Magazine article The Spectator

Range but No Passion

Magazine article The Spectator

Range but No Passion

Article excerpt

STRANGER SHORES: ESSAYS 1986-1999 by J. M. Coetzee Secker, L17. 99, pp. 374, ISBN 0436 233916

The daisy chain of readers reading readers threatens to become infinite. Reading J. M. Coetzee's reading of William Gass's reading of several translators' reading of Rilke (for instance), we are thrown into a sort of literary vertigo in which it becomes hard to tell who's reading whom. Reviewers like to think that their desk carries a sign saying `The Book Stops Here'. No such luck. For better or for worse, every reader adds a layer of meaning, prejudice, taste and intuition to what an author has attempted to say, so that often our dialogue is no longer with the Duino Elegies, but with someone else's reading of Rilke's verse. This much is clear in Coetzee's collection of essays, originally written as reviews, lectures or introductions.

Coetzee's interests are wonderfully eclectic: from Richardson and Defoe to Borges and Brodsky, from Musil and Kafka to A. S. Byatt and Doris Lessing. Coetzee reads deeply and intelligently. His eye is constantly on the reading chain; he wants to know who has read these authors before him and what they have said, and he takes critics and translators equally to task in order to reach (or attempt to reach) something like the original text beneath the debris. By and large, he succeeds.

He restores to Defoe less the virtues of artistry than of verisimilitude, reading past the commentaries of Poe and Hippolyte Taine and arguing that in the idle chapters of Robinson Crusoe we see `for the first time in the history of fiction ... a minute, ordered description of how things are done'. He acknowledges the readings of Terry Eagleton and the BBC adapters of Clarissa, but places Richardson at the fagend of the Neoplatonists, noting quite rightly that, because Richardson was never properly in touch with this tradition, he remained unaware that his Lovelace `is a thoroughly debased version of the loverworshipper' and Clarissa a sister of Lucretia, of Beatrice, of Boethius' Lady Philosophy, even of the Virgin Mary. He reads (perhaps too generously) a vast world-picture in Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, neatly placing, in the closing lines, the Andalusian saga next to the Bosnian conflict. …

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