The results are mixed. On the one hand, Coetzee’s greatest gifts as a critic are his eye for narrative design and his ability to elucidate why, under pressure from both the intrinsic demands of the artworks they sought to compose and the cultures in which they lived and laboured, classic writers decided to give their work this or that scope, tone, momentum, and design. On the other hand, Coetzee’s view of these writers is never less than enamoured, sometimes almost envious, and it is this view above all that hints at his anxieties. Often he seeks to pinpoint the lodestones of these writers’ legacies, to determine what technical innovations their achievements and their reputations rest on, and when he does this it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s wondering what his own work looks like in the shadows cast by theirs. From time to time, especially when he discusses the novels of Roth and Beckett, Coetzee even gives the impression that he’s trying to trace a literary lineage in which he hopes to place his oeuvre. His recurrent attraction to past masters looks like an effort to measure up to them in fits and starts, a piecemeal strategy for finessing his own position in relation to theirs. There’s nothing amiss with this per se, but Coetzee’s way of going about it comes at a cost. Eyes on the heavens, staking his longevity solely on writers he looks up to, he forfeits the opportunity to take a look around himself and survey those who have gathered in the shadow he casts.
I’ve also supplemented the review with a few Twitter comments in response to Stephen Mitchelmore’s concerns about my discussion of identity politics.
He walked all night, feeling no fatigue, trembling sometimes with the thrill of being free. When it began to grow light he left the road and moved across open country. He saw no human being, though more than once he was startled by buck leaping from cover and racing away into the hills. The dry white grass waved in the wind; the sky was blue; his body was overflowing with vigour. Walking in great loops, he skirted first one farmhouse, then another. The landscape was so empty that it was not hard to believe at times that his was the first foot ever to tread a particular inch of earth or disturb a particular pebble. But every mile or two there was a fence to remind him that he was a trespasser as well as a runaway. Ducking through the fences, he could feel a craftsman’s pleasure in wire spanned so taut that it hummed when it was plucked. Nonetheless, he could not imagine himself spending his life driving stakes into the ground, erecting fences, dividing up the land. He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface of an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust.
A few months ago I picked up a copy of J.M. Coetzee’s Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000-2005. I had been meaning to purchase the book ever since it was published in 2007 because I think Coetzee is one of the best contemporary literary critics. By and large, he is generous in his sentiments towards the activity of writing but unsparing in his assessment of the words that make it onto the printed page; and I find that he also has the rare ability to make me want to pick up and read or re-read whatever book he is discussing even if he does not hold it in high esteem. So, in addition to reading Coetzee’s essays over the last few months, I have also been returning to some of what already sits on my shelves, especially the great American texts: Leaves of Grass, Go Down, Moses, and, most recently, The Adventures of Augie March.
The point of Coetzee’s essay on Augie March, however, is that the novel is far from “great.” While the essay, available online, opens with a sense of reverence — “Among American novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century, Saul Bellow stands out as one of the giants, perhaps the giant” — it doesn’t take long for a to frost settle over the pleasantries: Continue reading →