who 'helps' them does so by leaving them out in the back yard of their home overnight to make a shelter out of rubbish and only finally supplies a rough blanket under great pressure. It seems to be a society which is willing to help e.g. if you fall in the water in the dock someone will immediately jump in after you, but where there is a lack of the empathy which enables people to identify what others need.

In this context it's difficult to understand why the education system seems to be so prescriptive? There doesn't seem to be any particular age at which you absolutely have to start school and Ines only agrees to David going under pressure from Simon? Yet once within the school system it seems that one teacher's lack of appreciation of David's approach to life leads to him being assigned to a reformatory. So school is compulsory? Well clearly there are educated people in this society - there are doctors for example - but no particular prestige seems attached to being a doctor over being a docker? Given this just why is school so compulsory and prescriptive in a society where no one it seems is trying to get rich and in which basic manual jobs actually seem to pay well and in which those in manual jobs seem prone to spending their non-work time in intellectual pursuits rather than wanting to acquire things or have new experiences.

Lots of things in the book don't add up - or rather they rather jerkily and non-rationally continue. For example early in the book it seems that a very bland diet of bread and bean paste is regarded as perfectly okay - as is importing more grain than is eaten by the population and happily accepting that rats eat a significant proportion of it. Simon, in his search for adequate food for David and himself, finds a place where vegetables can also be obtained but there is no sign of any other sort of food and bizarrely - if this is a 'utopia' - he has great difficulty in even finding out how to get vegetables in the first place. The inhabitants of this utopia seem friendly but not particularly helpful or perhaps they don't without prompting identify the help which newcomers might need? The odd thing is that later on in the book when David is living with Ines it is mentioned that David enjoys ice cream but there is never any indication of how and where this is obtained. Similarly David's friend and his friend's mother are frozen out when Ines becomes David's mother but the friend later bursts significantly back during an incident in the book with no explanation as to how the friend is suddenly back on board. Where do David's new sets of - very inappropriate sounding - clothes come from? David goes to and escapes from the Reformatory but though Ines and Simon are told they can visit the Reformatory neither do so either before David goes there nor while he is there. When David escapes he speaks of barbed wire but 'the authorities' deny the existence of the barbed wire and talk of how much David was valued by the other pupils and is missed by them but Simon and Ines do not check this out.

My experience of this book was that Simon and David have entered a sort of dreamland. As happens in dreams what is going on can seem rational yet not rational at the same time. As happens in dreams some things which are perfectly easy in real life become in dreamland bizarrely and persistently difficult for no apparent reason.

I found the book depressing to read but interesting to think about afterwards. What was it about? I really don't know! Even the "what are we here for?" concept only takes you so far because though David poses the question none of the adults seem to be even trying to answer the question and they are about to go to a different 'here' without any real idea of what this will achieve.

N.B. In a persistent way The Childhood of Jesus reminded me somehow of 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy which we read for Book Club back in Motley Fool days. The connection isn't obvious as 'The Childhood of Jesus' is dreamlike while the 'The Road' is full of gritty and painful reality and the father in 'The Road' is grimly determined and strives endlessly to protect and save his son even if this involves facing the fact that he might have to shoot the boy to save him from a worse fate, and the son is full of empathy and sympathy for both people and animals. Thinking about 'The Road' made me begin to wonder if the country of this book is perhaps post cataclysmic too but unlike in 'The Road' the characters do not recall what went before.

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Re: Book Club: Reading thread The Childhood of Jesus, JM Coetzee

#95481

Postby MistyMeena » November 13th, 2017, 11:00 pm

I’m writing this several weeks after reading the book (and before looking at Midnightcatprowl’s two earlier posts). Possible spoilers – skip the next paragraph.

My recollection is of enjoying the book in parts and reading it in a few big chunks (after several false starts which had me rereading the first four pages more than twice). I felt that just as I was feeling I knew what the book was about and was into the rhythm of it, it changed tack. The murder was unexpected and it almost fleetingly became a whodunit. And then it shifted again and headed into philosophical territory. And I recall I wanted it to end.

I have now read the first of the previous posts and realise that……..I have read the sequel, The Schooldays of Jesus, rather than the nominated book…… Now, I do feel a tad bit of an idiot but I must have seen the book on the shelf in the library, clocked that it had Jesus in the title and was by the relevant author. I had no idea that there was a sequel until I read the “physical” book club comments just now. Its existence came as a complete surprise as I was in agreement with that book club’s notes and they fitted with the book that I had read. As that is the case, although it is not strictly in the spirit of our book club, I won’t be heading out to find the Childhood book.

I have now read Midnightcatprowl’s review. Highly readable as always but it confirms that I won’t be backtracking. At no time did I feel that there had been any back story to the novel that I was missing out on. I also don’t think that I can suggest that the sequel in anyway answers any of the questions posed in the first. On the other hand, if you have read the first with pleasure then the sequel seems to be more of the same.

Promising to pay more attention in future… MM

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Re: Book Club: Reading thread The Childhood of Jesus, JM Coetzee

#95585

Postby midnightcatprowl » November 14th, 2017, 1:13 pm

I have now read the first of the previous posts and realise that……..I have read the sequel, The Schooldays of Jesus, rather than the nominated book……


Love it! And suspect that it doesn't make a great deal of difference.

Having read your review of the sequel I've definitely decided that though reading one of the two was interesting, it wasn't interesting enough to induce me to read the sequel.

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Re: Book Club: Reading thread The Childhood of Jesus, JM Coetzee

#95771

Postby MistyMeena » November 14th, 2017, 11:01 pm

midnightcatprowl wrote:
I have now read the first of the previous posts and realise that……..I have read the sequel, The Schooldays of Jesus, rather than the nominated book……


Love it! And suspect that it doesn't make a great deal of difference.

Having read your review of the sequel I've definitely decided that though reading one of the two was interesting, it wasn't interesting enough to induce me to read the sequel.


One is enough. I do wonder why a sequel was considered necessary though.


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