Well Read: Making connections
J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel laureate from South Africa, is a rare breed of writer: a world-class novelist with a Ph.D. Thankfully, over the last 40-odd years, no traces of the pedantic or dryly academic have crept into Coetzee’s marvelous fiction, which is incisive, spare and eminently readable. And when Coetzee dons the hat of a literary critic, as he does in the 23 pieces collected in his new book, Late Essays: 2006–2017, it is his novelist’s eye that prevails, albeit tempered by years of thinking deeply about writing. The result makes for engaging reading for those who share a love of literature.
The subjects of these essays are wide ranging, covering writers from the 17th century to the 20th, and even some still at work today. For the most part, the pieces were written originally as book prefaces or for The New York Review of Books. Some focus on writers read by few Americans outside of academia, although Coetzee’s lively comments might encourage serious-minded readers to seek out their work. But the majority of the essays are concerned with writers most of us have at least a passing familiarity with—Daniel Defoe, Robert Walser, Patrick White—and some, such as Philip Roth, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert or Leo Tolstoy, are surely on most book lovers’ shelves. Coetzee’s thoughtful essays may inspire readers to return to these classics and discover them anew.
Coetzee has spent a lifetime thinking about the works that have influenced his own writing.
One four-essay grouping about Samuel Beckett forms an enlightening set piece that offers psychological and linguistic insight into Beckett’s art. Not incidentally, Coetzee’s Ph.D. dissertation, written almost 50 years ago, was about Beckett. His earlier master’s degree thesis was about Ford Madox Ford, and there is an excellent introduction to Ford’s masterpiece, The Good Soldier, here as well. It’s clear that Coetzee, now approaching 80, has spent a lifetime thinking about the works that have influenced his own writing. Indeed, his words on Beckett might easily be applied to Coetzee’s own work: “Are our lives directed by an intelligence, malign or benign; or on the contrary is what we go through just stuff happening? Are we part of an experiment on so grand a scale that we cannot descry even its outlines, or on the contrary is there no scheme at all of which we form a part?”
Readers looking for insight into the famously private Coetzee’s own work will need to read between the lines—he keeps himself out of the discussion. Still, the perceptive reader will spot the connections between the novelist and the literary critic’s subject choices. Many of Coetzee’s subjects in Late Essays are outsiders, a common theme in his own work, and quite a few are émigrés—some, such as Samuel Beckett and Irène Némirovsky, were literal exiles, and others, such as Defoe, Flaubert and Hawthorne, were, in Coetzee’s view, strangers in their own lands. Coetzee, whose primary fictional setting has been his troubled native South Africa, spent significant chunks of his life abroad in the U.K. and U.S., and he is now an Australian citizen.
Late Essays is one of those collections of essays that, at first glance, may seem to be nothing more than a somewhat random gathering of a great writer’s scattered work. Yet as pages turn, one becomes increasingly drawn in by Coetzee’s insights—subtly interconnected, ever elucidating.
This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.