Study Guide

Age of Iron Literature and Writing

By J.M. Coetzee

Literature and Writing

To whom this writing then? The answer: to you but not you; to me; to you in me. (1.13)

Mrs. Curren claims to be writing to her daughter, but we can tell from the beginning that it's not entirely clear whether or not she expects her daughter to ever read her letters. It seems as though she's writing as much for her own sake as for her daughter's sake.

Six pages already, and all about a man you have never met and never will. Why do I write about him? Because he is and is not I. Because in the look he gives me I see myself in a way that can be written. Otherwise what would this writing be but a kind of moaning, now high, now low? When I write about him I write about myself. When I write about his dog I write about myself; when I write about the house I write about myself. (1.28)

Throughout the novel, Mrs. Curren has a lot to say about the act of writing. It's interesting that she draws attention to the fact that she can choose what to write about and what not to write about. We get the vibe that there might, in fact, be details that she finds more important than others, as well as details she simply chooses to leave out.

Man, house, dog: no matter what the word, through it I stretch out a hand to you. In another world I would not need words. I would appear on your doorstep. "I have come for a visit," I would say, and that would be the end of words: I would embrace you and be embraced. But in this world, in this time, I must reach out to you in words. So day by day I render myself into words and pack the words into the page like sweets: like sweets for my daughter, for her birthday, for the day of her birth. Words out of my body, drops of myself, for her to unpack in her own time, to take in, to suck to absorb. (1.28)

Written words don't just communicate stories; they also create ties between the reader and the writer.

This letter is not a baring of my heart. It is a baring of something, but not of my heart. (1.64)

Mrs. Curren seems to spend a lot of time thinking not just about what to write, but also why she writes in the first place.  She seems to have a message to send her daughter, but even she isn't entirely sure of what she's trying to communicate.

Three years ago I had a burglary (you may remember, I wrote about it). (1.144)

That Mrs. Curren – she's always writing!

"These are private papers, private letters. They are my daughter's inheritance. They are all I can give her, all she will accept, coming from this country. I don't want them opened and read by anyone else."

Private papers. These papers, these words that either you read now or else will never read. Will they reach you? Have they reached you? Two ways of asking the same question, a question to which I will never know the answer, never. To me this letter will forever be words committed to the waves: a message in a bottle with the stamps of the Republic of South Africa on it, and your name. (1.167-168)

Mrs. Curren has no way of knowing whether her daughter will ever even read the words she's writing, and yet she writes anyway. Here, we also see how the act of writing this letter is a major point of focus in her relationship with Vercueil. She has no choice but to try and trust him to be her messenger.

I tell you this story not so that you will feel for me but so that you will learn how things are. It would be easier for you, I know, if the story came from someone else, if it were a stranger's voice sounding in your ear. But the fact is, there is no one else. I am the only one. I am the one writing: I, I. So I ask you: attend to the writing, not to me. If lies and pleas and excuses weave among the words, listen for them. Do not pass them over, do not forgive them easily. Read all, even this adjuration, with a cold eye. (3.172)

The act of writing tells us a lot about Mrs. Curren's loneliness. There's nobody else to tell her story because Mrs. Curren is so fundamentally alone. She has to rely on her written words to communicate with her daughter because she can't think of any viable alternative.

Yes, I said: today is the day. Yet today has passed and I have not gone through with what I promised. For as long as the trail of words continues, you know with certainty that I have not gone through with it: a rule, another rule. Death may indeed be the last great foe of writing, but writing is also the foe of death. Therefore, writing, holding death at arm's length, let me tell you that I meant to go through with it, began to go through with it, did not go through with it. (3.255)

Mrs. Curren planned to commit suicide, but didn't go through with it. She lets the fact that she's still writing be the evidence that she's still alive. This moment creates an interesting link between writing and living – that is to say, as long as she's writing, she's living.

On the telephone, love but not truth. In this letter from elsewhere (so long a letter!), truth and love together at last. In every you that I pen love flickers and trembles like Saint Elmo's fire; you are with me not as you are today in America, not as you were when you left but as you are in some deeper and unchanging form: as the beloved, as that which does not die. It is the soul of you that I address, as it is the soul of me that will be left with you when this letter is over. Like a moth from its case emerging, fanning its wings: that is what, reading, I hope you will glimpse: my soul readying itself for further flight. (3.345)

We have to admit, we've been wondering why Mrs. Curren doesn't call her daughter or see her in person to tell her what's happening in her life. Maybe it's because it's a lot easier to be honest when you're writing to someone than when you're talking to him or her in person – the experience is less immediate.

I thought, when I began this long letter, that its pull would be as strong as the tide's, that beneath the waves beating this way and that on its surface there would be a tug as constant as the moon's drawing you to me and me to you: the blood tug of daughter to mother, woman to woman. But with every day I add to it the letter seems to grow more abstract, more abstracted, the kind of letter one writes from the stars, from the farther void, disembodied, crystalline, bloodless. Is that to be the fate of my love? (3.418)

Mrs. Curren had believed that her letter would bring her and her daughter closer together, but instead she realizes that the act of writing makes her feel more and more estranged from her.  Could it be partly because writing is such a solitary act?

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