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