Three Monkeys Online

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Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000 – 2005 by J.M.Coetzee

An attempt at taxonomy may appropriate to begin with: There are writer-critics, and writers who also write criticism. There is a small, but important, distinction between the two; the former are unfailing proselytisers for their own vision. Their view of literature may change, but it will invariably be narrow, a select tradition that culminates in the writer-critic. The latter, however refined their own work may be, will operate on a sort of writerly receptiveness, patient and generous to visions of art alien to their own. Over a lengthy period, it is the writer-critic whose work lasts, in part because it is difficult to separate their creative efforts from their critical ones, however different their idioms may be. Many of the most influential critics since the romantic period have been poets: Coleridge, Baudelaire, Valery, Eliot. Except, perhaps, for Coleridge, the criticism of these writers is often contrasted with their poetry – ever since Eliot pronounced on the impersonality of art, others have delighted in pointing out how much personality there is in, say, The Waste Land. Some writers curmudgeonly reject almost all other contemporary writing – there can only be one true inheritor in their tradition. Nabokov was a minatory master at this, as his letters copiously attest to. Harry Matthew’s The Conversions, a fine novel, gets it in the neck: “a shapeless little heap of pretentious nonsense”; but he shouldn’t take it too hard, considering the company he’s keeping – Thomas Mann (“that quack”), Paul Bowles (“devoid of talent”), T.S. Eliot (“disgusting and second-rate”), Saul Bellow (“a miserable mediocrity”), et. Al. All this distaste seemed to keep him sharp, however, because the eighty pages he devotes to Anna Karenina in Lectures on Russian Literature constitute, or so it seems to me, the best ever written on the subject. In recollection, at least, it seems as if every page has a wonderful insight, a patient explication of a peculiarity of the Russian language, a rapturous celebration of an image, and, occasionally, a delightful illustration (of, for example, the clothes Anna would have worn when she plays tennis). It is hard not to see both praise and dispraise in Nabokov as being symbiotic – his identification with book such as Anna Karenina is so full and fulsome, that the efforts of his contemporaries are bound to seem slight, almost-willfully meretricious, in comparison.

A writer who also wrote criticism, V. S. Pritchett, accurately described the Nabokovian condition:

Let the academics weigh up, be exhaustive, or build their superstructure – the artist lives as much by his prides in his emphases as by what he ignores; humility is a disgrace.

Pritchett was reviewing Graham Greene’s collected essays, and it is typical of his capacious vision that he had the ability to see this, and to put it down finely and forcefully, even if doesn’t quite describe his critical modus operandi. Pritchett is the kind of critic who will strive to understand writers vastly different from him, even if it sometimes forces him into strange contortions; witness the strain as Pritchett tries to bring Borges’ vision into his own realist purview. J. M. Coetzee, as critic, comes at literature in the same spirit as Pritchett does, as the careful, sober, almost-modest essays collected in Inner Workings attest to. This is partly because, as a distinguished writer, Coetzee can pick the authors he writes about, and so can avoid the drudgery of having to review work uncongenial to him. What amazes then is the range of authors that Coetzee writes about, ranging from the central European masters from between the wars – Italo Svevo, Musil, Joseph Roth, Benjamin, Robert Walser – to the deeply American Bellow and Whitman, to the vastly different Beckett and Phillip Roth. His writing on all these authors, even when critical, openly accepts their centrality to a literary tradition, even if Bellow’s exuberant adjectives and compounds seem miles away from Coetzee’s starved, thrillingly emaciated fiction.

What, then, to say about a book that presents no program, no identifiable aesthetic, no solid position apart from fair-mindedness? One possibility is to admire Coetzee’s refusal to play the role of avenging angel or oracular sage. On reading his essays, even at their most opinionated, one never senses that the subject is closed, that Coetzee has settled this or that writer’s hash. Writer/critics like, say, Virginia Woolf, will often close their essays with a rhetorical flourish, with metaphor or hyperbole, and this functions as an aphoristic pr�cis of their preceding argument. Coetzee, comparatively, is almost pathologically non-committal. Some final sentences:

The other two sons had by that time perished on the Russian front, fighting for Italy and the Axis. [On Svevo’s children]

All of Schulz’s surviving drawings are available in reproduction in a handsome bilingual volume published by the Adam Mickiewicz Literary Museum.

Just as there is a case to be made for translating into the dialect of English that the translator commands most vividly, there is a contrary case to be made using as linguistically neutral, as mid-Atlantic, a dialect as possible.

In his introduction, Derek Attridge, says that a writer, like Coetzee, of such powerful works of fiction “is bound to have much to offer when writing, so to speak, with the left hand”. And indeed, this proves true. Benjamin’s early writings are “depressing to read” and, apropos Benjamin’s Marxism, “there seemed to be something forced about it, something merely reactive”. At his best, though, Benjamin’s prose was “a marvel of accuracy and concision” (something that is obviously highly valued by Coetzee). Almost all the essay’s here show the same judicious judgment, and Coetzee’s lack of an aesthetic program, not to mention his multilingual erudition, make him seem like an ideal guide. But writing with the left hand will tend to be messier, more unformed, less aesthetically pleasing. Coetzee essays, in this volume at least, seem to be secreted from art – for all his sanguine intelligence, Coetzee does not attempt to transcend his subjects. This is fine for writers one has read, for Coetzee is never less than interesting, but on authors one hasn’t read there is more of a problem. His essay on the Hungarian Sandor Marai closes forcefully by his standards: “his conception of the novel form was nevertheless old-fashioned, his grasp of its potentialities limited, and his achievements in the medium consequently slight”. Finishing it, I thought, �how ably done’, but I wasn’t convinced not to read Marai, nor was I particularly entertained. And that’s the problem for those writers who are also critics. If the work bears little relation to their own program, if they write with little humour and flourish, if their language often slips into stock phrase, clich�, simple laziness – “blind groping”, “soaking in its atmosphere”, “newfangled”, “thick and fast” – then they will always have the sense of provisional notes. By refusing to see his pieces as art, Coetzee condemns his work to a sort of journalistic netherworld, where his discriminating intelligence will find itself alone, unable to hear the answering echo of art.

Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 by JM Coetzee is published in the UK by Harvill & Secker, and in Australia by Random House Australia.

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