To See Through Appearances

JM Coetzee, Late Essays: 2006-2017

Harvill Secker, 304pp, £17.99, ISBN 9781911215431

reviewed by Marc Farrant

It is still a commonplace that major prize-winning novelists are writers who, broadly speaking, work within the conventions of realism. Their novels win prizes when this realism is animated by formal or stylistic embellishments whereby the storytelling artifice becomes either passively incorporated, via ‘literary’ language, or actively incorporated, via the techniques of metafiction, such as staging the writing process in the work itself. It is through the deployment of such techniques that everyday life is transformed into art. The contemporary novel thus follows an imperative that fundamentally precedes it: to transform experience into art.

There is another model of writing, however, which seeks to transform art into experience. What this entails hinges on what ‘realism’ means from this reversed perspective. Fyodor Dostoevsky supplies us with a clue in his notebooks when he writes: ‘I am only a realist in the higher sense; that is, I portray all the depths of the human soul.’ In a godless world, where politics has appropriated the ground of the theological, and science has the conquered the mysteries of the self, what might such a higher realism look like now? The recent writings of JM Coetzee would appear to fit the bill. The two Jesus fictions, The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus ( 2012 and 2016 respectively), have garnered baffled responses from critics precisely for failing to realise or construct a convincing narrative reality. However, this is a bit like judging a musical composition by the standard of the acoustics at the venue one hears it performed. These works are concerned less with modelling a world according to reality as with realising an irreality which is as enigmatic as it is truthful, or vice versa.

By elevating the enigmatic realm of art to a status of truth, Coetzee’s higher realism both interrogates the notion of realist truth whilst simultaneously elaborating an alternative one. An example from a much earlier work helps to illustrate the continuity across the oeuvre. In In the Heart of the Country (1977) Magda, the solipsistic narrator-protagonist, postulates:

‘Deprived of human intercourse, I inevitably overvalue the imagination and expect it to make the mundane glow with an aura of self-transcendence. Yet why these glorious sunsets, I ask myself, if nature does not speak to us in tongues of fire? (I am unconvinced by talk about suspended dust particles.)’

In part this is a metafictional commentary on the art, or perhaps just craft, of novel-writing (something for which Coetzee has frequently cited an ambivalence). It punctures the illusion of a narrative world in which Magda feasibly exists. However, in a performative contradiction, it establishes the transcendence that it simultaneously puts into question (the effect of ‘tongues of fire’, which seems to hang on its own at the end of the sentence, is compounded by the bathetic parenthetical commentary on dust particles that follows). Coetzee’s higher realism isn’t simply playful metafiction then. If it’s possible to flaunt the conventions of the literary work this is not because reality is simply there to be represented and then bullied into art. Instead, higher realism speaks to a truth of reality that cannot be represented; the truth of silence, which in the works manifests in the form of those dispossessed of speech, including animals, but perhaps more profoundly as the silence that lurks behind all our speech.

In the recently published collection of critical pieces, Late Essays: 2006-2017, this higher realism manifests, as in Coetzee’s later fictions, through a religious register. For example, in the essay ‘Translating Hölderlin’, Coetzee concludes that although Michael Hamburger’s translations serve as a reliable guide to works of the famous German poet, they are only ‘intermittently […] touched with divine fire.’ This theological lexicon – although apposite in the context of this essay – compounds the cerebral or philosophical emphasis that is given voice in both Coetzee’s fictions and across this volume. In his essay on Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, Coetzee argues: ‘Beckett is commonly thought of as an “intellectual” writer […] But from this it does not follow that the intellect was the wellspring of his writing. More than any other work of his, Molloy comes from a source deep within its author, a source perhaps inaccessible to the intellect’.

These essays thus build upon a vision of art that seeks to unravel the link between an Enlightenment project of progress (the accretion of intellectual or factual knowledge) and the founding of a secular community. Art discloses a truth that seems less related to the question of how to live, in a practical sense, than to the question of why. This is made vivid in the essay on Patrick White whose art is associated not with the power to conjure appearances but rather with the ‘power to see through appearances to the truth behind them.’ The essay ends with a brief account of the unfinished and posthumously published novel, The Hanging Gardens, whose protagonist, Eirene, is associated with a private quest for transcendence, ‘or, as White more often calls it, the truth.’

The selection of writers, and works, featured here is also revealing. The essay on Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) begins with a discussion of Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis in the late 1870s as recounted in Confession (1884). Tolstoy’s loss of faith in the power and value of art commits him to a sparse and moralistic late style, typified by the Death of Ivan Ilyich, that jettisons the trappings of conventional narrative fiction. However, Coetzee observes, Tolstoy’s crisis was concurrent with the completion of Anna Karenina: ‘It is inconceivable that the man who wrote that novel was not committed, heart and soul, to its writing’. So what to believe? Was the earlier Tolstoy writing in bad faith? Coetzee’s answer:

Confession has no right to claim that, by its nature as autobiography, it speaks a more authoritative truth than a mere novel can speak […] one does not have to elevate art to the status of religion to know that Anna Karenina is not false at its core. Anna Karenina is true through and through. The only point of contention is what kind of truth it tells.’

Alloyed to these more abstract examples of Coetzee’s criticism is a lucid style that makes the critical insights seem alluringly intuitive. This style affects a rhetorical strategy appropriate to the vision of art that underpins the essays. That is, a conception of the literary work as intuitively true, i.e. true according to a standard that cannot be defended on empirical or verifiable terms. In the essay on Molloy, for example, Coetzee makes an apparently simple point in parenthesis that seems to capture something essential about Beckett’s novel: ‘in this universe all mysteries are without mystery, or – to say the equivalent – everything is mysterious, equally baffling to the intellect.’ This unassuming observation, that if everything is mysterious then nothing is mysterious, and vice versa, is perhaps easy to grasp in the abstract but precisely what this might mean in a work of fiction is significantly more slippery. That this feels right, however, without the need for sustained reflection or extrapolation, is testament to the artful truth of Coetzee’s own writing, even in a critical register.

Late Essays extends Coetzee’s now prolific non-fiction publishing corpus. The volume specifically follows two previous essay collections, Stranger Shores (2001) and Inner Workings (2007). The lack of a foreword or general introduction (and an admittedly rather unimaginative title), however, makes the position and purpose of Late Essays in Coetzee’s oeuvre somewhat ambiguous. It’s also not clear on what basis the essays collected here have been selected or arranged. Nevertheless, these three volumes cover the bulk of Coetzee’s short-form critical output from 1986 to the present. Alongside Hölderlin, Beckett (including here are four pieces on the Irish writer), White (two pieces), and Tolstoy, the collection features essays on: Robert Walser, Heinrich von Kleist, Daniel Defoe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Philip Roth, Ford Madox Ford (the subject of Coetzee’s MA thesis), Goethe, Flaubert, the Ukrainian-Jewish writer, Irène Némirovsky, the Spanish writer, Juan Ramón Jiménez, the Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto, the Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert, an essay apiece on Australian writers Les Murray and Gerald Murnane, and finally the South African, Hendrik Witbooi. The breadth of Coetzee’s reading and critical engagement is vast but there are a number of recurring figures from the earlier essay volumes, notably Defoe, Beckett and the German writers.

Nine out of the total number of 23 pieces that make up Late Essays have appeared before as book reviews for the New York Review of Books. This repeats the pattern of the preceding essay collections which are also predominantly sourced from Coetzee’s work for the NYRB. On the whole these essays are amended only slightly for republication. The remaining selection, however, mostly derives from Coetzee’s recent Spanish joint-publishing venture, the creation of a Borgesian personal library that will feature 12 books (including a volume of poetry) in Spanish translation. The essays from this source constitute reproductions of critical introductions written for the Spanish translations, mostly published by El Hilo de Ariadna in Madrid and Buenos Aires. Late Essays thus presents an exciting opportunity for English-language readers to catch-up on these activities. Since 2014 Coetzee has been regularly travelling to Buenos Aires, in collaboration with National University of San Martin, working on various projects and publications in the context of what has been termed the ‘Global South’. This cultural-geographical paradigm is closely aligned with a re-envisaging of postcolonialism in the context of World Literature.

Indeed, this collection will no doubt be taken by the reading public at large as reaffirming Coetzee’s canonical status as cosmopolitan sage. Such a characterisation nevertheless risks reinforcing, from the other side of the coin, an image of elitism and conservatism inherent to any notion of the canon. This might be corroborated by the fact that, with the exception of Némirovsky, the authors in this collection are all male and predominantly white and European. To judge Coetzee’s criticism accordingly, though, is to miss the subtlety and nuance of his writing; a subtlety that also makes him less a ‘World Writer’ and more a worldly writer, less concerned with a homogenising discourse and more with repudiating the narrow-minded ideologies behind national cultures. Just as it is impossible to reduce Coetzee’s fictions to the petites histoires of their production or reception, so too is it impossible to reduce Coetzee’s critical work to a straightforward endorsement of the canon. This same logic of truth to fact, of direct representation, in short, of common sense, is precisely what is consistently undermined by the very essays in this collection.

A final consideration is the intended readership for such a volume. The bias of this review has been slanted towards scholarly readers who wish to discover more about Coetzee, but the volume itself seems premised on an earnest and sincere attempt to engage the general reader interested in what a famous writer has to say about other famous writers. As someone who has conducted institutionally sanctioned research on Coetzee my bias or approach is skewed. Yet, despite this, the sheer enthusiasm and range of these essays is contagious and stimulating; the pieces contained in Late Essays constitute an education, in the best sense.