The Bridging Problem

Before J.M. Coetzee opens Elizabeth Costello he talks about the problem of getting us from where we are, which is, as yet, he says, nowhere, to the far bank. He calls this a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People, he writes, solve such problems every day. They solve them, and having solved them push on[1].

[1] In Which the Author Speaks to the Bridging Problem

When Coetzee writes about his narrator’s ‘simple bridging problem’ (Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons 1) he uses the pronoun ‘we,’ suggesting that author, narrator, characters, and reader will journey into and through the fiction together. His is a philosophical novel, a method of discovery, an experiment (Coetzee, Slow Man) and this requires all parties involved in the novel – author, narrator, characters, reader – to be active and attentive. The author himself must do much of the work alone; Coetzee does not explicitly state who is responsible for the building of the bridge – he uses the passive construction – the bridge is built – thus removing the bridge builder from centre stage and, instead, inviting the reader to join him and, together as ‘we,’ to cross it, arrive in the territory where ‘we’ want to be, the territory of Coetzee’s novel, of the fiction, and once arrived, to put the bridge out of ‘our’ minds and not to worry about the gap between what is real and what is fiction.

Coetzee’s bridging problem, when solved, bridges the gap between reality and fiction so that he and the reader can get to the other side, which is where they want to be, because that is where the essential story takes place. Kundera calls this ellipsis, omission, condensation. He talks about the method of omitting and condensing much of the work of realism. Kundera is responding to the work of Broch and Musil, but mainly Broch who developed the (‘ill-defined’, for Kundera) ‘polyhistorical novel’ which, by virtue of being a novel which ‘brings together every device and every form of knowledge in order to shed light on existence’ (Kundera, The Art of the Novel), is very close to the approach adopted by the author here. Kundera argues that in order to understand the ‘complexity of human existence’ one needs to master the art of ellipsis, which requires to ‘always go directly to the heart of things’ (Kundera, The Art of the Novel). The influence of Broch via Kundera and of course the practice of Coetzee has offered solutions to this author’s creative form, which include the courage to strip away unessential elements of geography, architecture, and back story (unessential, because to include details about country and city and suburb and streets would be to change the subject, to tell a different story), to unite philosophy and narrative (Broch’s ‘novelistic counterpoint’), and to remain, in essaying within the narrative (Broch’s ‘novelistic essay’) always hypothetical and playful; never didactic.