JM Coet­zee’s Late Es­says: 2006–2017

Barry Hill on JM Coet­zee’s Late Es­says: 2006–2017

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“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 truth­stakes, 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 mi­cro­bi­ogra­phies, 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 self­con­struc­tions 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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