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