2016年12月16日 星期五

J.M.Coetzee文學評論集《內心活動》《異鄉人的國度》/ Here and Now (Paul Auster / J. M. Coetzee)

【漢清講堂】2017年新春心得分享與討論會
日期:2017年1月21日(周),10:00~ 15:00
鍾漢清先生:「簡介Walter Benjamin 的 The Arcades Project (1927-40?)
主要根據兩篇書評:
The Marvels of Walter Benjamin By J.M. Coetzeethe New York Review of Books

The evolution of Walter Benjamin's masterpiece | Books | The Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com › Arts › Books › History


我們說話時,讓年輕人翻白眼吧

Lotte Hansen (Paul Auster); Bert Nienhuis (J. M. Coetzee)
左為保羅·奧斯特,右為J· M·庫切。

對於文學書信這種體裁而言,現在是一個奇怪的時刻。從多個方面來看,過去幾年裡出現的書 信集出版數量激增現象(貝克特[Beckett]、貝婁[Bellow]、伍德豪斯[Wodehouse]、加迪斯[Gaddis]的書信集已經出版,卡 爾維諾[Calvino] 和華萊士[Wallace]書信集即將出版)都可以被視為是一種“驗屍”:把一種事實上已經死去的體裁,連同它的作者們,一起擺放在了台上。儘管電子革命 意味着我們閱讀各類書籍的方式發生了變化,從書信到電子書信的變遷,無論是好還是壞,都從根本上重新定義了這種體裁本身。而且,雖然可能有很多當代作家會 把自己最出色的電子郵件保存在移動硬盤上,便於將來出版,但是你很難想像它們看上去或者讀起來會像是一本書信集。由於你會在電子設備上閱讀這些電子郵件 集,它們看上去很可能就跟你的收件箱差不多。
保羅·奧斯特(Paul Auster)和J· M·庫切(J. M. Coetzee)的通信集《此時此地》(Here and Now) 在打印信件這個傳統走到尾聲時抵達,它主旨卻是新的開始。這兩位作者於2008年2月第一次碰面,此後不久,庫切寫信給奧斯特,建議他們互相通信,以“激 發彼此的火花”。《此時此地》中的第一封信由庫切在2008年7月所寫,沒有任何開場白,直接談論友誼,庫切說他一直在思考和閱讀這個話題。奧斯特在回信 中談到了自己對友誼的想法,從而開啟了為期三年的通信歷程,奧斯特住在布魯克林,庫切身在遠隔重洋的澳大利亞,他們的書信短則隻言片語,長則有好幾頁,有 時候快速連續地通信,有時候也間隔數月。大多數情況下都採用郵寄方式,偶爾也會使用傳真,甚至偶爾還用電子郵件發送(發給奧斯特的妻子希莉·哈斯特維特 [Siri Hustvedt],因為奧斯特不用電子郵件)。這些年裡兩個人也見過面,信中深情款款地提到了他們在葡萄牙、意大利、法國的短暫停留。兩人在信中順便也 寫到各自的家庭、旅行,各種書籍和電影,以及他們自己的小說,但是他們主要是提出各種話題進行討論,比如友誼、體育、德里達(Derrida)、手提籃、 國際政治以及其他種種,然後看看它們會走向何方。
乍看上去,這兩位知名作家不太可能成為筆友。奧斯特比庫切年輕7歲,是一個狂熱的人,或者說我顯然一直把他看成是狂熱的人:他沉迷於巧合和奇特的情 況,知道大量的趣聞軼事;他推崇的冷門書籍和電影最後總是相當成功。而庫切是來自南非的諾貝爾文學獎得主,他更接近於懷疑論者,挑剔的思想家,不妥協的道 德主義者,會剝去社交和政治的慣例,尋求一種本質體驗的倫理學。然而,無論兩人之間存在什麼差異,無論這些差異是真實存在,還是一種給人的感覺,在《此時 此地》中很快浮現出來的,卻是他們之間存在着更多的共同點。
例如,奧斯特和庫切都熱愛運動,他們喜歡的運動不全一樣,或者喜歡這些運動的原因不同,所以他們在這個話題上有很多話要告訴對方。在討論運動魅力的 本質時,奧斯特說它們是“一種表演藝術”。庫切回應說,他對運動的興趣“是道德上而非審美上的”,涉及到“運動所滿足的對英雄的需要”。《此時此地》中有 很多趣聞軼事,奧斯特從這種“對英雄的需要”出發,講述了自己兒時的趣事:母親給他買了一套足球服裝,但他從來沒有真正穿上它踢過足球,只是穿着它裝模作 樣。他寫道,他對足球的興趣“完全是在裝飾物上”。兩位作者繼續進行運動方面的探討,最終從5個或6個不同的角度挖掘這一主題,得出了令人興奮的結果。
他們還發現了彼此在其他方面的共同興趣和觀點,並展開了不同程度的有益探討,這些方面包括:卡夫卡(Kafka)和貝克特(Beckett);自由 政治;美國詩歌自20世紀60年代以來令人失望的表現;懷疑自己的作品是否能持久流傳;相信人類“將生活在我們所創造的痛苦現實中……而不是創造一個新 的、協商後的現實”,語言符號能指在本質上是任意的(雖然不是沒有意義的,奧斯特補充說);每個人跟他所吃的食物的關係,比我們普遍承認的更加複雜;德國 作家海因里希·馮·克萊斯特 (Heinrich von Kleist) 是“‘A級足球聯賽’作家中的一個例子(庫切語);‘A級聯賽’不僅成員很少,而且玩法跟‘B級聯賽’大不相同,人們習慣了‘B級聯賽’的玩法,它讓大家 感覺更自在”;小說家不應該公開回應對他們的批評;接受採訪遠遠不如真正的對話那麼有吸引力;作家為了保持活力,必須不斷嘗試一些新的東西。在上述所有方 面中,最後的這個共同信念似乎是最初促使他們開始書信往來的主要因素。
事實上,《此時此地》中兩人意見一致的時候太多,最終反而成為了該書一個問題,因為他們的對話讀起來更像是獨白。到了全書的三分之二處,書信集的整 體情緒從“激發火花”變得更加接近於體恤同情。有段時間,他們的討論失去了動力。這樣繼續下去倒是也沒有什麼關係——但是當庫切開始把奧斯特的“文人的掙 扎”浪漫化時,以及奧斯特說“發牢騷也可以很有趣”,然後提出,“當我們說話時,讓年輕人去翻白眼吧。讓不那麼年輕的人無視我們說的話”時,作為一名讀 者,我不由得想接受他的提議。但是我也很好奇:如果這兩名作者各自與不那麼贊同他們的人通信,《此時此地》將會是什麼樣呢?當然,那它就會成為一本不同的 書,也許對於作者們來說,它會是一部更加重要的作品,而他們之間的友誼也會是另一種類型。
因為友誼才是《此時此地》的真正意義。他們通信的目的不是要寫作一本書,而是要發展一段友誼,這一事實解釋了《此時此地》的諸多弱點和長處。從最初 的幾封信——或者更早,從決定通信這件事本身——開始,友誼就是這本書的最高主題。不同的話題來來去去,其首要任務是發掘雙方的共同點,以使這段友誼可以 蓬勃發展。在通信開始不久,奧斯特寫道,友誼提供了“絕對平等的地位。彼此給予的都比接受的更多,接受的比給予的更多,友誼在這種交流的互惠中盛放。”書 信往來3年之後,兩位作者似乎感覺他們已經抵達了這一理想的某個版本。他們開始佔據對方的心思,奧斯特稱庫切為“缺席的另一位”,而庫切回應道,他感到 “對你,以及你堅韌頑強、未被珍視的勇敢,有一種兄弟般的關切”。“未被珍視”一詞似乎跟事實不太吻合,但從整體來看,《此時此地》作為友誼發展過程中一 系列互動的探尋和一種延伸的沉思,它提供的東西可謂真材實料。
Martin Rike是聖路易斯華盛頓大學的英語老師。
本文最初發表於2013年3月17日。
翻譯:土土

Pen Pals

It’s an odd moment for literary letters as a genre. The proliferation of letter volumes published over the past few years (Beckett, Bellow, Wodehouse, Gaddis, with Calvino and Wallace on the way) might be considered post-mortem in more ways than one, putting to bed a form that is already effectively dead, along with its authors. For while the ­e-­revolution means changes in how we read any sort of book, the move from epistles to ­e-­pistles is, for better or worse, a fundamental redefinition of the genre itself. And while there are probably plenty of contemporary writers saving up their best e-mails on external hard drives for later publication, it’s difficult to imagine those looking or acting like a volume of letters. Since you will read these collected e-mails on your electronic device, there’s a fairly good chance they will look like, well, your in-box.
Arriving at the end of the print-letter tradition, Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee’s collected correspondence, “Here and Now,” is all about new beginnings. The two writers met for the first time in February 2008, and shortly thereafter Coetzee wrote to Auster proposing an exchange of letters as a way to “strike sparks off each other.” The book’s inaugural letter, from Coetzee in July 2008, skips any preamble and goes straight to talking about friendship, a topic Coetzee says he’s been thinking and reading about. Auster responds with his own thoughts on friendship, and thus begins a three-year correspondence between Auster’s home in Brooklyn and Coetzee’s across the world in Australia. The letters range in length from a couple of sentences to several pages, sometimes sent in quick succession, other times with months between. They’re mostly mailed but occasionally faxed, even less occasionally e-mailed (to Auster’s wife, Siri Hustvedt, since Auster doesn’t use e-mail). The authors also see each other in person during these years, referring fondly in their letters to visits in Portugal, Italy, France. They write in passing about their families, their travels, various books and films, their own novels. But mostly what they do is pose topics for discussion and then see where those topics lead, from friendship to sports to ­Derrida to handbaskets to international politics and various points between.


For potential pen pals, these two famous writers might seem at first an unlikely pairing. Auster, the younger by seven years, is an enthusiast, or certainly I’ve always thought of him that way: his fascination with coincidences and odd circumstances; his bottomless bag of anecdotes; his championing of out-of-the-way books and films that always end up being very good. Meanwhile Coetzee, the Nobel Prize-winning South African, seems more of a skeptic, a fastidious thinker and uncompromising moralist, who strips away social and political conventions in search of an ethics of essential experience. Yet whatever their differences, real or perceived, what quickly becomes clear in the pages of “Here and Now” is that they have far more in common than not.
They both love sports, for example, and the fact that they don’t love precisely the same sports, or love them for precisely the same reasons, is largely why they have so much to say to each other about them. Discussing the nature of sports’ appeal, Auster proposes they are “a kind of performance art.” Coetzee responds that his interest in sports is “ethical rather than aesthetic,” having to do with “the need for heroes that sports satisfy.” Auster takes off from this “need for heroes” to relate one of the book’s many anecdotes, about how as a child his mother bought him a complete football outfit that he never actually played in, but simply wore to pretend. His interest in football, he writes, “was all about the outer trappings.” The sports conversation continues on from here, the authors ultimately approaching this topic from five or six different angles and with stimulating results.
Other interests and opinions they find they have in common, and discuss with varying degrees of success, include: Kafka and Beckett; liberal politics; disappointment in American poetry since the 1960s; doubts that their own books will endure; the belief that humanity “would rather live through the misery of the reality we have created . . . than put together a new, negotiated reality”; that linguistic signifiers are essentially arbitrary (although not meaningless, Auster adds); that everyone’s relationship to the food we eat is more complicated than we generally acknowledge; that the German writer Heinrich von Kleist is an example (Coetzee writes) of “an A league of writers, which has very few members and in which the game being played is very different from the game in the more comfortable B league to which one is accustomed”; that novelists should not respond publicly to their critics; that being interviewed is far less engaging than having a real conversation; and that writers, in order to remain vibrant, must always attempt something new, which of all of the above seems the one shared belief most responsible for their embarking on this correspondence in the first place.
In fact, the sheer amount of agreement in the pages of “Here and Now” eventually becomes a problem for the book, as their dialogical back-and-forth starts to read more like a monologue. Perhaps two-thirds in, the general mood of the letters shifts from “striking sparks” to something more like commiseration, and for a while the discussion loses steam. It’s fine as far as it goes — yet when ­Coetzee starts romanticizing Aus­ter’s writerly struggles, and when ­Auster writes that “griping can be fun,” then offers, “Let the young roll their eyes when we speak. Let the not so young ignore what we say,” as a reader, I was tempted to take him up on it. Instead, I found myself wondering what “Here and Now” would have been like if each author had corresponded with someone he agreed with less often. That would’ve been a different book, of course, and perhaps more important for its authors, a different sort of friendship.
Because friendship is really the point of “Here and Now.” They did not set out to make a book, but to make a friendship, and this fact accounts for many of the book’s weaknesses as well as its strengths. Starting with their first letters — or ­earlier, with the decision to correspond at all — friendship is the book’s overarching subject, and the various topics that come and go are before all else attempts at finding that common ground upon which friendship can flourish. In the early pages, Auster writes that friendship offers “a position of absolute equality. You are both giving more than you receive, both receiving more than you give, and in the reciprocity of this exchange, friendship blooms,” and three years of correspondence later, the two authors do seem to feel they have realized some version of this ideal. They’ve come to occupy each other’s thoughts, Auster referring to ­Coetzee as an “absent other,” and ­Coetzee responding that he feels “a certain fraternal tenderness for you and your dogged, unappreciated bravery.” That “unappreciated” may be an adjective in need of a reality check; but taken as a whole, as a series of collaborative inquiries and an extended meditation on the processes of friendship, the book has something substantive to offer.
Martin Riker teaches English at Washington University in St. Louis.
*****
異鄉人的國度 可以擴展讀者的眼界 只要你不是西洋文學的.....異鄉人

《異鄉人的國度:文學評論集》是2003年諾貝爾文學獎得主庫切的文學評論集,收入發在《紐約時報》或《紐約客》上的文論26篇,這些文論寫於 1986-1999年間。庫切不光是被公認的經典作家,還是一位著名的學者,他兼通文理,學識駁雜,不亞於博爾赫斯。他的文學評論有相當的分量,那隨筆式 的文論很具親和力和可讀性。他不但論及了18至19世紀的作家如笛福、屠格涅夫、陀思妥耶夫斯基、卡夫卡等,還剖析了博爾赫斯、奧茲、萊辛等20世紀的文 學巨匠。優美的文筆和較高學術價值使之成為不可多得的文學評論集。

圖書目錄:
01 何為經典? ——一場演講
02 丹尼爾•笛福的《魯濱遜漂流記》
03 塞繆爾•理查森的《克拉麗莎》
04 馬塞盧斯•艾芒茲的《死後的懺悔》
05 哈里•穆里施的《發現天堂》
06 齊斯•努特布姆:小說家、旅行家
07 威廉•加斯所譯的里爾克
08 翻譯卡夫卡
09羅伯特•穆齊爾的《日記》
10 約瑟夫•斯科弗雷齊
11 陀思妥耶夫斯基:奇蹟般的年代
12 約瑟夫•布羅茨基的隨筆
13 豪•路•博爾赫斯的《小說集》
14 A•S•拜厄特
15 卡瑞爾•菲利普斯
16 薩爾曼•拉什迪的《摩爾人的最後嘆息》
17 阿哈龍•阿佩菲爾德的《鐵軌》
18 阿摩司•奧茲
19 納吉布•馬哈福茲的《平民史詩》
20 托馬斯•普林格爾的詩歌作品
21 達芙妮•羅克
22 戈迪默和屠格涅夫
23 多麗絲•萊辛的自傳
24 布萊頓•布萊頓巴赫的回憶錄
25 南非自由人士:阿蘭•佩頓和海倫•蘇茲曼
26 諾埃爾•莫斯特德和東開普邊陲
文學的政治和道德(代譯後記)

异乡人的国度

副标题: 文学评论集
作者: [南非] J.M.库切
译者: 汪洪章
出版社: 浙江文艺出版社
出版年: 2010-04
页数: 392




Title: Stranger Shores
Author: J.M.Coetzee
Genre: Literary criticism
Written: (2001)
Length: 281 pages
Availability: Stranger Shores - US

Stranger Shores - UK

Stranger Shores - Canada

  • Literary Essays
  • 1986-1999
  • These piece were previously published elsewhere, most of them in The New York Review of Books

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Our Assessment:
B : solid collection, good introductions to authors and works
See our review for fuller assessment.



Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist B- 15/9/2001 .
New Statesman . 17/12/2001 D.J.Taylor
The NY Times Book Rev. A 16/9/2001 James Shapiro
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2002 E. Kim Stone
The Spectator . 22/9/2001 Alberto Manguel
TLS . 5/10/2001 Michael Gorra
World Literature Today A Spring/2002 J. Roger Kurtz


Review Consensus:

No consensus, but the majority are very impressed

From the Reviews:
  • "Stranger Shores contains several outstanding essays. Taken as a whole, however, it is a disappointment. Little has been done to make the book reader-friendly. There is no foreword, no index, and no organisation of the contents. Several of the pieces are redundant. Reviews of novels by Salman Rushdie and A.S. Byatt, for example, offer little more than plot summaries. Others have aged badly. (...) The collection also suffers from Mr Coetzee's preferred critical tone, which is dry tending to arid." - The Economist

  • "JM Coetzee (...) approaches works of literature in rather the same spirit that a government nutritional scientist might approach a plate of roast beef and root vegetables. What exactly is the calorific value of these items ? And the fat content ? How much flour was added to the gravy ?" - D.J.Taylor, New Statesman

  • "Coetzee is that rare breed, an academic who is also a world-class writer, and this latest collection is informed as much by the novelist's keen eye as it is by the theorist's obsessions. These are not puff pieces. (...) Coetzee wields a sharp scalpel, carefully exposing the stylistic flaws, theoretical shortcuts and, on occasion, bad faith of writers he otherwise admires. It's a dazzling if at times coldly clinical performance." - James Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review

  • " Stranger Shores, by South African writer J. M. Coetzee, the only two-time winner of the Booker Prize, is an immensely pleasurable read because Coetzee submits a global array of authors to the responsible scrutiny of his skeptical gaze." - E. Kim Stone, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(H)owever strict their critical intelligence, these essays have been written without malice. They are instead dispassionate, learned and often technical, especially in discussing a translator's choices in moving from Dutch or German to English. They are descriptive before they turn evaluative, precise and lucid in their presentation of often unfamiliar material. (...) And taken together, these essays project a strong if characteristically indirect light on his own fictional practice." - Michael Gorra, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Like his fiction, these pieces are smart, intense, and stylistically sophisticated. (...) One of the great values of Coetzee's essays is that they demonstrate the methods and raise the questions that students of comparative literature need to pursue and ask. There is the attempt to balance historicity with esthetics, and there is also a strong emphasis on issues of translation." - J. Roger Kurtz, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
After an opening lecture on "What is a classic ?" Stranger Shores consists mainly of book introductions and reviews (most of the latter originally published in The New York Review of Books).
It is a very international selection: the only American author discussed is William Gass, and that piece -- a review of Reading Rilke -- focusses more Rilke and translation than Gass. There are the obvious areas Coetzee gravitates to -- Dutch literature (Emants, Mulisch, and Nooteboom) and South African literature -- but he also reaches considerably beyond these. Other contemporary authors he discusses range from Josef Skvorecky and Salman Rushdie to Aharon Appelfeld, Amoz Oz, and Naguib Mahfouz. Classic authors he introduces and discusses include Turgenev, Defoe, and Samuel Richardson.
Translation is a major issue in many of these pieces, and it is noteworthy that several of the reviews consider newly re-translated works. "Translating Kafka" takes the publication of a new translation of The Castle to re-examine the original Kafka translators, the Muirs, and the influence their work had on Kafka-reception. Coetzee also reviews Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions, the first complete version of his fiction by a single translator (Andrew Hurley). And, of course, Gass' Reading Rilke is itself a book comparing translations. In each Coetzee compares previous versions with the new, and makes some observations; some of it might seem like nit-picking, but it gives a general sense of what Coetzee believes to be the translations' strengths and weaknesses (and presumably helps in at least reminding readers of the compromises made when literature is read in translation).
Elsewhere, too, Coetzee does not ignore questions of translation. Comfortable reading both Dutch and German, his reviews of authors who wrote in these languages also touch upon the quality of the translations, while even with authors such as Mahfouz he at least reminds readers that there are translation issues to consider.
The reviews tend to be very expansive, including detailed summaries. In some cases Coetzee's retelling of the story takes up too much of the allotted space (in his discussion of The Discovery of Heaven, for example), but generally he manages to helpfully expound while summarising. Still, Coetzee's reviews are very much what one might expect from a professor of literature: more lecture-like than review-like. It is often difficult to even get a sense of whether Coetzee actually enjoyed a book.
Coetzee's forte here is his ability to introduce an author in the span of a few pages. He focusses on the authors as much as the works, introducing them as one might in a class where the students will not read the book in question but are expected to have some familiarity with the author and the work. From Robert Musil to Doris Lessing, he offers good (though often not neutral) snapshots of their lives, and given how few of these authors are widely read this is fairly useful
Many of the authors discussed either suffered or witnessed oppression, and clashes of cultures (and nationalities or similar groups) also define them. A.S.Byatt is the practically the most insular of the lot -- but tellingly the book Coetzee reviews, Babel Tower, is the one in which she is most concerned with the clash of culture (admittedly in a slightly different way than most of these other authors).
Stranger Shores is an interesting collection of pieces, devoted almost entirely to significant authors and worthy works. Several discussions -- the ones on translation, in particular -- are excellent, and for the most part Coetzee does really open a door to these authors and works, tempting the reader to consider them more closely. But it is also only a collection of hardly connected pieces, and while the cover maintains these are Literary Essays they are only, in part quite uncomfortably, something between essays and book reviews.
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內心活動——文學評論集Inner Workings by J. M. Coetzee 作者:(南非)庫切



出版社:浙江文藝出版社出版日期:2010年09月01日 語言:簡體中文


在 《内心活动》中,不管是写到塞缪尔·贝克特、 罗伯特·穆齐尔或索尔·贝娄,库切都给自己一个任务,就是审视哲学家胡塞尔所称的“欧洲人文危机”的文学余震……他最好的随笔,论贝克特和策兰,称赞那些 挺身迎接挑战的作家。在颂扬他们艺术上一丝不苟的精神和他们对语言的力量的英雄式的、尽管“非总是毫不动摇的信念”时,他拐弯抹角地向读者解释作家“复 杂、二争执和痛苦的”努力,这努力也正是他自己的小说的特点。J.M. 库切著有:《幽暗之地》、《内 陆深处》、《等待野蛮人》、《迈克尔·K的生活与时代》、《福》、《彼得堡的大师》、《男孩》、《青春》、《凶年纪事》(英文版均列入企鹅丛书,中译本由 浙江文艺出版社出版)。作者曾为芝加哥大学社会思想学系教授,现定居澳大利亚。曾荣获许多文学奖项,其中包括:南非最著名的“中央新闻社文学奖”(三 次)、布克奖(两次)、法国费米娜外国小说奖、耶路撒冷奖、拉南文学奖、爱尔兰时报国际小说奖、英联邦文学奖和诺贝尔文学奖(2003)。导言
一 伊塔洛·斯维沃
二 罗伯特·瓦尔泽
三 罗伯特·穆齐尔及其《青年特尔莱斯的自白》
四 瓦尔特·本雅明及其“拱廊计划”
五 布鲁诺·舒尔茨
六 约瑟夫·罗特:小说集
七 山多尔·马劳伊
八 保罗·策兰和他的译者
九 君特·格拉斯与“威廉·古斯特洛夫”号
十 W.G.塞巴尔德及其《效仿自然》
十一 胡戈·克劳斯:诗人
十二 格雷厄姆·格林及其《布赖顿棒糖》
十三 塞缪尔·贝克特:短篇小说集
十四 沃尔特·惠特曼


THE INNER WORKINGS OF J.M. COETZEE | More Intelligent Life

Coetzee’s Canon

Published: August 5, 2007
A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but dangerous things are very often exciting, and only the truly saintly would deny that there is a pleasure in forming opinions of writers whom one has never read a word of. Without experience to cloud one’s judgment or information to slow one’s thinking, the passage from ignorance of a writer’s work to a vague acquaintance with its main elements — courtesy, say, of an essay or a review executed by someone better versed — can be a stimulating imaginative exercise. On the basis of brief descriptions and short quotations the reader is free to conjure up a figure who may not much resemble the artist in question but is rich in associations anyway and who will do — will have to do — for now (which sometimes, sadly, is all the time one has).
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Paul Rogers

INNER WORKINGS

Literary Essays 2000-2005.
By J. M. Coetzee.
304 pp. Viking. $25.95.

I’m thinking here of W. G. Sebald, the late German writer whom I’ve never read but am told I should by people who impress me — most recently by J. M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist whose new collection of literary essays, “Inner Workings,” includes compressed studies of several authors who fall, at least for me, in Sebald’s category of highly ranked European worthies (Robert Musil and Bruno Schulz are others) whose pages are easy to postpone turning, but hard, in some circles, to avoid discussing. What little I know about Sebald’s novels comes from Coetzee’s commentaries on them, but this knowledge feels strong and suggestive nonetheless.
“There is a lead-up full of compulsive activity, often consisting of nocturnal walking, dominated by feelings of apprehension. The world feels full of messages in some secret code. Dreams come thick and fast. Then there is the experience itself: one is on a cliff or in an aircraft, looking down in space but also back in time; man and his activities seem tiny to the point of insignificance; all sense of purpose dissolves.”
This brisk little stroke of literary summary (itself an underappreciated form) gratifies that base side of our nature that wants to grasp before it has to reach and to caption before it has to scrutinize while also inviting us to examine firsthand what, for the moment, we must take Coetzee’s word about: Sebald’s distinctively fertile melancholia. It’s a valuable service, ably performed, with just the mix of concreteness and generality that letters of introduction ought to have. Thanks to Coetzee, Sebald stands at our door now, still a stranger but no longer a mystery, and our sense of how he’s likely to behave inclines us to usher him inside.
In the essays on modernist European writers that make up the first part of his book, Coetzee supplements his criticism with biography and occasional bits of illuminating gossip. Because most of the pieces first appeared in The New York Review of Books, he doesn’t have endless space for this material, but he also doesn’t seem to need it. He has a Cordon Bleu instinct for measuring portions and knows how to fill yet not overcrowd a plate. The German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin, the magisterially obscure left-wing literary something-or-other whose masterwork was an unfinished prose montage on the subject of Parisian shopping centers (“The Arcades Project”), is shown to have taken the Marxist path partly as the accidental result of a love affair with a Communist theater director. To Coetzee, this suggests that Benjamin was not a pure ideologue whose politics were fashioned by his intellect but a man who happened into a pose he found emotionally congenial and gradually bent to suit his eccentricities.
Coetzee compares “The Arcades Project” to “another great ruin of 20th-century literature, Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos.’ ” With the tongue-and-groove precision of someone who machines his thoughts to the finest hair’s-breadth tolerances, Coetzee shapes this comparison into a model for a type of literary lunacy that held a peculiar intellectual allure once, back in the heyday of the great isms. Both Benjamin and Pound, Coetzee observes, are obsessed with economics, both “have investments in antiquarian bodies of knowledge whose relevance to their own times they overestimate,” and “neither knows when to stop.”
That Coetzee can make such exotic eminences as Sebald and Benjamin less forbidding is a testament to his prowess as an interpreter but also to his charm as a companion. His erudition and analytic acumen — both considerable, to say the least, and best displayed in his remarks on the nuances of literary translation — are so well dissolved into his elegant bearing that walking beside him rarely feels intimidating. And when, about halfway through the book, he leads us to the smoother ground of writers who compose in English and whom we’ve already presumably met (Faulkner, Beckett, Bellow, Roth and others), the stroll speeds up some and grows more invigorating.
In his essay on Faulkner, Coetzee sets aside the novels (after aptly defining perhaps the most ambitious three, the Snopes trilogy, as the story of a “poor white class in a revolution as quiet, implacable and amoral as a termite invasion”) and concentrates on how Faulkner’s leading biographers handled him — maladroitly, Coetzee feels — as a character. In the process of attacking one biographer, Frederick R. Karl, for “reductive psychologizing” (Karl views Faulkner’s tidy penmanship as a sign of an “anal personality,” for example), Coetzee questions whether Faulkner the man even existed in the conventional sense or was “a being of negative capability, one who disappeared into, lost himself in, his profoundest creations.” Coetzee holds out Faulkner’s alcoholism as a biographical “acid test” but finds the explanations for it wanting, even fatuous. He concludes — with surprising modesty, for a novelist — that words must fail when the subject is addiction.
Coetzee’s discussion of Philip Roth’s “Plot Against America” is pretty much a straight review, but a review of special consequence because it’s written by a peer with an appreciation of the challenges Roth must have faced in fashioning his tale (of a fictional fascist Charles Lindbergh presidency in the early 1940s). He judges the book a noble failure marred by Roth’s inadequate understanding of the troubling swerve in history that is his main conceit. On the way to this slightly too strict conclusion — that reaching out of time to alter a past event should have obliged Roth to track the falling dominos and also change the present situation that his narrator looks back from — Coetzee gives us a primer in the dystopian novel that’s thorough and practical enough to be of aid to working fiction writers. Any slights discernible in the review are between esteemed colleagues, one is given to think, and Coetzee is, in fact, paying Roth an honor by putting him on the syllabus.
“Inner Workings” is Coetzee’s master class, and he honors us, too, by letting us sit in on it, despite our spotty preparation and the hasty ways we may use it. Knowing something about W. G. Sebald feels a lot better than knowing nothing — particularly when the little knowledge one does have comes from a source as reliable as Coetzee and inspires one to make time to learn much more.
Walter Kirn is a regular contributor to the Book Review. His new novel is “The Unbinding.”
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