Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

JM Coet­zee is the No­bel lau­re­ate from South Africa who moved to Adelaide in 2002 and be­came an Aus­tralian cit­i­zen four years later. He is not only the most in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed writer at work in this coun­try but also, a bit less ob­vi­ously, ar­guably the most em­i­nent fig­ure since Matthew Arnold to be a ma­jor writer while also con­tin­u­ing to teach lit­er­a­ture at a uni­ver­sity.

Of course there have been ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ry­tellers who did this, such as JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. There have been peo­ple who did it for a while, An­to­nia By­att and Kings­ley Amis for ex­am­ple; and peo­ple who did it while en­gag­ing with other sub­jects, such as Iris Mur­doch, who was a philoso­pher.

But Coet­zee was born and bred to the teach­ing of lit­er­a­ture, and lit­er­a­ture — first of an ur­gent dra­matic kind, then with a masterly and ghostly glow — is what he writes.

The only thing pe­cu­liar about the crit­i­cism this man of si­lences writes is that it’s so tacit: if he can para­phrase or his­tori­cise or cite a fa­mous dic­tum or opin­ion, he will. This is lit­er­ary crit­i­cism with lit­tle ego­tis­ti­cal sub­lim­ity, a triumph (if that’s the word) of neg­a­tive ca­pa­bil­ity.

Late Es­says 2006-2017 is dom­i­nated by at­trac­tive in­tro­duc­tions to clas­sics. With Ford Ma­dox Ford’s The Good Sol­dier, Coet­zee’s pre­lim­i­nary re­marks are more in­ter­est­ing than any­thing else, partly be­cause the novel’s ex­po­si­tion and its rav­ish­ing un­re­li­a­bil­ity are better to re­dis­cover than to re-en­counter in bland sum­mary. He does of­fer some el­e­men­tary facts with a cer­tain mag­is­te­rial tart­ness. Ma­dox Ford, he tells us, be­longs nei­ther to the last gen­er­a­tion of Victorians (such as Thomas Hardy and Henry James) nor to the gen­er­a­tion of the mod­ernists in­clud­ing TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, but strad­dles the two.

This is tricky. James and Hardy were born around 1840 and Ford was born in 1873, two years af­ter Mar­cel Proust and two years be­fore Thomas Mann. The real point here is that Ma­dox Ford’s long­est work, the tetral­ogy ade’s End, reads like a proto-mod­ernist novel that also has a lot in com­mon with that op­po­site kind of lit­er­ary crea­ture, a long novel by Eve­lyn Waugh. In fact it reads like a cross be­tween Waugh and James Joyce, with Ti­et­jen’s con­scious­ness stream­ing in the mud and stut­ter­ing fire of the trenches but with lots of ur­bane hu­man colour, with wit and poignancy on the see­saw and a Catholic vi­sion that has a strong dose of mercy and con­tri­tion.

Coet­zee has a more than usu­ally en­grossed ac­count of Friedrich Hold­er­lin, the mad 19th­cen­tury German poet who trans­lated Sopho­cles into crypto-mod­ernist frag­ments that have in turn (to­gether with Hold­er­lin’s at­tempts to use German as if it were Greek or some other cracked lan­guage of the gods) been put into a weird, some­times dis­lo­cated English by renowned trans­la­tor Michael Ham­burger.

Hold­er­lin made things new by mak­ing them strange and Coet­zee is en­gaged in Ham­burger’s at­tempt to strike the poet’s cadence, and in nav­i­gat­ing “the ten­sion be­tween a strict form and an impulse beat­ing against it”.

It’s in­ter­est­ing to see Coet­zee al­low­ing him­self to be eval­u­a­tive to the point of sever­ity, when he says Ham­burger’s trans­la­tions result “some­times in a life­less lit­er­al­ism”. But he con­cludes that although “only in­ter­mit­tently … touched with divine fire … they are a re­li­able guide to Hold­er­lin’s German and give an echo of his out­landish mu­sic”.

All of which is more evoca­tive than he usu­ally al­lows him­self to be­come. Coet­zee is good on Ger­mans and in­ward with Hold­er­lin’s cen­tral­ity to Martin Hei­deg­ger’s ideas about poetry and be­ing, and Hold­er­lin as the elegist for the fall of the gods, tran­scend­ing Nazi li­on­i­sa­tion.

But it’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing to have him de­scribe the incomparable Hein­rich von Kleist, au­thor of The Mar­quise of O, as hav­ing “a prose style that is uniquely his own, suc­cinct and fast-mov­ing”.

This lends colour to the cool in­ten­sity of an es­say that leads not only to an il­lu­mi­nat­ing ac­count of von Kleist’s quar­rel with Im­manuel Kant but also to crit­i­cism as pen­e­trat­ing as this: “Kleist’s orig­i­nal­ity lies in creating a ve­hi­cle in which the in­vis­i­bil­ity and in­scrutabil­ity of the orig­i­nat­ing ac­tion be­comes the engine of the nar­ra­tive, as the char­ac­ters on­stage strive to work out what has re­ally hap­pened.” Late Es­says 2006-2017 By JM Coet­zee Knopf, 304pp, $29.99 (HB)

Could you say the same of the Sopho­cles of Oedi­pus Rex? Well, not in the same way, and it’s the clar­ity of Coet­zee (which some­times sug­gests he does have the key to the right mythol­ogy) that jus­ti­fies his avoid­ance of elo­quence and blus­ter. He’s par­tic­u­larly good on the mad Ger­mans and he says poignantly and pre­sciently of the German-speak­ing Swiss writer Robert Walser that “his own un­event­ful yet, in its way, har­row­ing life was his only true sub­ject”. Yet he adds his novel The As­sis­tant is char­ac­terised by “a celebration of the won­der of be­ing alive”.

TS Eliot trea­sured the mo­ments when crit­i­cism had in­volved dis­cov­ery. It’s the way Coet­zee holds back from com­mon­place feel­ing and tonal ap­prox­i­ma­tions that some­times strength­ens his skele­tal power as an in­ter­preter and we’re lucky to have his in­tro­duc­tions to a se­ries of clas­sics pub­lished in Span­ish. The ac­count of Madame Bo­vary in­di­cates with great sure­ness of touch why Gus­tave Flaubert was not sim­ply an anti-ro­man­tic and anti-bour­geois iro­nist: Flaubert’s in­tu­ition was that a novel of the kind he en­vis­aged, fo­cused on the anatomy of a sin­gle char­ac­ter, with­out much overt ac­tion, need not lack dra­matic in­ter­est, but in the right hands psy­cho­log­i­cal anal­y­sis could have the same swift­ness, clar­ity and for­ward drive as nar­ra­tive. It was all a mat­ter of style, of giv­ing to prose com­po­si­tion the same close attention that one gave to verse.

Coet­zee em­pha­sises how Emma Bo­vary “took over her au­thor, be­came him”. It’s as good an ac­count of “Madame Bo­vary, c’est moi” as you’ll find. For Coet­zee a project that be­gins as mock-ro­man­tic be­came mock-heroic and then, like Don Quixote, heroic in its pur­suit of a trans-

JM Coet­zee’s cool crit­i­cism comes from an in­tense pas­sion for lit­er­a­ture

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