Inner Workings is a collection of essays, mostly from the New York Review of Books, to which J M Coetzee has been a frequent and heavyweight contributor. It is literary criticism of the highest order. And the title is apt, because what Coetzee does is never superficial or opportunist; this is a close examination of the way the writers he is discussing work, and the historical and cultural context in which they work, and it is informed by a breathtakingly wide understanding of their influences and preoccupations.
It is also, and I found this fascinating, an insight into the way Coetzee's mind works, themes which interest him most, and the writers who have influenced him in one way and another. In almost all these essays, which range from Italo Svevo to Saul Bellow - 21 in all - I found some significant clues to what Coetzee values, and indeed, I feel I now have a far better understanding of his novel, the rather gnomic, Slow Man, because of his essay on Philip Roth. Of course his earlier essays on Franz Kafka give other, more obvious, clues.
But first things first. When Coetzee discusses European writers like Italo Svevo and Robert Walser, we see the thread running through the essays, namely the disruptions of early 20th-century Europe, and the effects of displacement, exile and - for the Jews particularly - the horrors of Nazism. All these things have obvious resonances for South Africans. But we also see how important translation is to Coetzee.
He examines particular phrases in Italian, German and French, the difficulties of translating dialects, the changing cultural assumptions about translation, the use of colloquialisms, which frequently date, and the subtle and not so subtle effects of the emphases and excisions of translators. To a serious writer, the exact meaning and weight of an image or a word is of the highest importance, and Coetzee is nothing if not serious. His discussion of the translation of the phrase "malato immagi-nario" in Svevo - Svevo wrote in a kind of business dialect - is exemplary, and wonderfully instructive. There are also very perceptive investigations of how the confused cultural and ethnic map of early 20th-century Europe affected Polish writers like Joseph Roth who, despite being Jewish, was sent to a German school while Bruno Schulz, also Jewish, was sent to a Polish school.
The German-speaking Franz Kafka was the outstanding example not only of this cultural displacement, but also of the foreboding provoked by a changing and uncertain world, a foreboding which came to be seen as a kind of prophecy. It is not hard to guess why these writers would be of particular interest to …