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J. M. Coetzee, Late Essays 2006 – 2017 – TLS


One might suppose that the description of J. M. Coetzee as a South African writer was relatively uncontentious, but in an Introduction to his second volume of collected essays, Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 (2007), Derek Attridge – perhaps unwilling to define an Afrikaner writer steeped in the European tradition as African, or simply mindful of Coetzee’s well-known elusiveness – seems reluctant to place him in this way, and tries instead to define him through negatives: “Coetzee himself is usually thought of as neither a European nor an American writer: for most of his writing life he has lived in South Africa, and half his novels take place in that country. He now lives in Australia…”.

“That country” and its neighbouring territories – where Coetzee’s Afrikaner ancestors settled as colonists in the seventeenth century, where he was born and brought up, and where he lived on and off for over 50 years – is the place to which he returns in Late Essays 2006-2017, a new collection that winds across the continents of Europe, America and Australia, before giving Africa the last word. His envoi on the diaries of the nineteenth century tribal leader Hendrik Witbooi underscores the mixing and complexity of colonial history: the Boers “way of life had become as much African as European”, while Witbooi and his mixed-race tribe behave like white colonists, “plundering, castle-rustling”. But, scrupulously, Coetzee goes beyond Witbooi’s lifetime to the emergence of the European colonizers’ “larger and more sinister project: genocide”, a fact that cannot be ignored in his final reckoning.

Of course, there may be more to be said on the subject. Coetzee’s notoriously disciplined work rate may yet produce successive volumes – Later or Latest Essays, perhaps? Such an idea would not be out of character for a writer who studied and taught in various universities (Cape Town, Texas, Buffalo, Harvard, Adelaide, Chicago) between 1963 and 2003, and whose novels bear the imprint of this experience, engaging in postmodern games that resist conclusiveness while tipping their hat to literary history and theory. Beckett and Kafka are returning presences in his work, and in Foe (1986) Coetzee reimagines the story of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday from the perspective of a woman castaway on their island who tries to tell her own version of the colonist’s story. She finds she can speak plausibly only with the aid of a man’s intercession, and as her words are mistranslated by a male writer called Daniel Foe, so she misrepresents Friday, who is mute. As with Jean Rhys in her revision of Jane Eyre, (“Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know”), the focus is on the politics of language and the problems of interpretation, appropriation and the value denied those who speak in foreign tongues – or not at all. In later work this concern extends to the cruel treatment of “dumb” animals.

Coetzee’s engagement with literary history was attacked at the peak of the battle against apartheid as nostalgic or irrelevant. I doubt it escaped his notice that the language of this criticism – Michael Channon argued that Foe provided a “masturbatory release…for Europeanising dreams” – resembles that used by hard-line communist critics who, in the inter-war years, condemned modernist writers for failing to respond to social upheavals in the prescribed realist fashion: Mike Gold denounced Proust as the “master-masturbator of bourgeois literature”, and Karl Radek accused Joyce of being morbid and backward-looking.

Coetzee resisted any such pressure. When he wrote directly about apartheid in South Africa he was excoriating, but by flouting orthodoxy and insisting on imaginative freedom he continued to trouble readers. It was not only Thabo Mbeki who was disturbed by the depiction of black men raping a white woman in the Booker Prize winning, Disgrace (1999). Frequently, the unsettling tensions in Coetzee’s work have lain between its controlled austerity its lapidary elegance, and the risk he has run of giving offence, in writing to the edge. Over time his fictions have became increasingly self-reflexive (among his characters are numerous avatars bearing his name), digressive and provisional (“to be explored…”), and removed from what many now regard as the bad faith, or at least the untenable use of realism at the end of the modern era. Elizabeth Costello (2003), for instance, consists of a series of lectures on the industrialisation of animals, hanging on only the flimsiest of story skeletons; Dairy of a Bad Year (2007) develops three parallel narrators demarcated by dividing lines; while Summertime (2009) sees the biographer of a writer, one “J M Coetzee”, interviewing unimpressed ex-lovers following the death of the author. The problem of placing Coetzee geographically or intellectually was the subject of an essay by Hedley Twidle which won the Financial Times/Bodley Head competition in 2012. As Twidle observed, for many reviewers the difficulty of analysing Coetzee’s writing is fuelled by the feeling that he has got there before them: his fictions include their own auto-assessments, creating a critical redundancy.

J. M. Coetzee, 2017

All of which sets up intriguing questions when it comes to Coetzee’s own literary criticism. As with the two earlier volumes of his collected non-fiction, many of the selections in Late Essays, including those on Goethe, Irène Némirovsky, Beckett, Philip Roth and Patrick White, were originally published as reviews for the New York Review of Books. An insightful essay on Zbigniev Herbert first appeared in the small magazine, New Walk. But half of the essays began life as Introductions to other writers’ works (among them pieces on Defoe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert, Ford Madox Ford, Heinrich von Kleist and Leo Tolstoy, as well as Beckett and White again). A glance at the Acknowledgements reveals that nearly all of these were for volumes published by El Hilo de Ariadne. What we are not told is that they are part of a grander project of canon-making that Coetzee has entered into with the Argentine publishing house to select, introduce and publish his own Biblioteca Personal – along the lines of Borges’s personal library for Hyspamérica. These books, Coetzee has said, are not only works that he greatly admires, but ones that have had a formative influence upon him as a writer.

Other than Hendrik Witbooi, all the writers discussed in this new collection are by men – Némirovsky is the only female exception – who made a living from their pens. The first essay, on Defoe notes that this was a profession “which, if he did not invent…he certainly pioneered”. He was, too, “an accidental pioneer of the novel of realism”, not quite understanding what he was doing, but how could he when he was “not only making the story up as he went along, he was making the form up too”? Defoe’s innovative writing emerged from his position as “an important social actor: the inquisitive, acquisitive man or woman of the ascendant protestant middle class”, and from “a certain inborn genius”. In interview Coetzee once said “there are no generalizations that serve and are true for all writers”, and the reach and depth of these sophisticated, authoritative essays certainly prove the case. But across generations and continents there are some recurring themes, reflecting perhaps Coetzee’s own preoccupations as a writer as much as those of the people he speaks of. It is the accident of talent (“which it is death to hide”) combined with specific historical forces and the way these feed into a work that he alights upon when trying to unravel the mysteries of writing – mysteries even to authors themselves who “cannot always tell the deepest motive behind [their] writing”. Kleist, for example, was born into a Prussian military family but lived “in the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte’s grand plan to redraw the map of Europe”; becoming sick of army brutality and discovering the sceptical philosophy of the Enlightenment, he tried to fashion himself into a writer. These illuminating details help to explain why Kleist’s stories are so paradoxical, concerned as they are with people “torn between competing forces and impulses.” In the same way, Coetzee finds in the satiric counter-attacks, the ironic masks or Aesopian fables of Herbert’s poetry “evidence of his historical situation as a man trying to live out a poetic and intellectual vocation in a hostile environment”.

Along with the particulars of background and talent, Coetzee keenly identifies the honed techniques and “writer’s tricks” which keep pushing the form into new territory: Flaubert’s “ability to formulate larger issues…as problems of composition”, Kleist’s “invisible or buried narrators”, Roth’s complication of story “transmission”, and the methods Becket took from psychoanalysis (keep talking, free-associate: there is no point, and no end). In a group of novels by Defoe, Hawthorne, Flaubert and Ford concerning sexual betrayal, Coetzee seems less interested in the betrayals themselves than in the way in which their depiction makes of their creators (as with his own challenging stories) opponents of hypocrisy, moralising and cant; even as in the case of an essentially conservative writer such as Ford, the ambiguities and double-standards that The Good Soldier exposes, make him so. Indeed, one can draw a line in Coetzee’s thinking from the rebellion against bourgeois manners – Emma Bovary’s “right to desire in the face of the pious disapproval of society”, Ivan Ilyich’s “unseemly suffering…a breach in social decorum”, or Kleist’s Marquise, inexplicably pregnant (a plot so offensive one reviewer thought that even to summarise it was “to ostracize oneself from polite society”) – to the idea of the artist as an outsider.

Among many models of the author which Coetzee entertains, the romantic idea of the writer as outcast, pilloried for truth-telling yet steadfast in fidelity to their vision (“the great Accursed One” described by Rimbaud), is perhaps the one he finds most compelling. In Patrick White’s novel The Vivisector, he picks out the artist as “Luciferian angel”, and in an essay on Samuel Beckett he anoints Kafka as “the angel Misfit”. The Irish writer was the subject of Coetzee’s doctoral thesis: a lifelong preoccupation, he gets more attention here than anyone else. In Beckett, being an outsider is reformulated not only as the artist’s condition, but humanity’s – in our “plight of existential homelessness”. Coetzee’s quality of attention to Beckett is superb, though one could argue that he misses something of the comedy at the kernel of his work. But in the last of four pieces on him in Late Essays, Coetzee performs an imaginative dance with Godot’s creator that masters some of his playfulness, revealing, perhaps, as much about Coetzee as it does about Beckett.

In an essay of parts, divided by numbers, he begins by reflecting on how the mind/body divide gave rise to the dualism of radically self-conscious humans, an over-adaptation some thought, leading them to wonder if “the hyper-reflective Western bourgeois male” was doomed liked the dinosaur. Then, in a move that is part-homage, part-usurpation, he muses on what Beckett left out of his world picture: “the great scheming animal mind…incommensurate with human thought”. So he tries to conjure this for himself with a story about a laboratory animal also struggling to understand where it fits in a “universe [that] is never as it appears to be”. Coetzee rounds off with the true story of how in 1937, after his professor at Trinity saw an advert in the TLS, Beckett applied for a Cape Town University lectureship. He failed to get the job, of course, but for a moment Coetzee imagines another universe with Beckett, Crusoe-like, “an indolent Irish castaway” at “the southernmost tip of Africa” teaching Romance languages to daughters of the merchant class, even marrying one of these “sweet-breathed, bronze-limbed Calypsos”, and wondering would he ever have returned to Ithaca. The idea of Kafka or Beckett as university professors amuses him: “What would Kafka teach, anyway? How not to fit in?” But ever alert to the counter-thought, refusing all conclusions, Coetzee reminds us that Kafka was once a “perfectly competent insurance adjuster”.

How can we know the mind of a writer? What kind of portrait can we draw of these elusive creatures? Beckett and Kafka were both lean and both had a piercing gaze, Coetzee notes, and their photographs show men “whose inner being shines like a cold star through a fleshly envelope”. It is a beautiful image with the ring of truth about it, but one, characteristically, that Coetzee quickly dismantles: if soul and flesh belong to distinct realms, no photograph can tell the truth, and our conjunction “is an everlasting mystery”.

This review appeared in the TLS as “Plundering, rustling” on 22.9.2018.

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