'Late Essays 2006-2017', by J.M. Coetzee - Review

By Mukherjee, Neel | The Spectator, September 23, 2017 | Go to article overview

'Late Essays 2006-2017', by J.M. Coetzee - Review


Mukherjee, Neel, The Spectator


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'. …

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