Deep learning

23 September 2017

9:00 AM

23 September 2017

9:00 AM

Given the brilliance of his career as a fiction-writer, it is easy to forget that J.M. Coetzee has a commensurate career in non-fiction. He trained as an academic (English literature, mathematics, linguistics and computer analysis of stylistics), taught for several years in the US and in South Africa, and continues to translate, write essays and reviews — most notably for the New York Review of Books — and introductions to books. This third volume of non-fiction pieces, Late Essays 2006-2017, gathers a selection mostly from the NYRB and from his introductions to a series of novels translated into Spanish and published by the Spanish-language press El Hilo de Ariadna.

The current crop seems to be simpler essays than the ones that appeared in Stranger Shores (2001) and Inner Workings (2007). In the earlier works, we’ll find a discussion of the concept of hybridity in the memoirs of Breytenbach, or a long piece on Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’, or references to Homi Bhabha’s notoriously impenetrable book The Location of Culture, or a bravura lecture, ‘What Is A Classic?’, which forensically dissects T.S. Eliot’s own lecture bearing the same title that breathtakingly positioned the modernist project in a redefined map of European literary greatness. Certainly, one can see the differences between the introductions and the NYRB pieces, but this is not a failing, rather an intelligent understanding of genres: the demands of a short introduction to a European or English-language classic in Spanish translation are different from those of an intellectual (but not academic) literary-political magazine.

Coetzee’s lifelong interest in Beckett — his PhD dissertation was on the Irish writer — appears here in no fewer than four essays, the last of which, ‘Eight Ways of Looking at Samuel Beckett’, is original, revelatory, dense with thought and ideas that could be used as a springboard for several doctoral theses. There are two essays on Patrick White, one of the greatest novelists of the last century (and a fellow Nobel laureate); the essay on White’s posthumously published unfinished novel, The Hanging Garden, has an illuminating discussion on The Vivisector and how the novel ‘was… fated to be an elegy not only for the school of painting represented by Duffield [the novel’s protagonist] but also for the school of writing represented by White himself’. A startling essay on Les Murray sails close to personal criticism, augustly reprimanding the poet for carping about his status as an outsider in Australian literary life, a status Coetzee thinks is largely a pose.

Unsurprisingly, given Coetzee’s deep knowledge and abiding interest in German language and literature, there are essays on Goethe, Hölderlin, Kleist and Walser (Coetzee is a great standard-bearer for this sui generis Swiss writer). The essay on translating Hölderlin presents a clear (and gripping) summary of the life and works of the poet, finds time to talk about his appropriation by the National Socialists and contest the appropriation, before moving on to the merits and shortcomings of Michael Hamburger’s translation of the poetry. One can only feel humility and gratitude in the presence of such deep learning, so lucidly conveyed. It brings to mind a similar essay, ‘Paul Celan and his Translators’, in Inner Workings, and the long essays, on translating Kafka, and Robert Musil’s Diaries, in Stranger Shores.

A spare, dry sense of humour occasionally flashes through the essays. Making a list of the jobs (and their corresponding locations in parentheses) which the young Beckett applied for, Coetzee writes, ‘…advertising copywriting (in London), piloting commercial aircraft (in the skies)’. And Coetzee’s own stylistic austerity can make certain riffs in the ‘Eight Ways…’ piece look positively like flights of fancy. His powers of syntheses and linkage are formidable, something only possible to pull off if an author has seemingly boundless reserves of knowledge and reading. Not a single page goes by in this collection when you don’t learn something: he will pick out the moment from Beckett’s letters when, talking about Cézanne, Beckett will strike ‘the first authentic note of [his] mature, post-humanist phase’. The term ‘late style’, certainly in the Said-ian connotation of it, is often meant to signify jaggedness and incompletion married to a simplicity born of wisdom and maturity, but here, Coetzee’s ‘late style’ is all lucidity.

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