“Coetzee the critic is every bit as good as Coetzee the novelist,” the Irish Times said of his third essay collection back in 2001. For Late Essays: 2006–2017 (Knopf Australia; $29.99), his fifth, his publishers use the blurb again, and no one should argue with the praise.
JM Coetzee is a critic in the classic mode. His essays are models of clarity, judicious reasoning, and respectful attention to the intentions as well as the mixed achievements of other writers. I am inclined to think of Coetzee as a Confucian critic, a kind of sage who brings composure to bear on the earthquake zones of mind and heart. He is a master of prose’s lucidities, all the while cognisant of the hidden presence of poetry, which arises from the domain of the unutterable, the unconscious, the realms of disorder.
Late Essays is a loaded title if ever there was one. Of course, the “late” may just refer to the fact that Coetzee is getting on a bit: his new perfections can’t be offered to us indefinitely. But the undergrowth, the rather obsessional preoccupations, offer sly hints to the sympathies that seem to inform his own late style, with its penchant for fable and elusive discourse.
I’m thinking of the enigmatic abstractions in his recent “Jesus novels”, where normal narrative props are lacking, and mysterious silences fill the gaps. And there was that beguiling, irksome book, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, where Coetzee was in conversation with Arabella Kurtz, an English psychotherapist who spoke forthrightly about the lived complexities of emotional truths. By contrast, Coetzee seemed to be rationalistic, withholding – a man with something to fear or defend. I couldn’t help reading Late Essays for threads that might link to these impressions.
Most of the 23 pieces have either been published in the New York Review of Books or as introductions to South American texts written in Spanish, a fact that gives Late Essays a marvellous, international reach. There are grand pieces on Daniel Defoe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ford Madox Ford, Philip Roth, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Hölderlin – to name the subjects of the first half dozen. Coetzee is sympathetically in tune with the writers who get closest to the edge of difficulty with their own constructions of themselves, and their protagonists. Two themes are instantly apparent: the Puritan ethic of judgement, with its consorts guilt and shame; and the peculiar ways in which writers are confined and complicated by the bourgeois conventions of their readerships.
And once a writer’s life and fictions are put on the operating table, deeper philosophical issues show through. Language itself can become the obstacle to a true rendition of what is of value in art, and in life. The same might be said of human consciousness in a natural world that includes other sentient creatures. What becomes of truth-stakes, justice and love when such matters are considered? What on earth (as distinct from in heaven) is a writer to do? Implicitly, these questions keep looming in Late Essays. They constitute the load and the mother lode of the collection.
A certain kind of author – Flaubert with his Madame Bovary is the standard model – will efface themselves in the narrative. They will develop an impersonal style. Their self-disgust will win the literary day. From this anonymity they might forge a style “as clean and cold as a knife”, to use the phrase Coetzee once applied to VS Naipaul, and which he could have applied to himself. Coetzee registers a keen understanding of writers who mirror social worlds that reinforce such a style: in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, for example, the hero is “the chief practitioner of this code or cult of wordlessness”, over against anything “unseemly” that comes “straight from the heart”.
At the dark end of this scale of withdrawal lies madness. The Swiss writer Robert Walser fell into an obsessive madness that was inseparable from his writing things down. Walser, in deep privacy, could describe the bliss of the everyday world but it did him no good. He was happiest in the asylum, where he wrote short, plot-less prose pieces, but it was in an earlier novel, The Assistant, where his protagonist was happiest because he was capable of what Coetzee calls “a profound, almost animal immersion in nature”.
By contrast, outer forces brought psychic ruin to the Argentinean novelist Antonio Di Benedetto, who was incarcerated in 1976 during the military coup and emerged from his tortures too broken to write again. Coetzee “harvests the darkness” of Di Benedetto’s novel Zama, published in 1956, a tale replete with images of cruelty to man and beast, yet dedicated to “the victims of expectation”. This sounds contradictory, until Coetzee puts us in the Kafkaesque landscape of life and death under the generals, one of whom spelled out their method thus: “First we will kill all the subversives, then we will kill their collaborators, then their sympathizers, then those who remained indifferent, and finally we will kill the timid.”
Coetzee has read his history and knows its politics. Late Essays is a sustained scrutiny of fictions as psychological/political events in the real world. The essays become micro-biographies, or penetrating raids on biographies that have been done. They steer clear of happiness.
Readers might baulk at their melancholic inevitabilities. But all of a sudden – and slap in the middle of the collection – they will find themselves in the lap of warm tenderness. Coetzee offers a piece on Platero and I, the Andalusian children’s story by Juan Ramón Jiménez. Platero is a donkey. Coetzee explains:
It is the mutual gaze, between the eyes of this man – a man whom the gypsy children mock as crazy, and who tells the story of Platero and I rather than of I and Platero – and the eyes of “his” donkey that establishes the deep bond between them, in much the same way that a bond is established between mother and infant at the moment when their gazes first lock. Again and again the mutual bond between man and beast is reinforced. “From time to time Platero stops eating to look at me. I from time to time stop reading to look at Platero.”
Coetzee hastens to add that Jiménez has not humanised the donkey; that would betray the donkey’s asinine essence.
Nevertheless, this barrier is now and again breached when for an instant the poet’s vision, like a ray of light, penetrates and illuminates Platero’s world; or, to make the same claim in a different form, when the senses that we human beings possess in common with the beasts, infused with our heart’s love, permit us, through the agency of Jiménez the poet, to intuit that experience.
The essay is less than four pages. It does as much for love as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina tried to do. The tale demonstrates, Coetzee remarks, “that no matter how humble we are we must have someone to love or we will dry up and perish”.
Nowhere else in Late Essays does Coetzee’s own voice break through as directly, redemptively. It points beyond writing, and soon enough, after considering Tolstoy’s failed case against art, and Zbigniew Herbert’s poetic recovery of a thinking subject (his “Mr Cogito” persona) after the traumas of Poland, Coetzee arrives at the door of Samuel Beckett. At Beckett’s feet, in effect. There are four superb essays on Beckett, and their purport is to praise Beckett as he has in the past: “as an artist possessed by a vision of life without consolation or dignity or promise of grace … to which he gave expression in language of a virile strength and intellectual subtlety that mark him as one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century”.
‘The Young Samuel Beckett’ is one of the highlights – made possible by the publication of the first volume of Beckett’s letters in 2005. It’s a source of wonder for Coetzee that Beckett once applied for a lectureship in Italian at the University of Cape Town. Coetzee, who shares Beckett’s facility with languages as well as philosophy, is sympathetic to Beckett’s nervous disorder pertaining to his domineering mother – “the intrauterine memories”, as Beckett dubbed them, which disabled him until he sought help by psychoanalysis.
Beckett saw his therapist – Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock clinic in London – several hundred times in 1934–35. The task was to re-evaluate the priority Beckett gave to “pure thought” (which was already the absurdist subject matter of Beckett’s fictions). Therapy set Beckett on his own way towards what he called the “literature of the non-word”.
Coetzee’s other major piece is on the German poet Hölderlin. With all the authority of his own German, he takes up the work of Hölderlin’s 20th-century translator, Michael Hamburger, along with Richard Sieburth’s translations. (Martin Heidegger’s are in the deep background.) The young Hölderlin, who had once trained for the priesthood, adopted as a motto the Greek phrase en kai pan, one and all: “life constitutes a harmonious unity, our goal must be to merge with the All”.
Hölderlin’s great poems arrived between bouts of madness. “In his last productive years,” Coetzee writes, “Hölderlin seems to have abandoned the notion of the definitive, to have regarded each seemingly completed poem as merely a stopping place, a base from which to conduct further raids on the unsaid.” Coetzee wonders if the poet might have been feeling his way towards “a new aesthetics of the fragmentary, and an accompanying poetic epistemology of the flashing insight or vision”. Coetzee’s own translations are offered as expressions of Hölderlin’s valiant engagement with the Greek gods who have forsaken humankind. They are grand, almost as if Coetzee would have his own voicings participate in Hölderlin’s project.
But ‘Translating Hölderlin’ is not an imperious essay. It dawned on me while reading Late Essays that Coetzee’s cold style, the reserve in it – a product of his formal intelligence and a persona shaped by the cruelties of his upbringing – might mask a tenderness he was deprived of yet seeks to express. He is tender, for instance, with Les Murray (another writer fluent in several languages), who has suffered from depression, and who has written a whole book in which he enters the minds of animals. Coetzee makes corrective remarks about Murray’s bucolic idealisms, and in a kind enough way urges him to let go of his grudges. He is full of praise for Murray’s great communal poem ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’, which reaches back to Arnhem Land’s ‘Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone’.
And Coetzee has a special regard for the mysterious self-constructions of Gerald Murnane, a novelist who has made an oblique art of inner, abstract landscapes. Eventually, Murnane, as reticent and as philosophically demanding a man as Coetzee, gave up writing fiction. Late in his life he asked himself why he had ever started. Coetzee points us to Murnane’s answer: without writing he “would never be able to suggest to another person what I truly felt towards him or her”.
Late Essays gives you the feeling that Coetzee has come to look into the eyes of writers, the better to read them with the justice they deserve for the burdens they carry.
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