Literary Essays

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am

Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005

by J.M. Coetzee Harvill Secker, HK$288

A friend recounts how, at a Hong Kong literary bash several years ago, modern colossus of letters J.M. Coetzee stood alone and aloof at one end of a room, with a glass of wine for social protection, while his post-lecture party continued without him at the other. Despite the withering 'stay away' aura my friend approached, only to find that while words might flow from the pen of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, his mouth appeared to be a rusty conduit.

Coetzee, often described as reclusive, may have found himself intimidated by the voluble Irishman suddenly before him; which would have been a neat twist, given Coetzee's formidable reputation as academic, critic, mathematician, translator, linguist and novelist.

Approaching a volume of literary essays such as Inner Workings, a reader might therefore feel trepidation; what a blessing then to find that the residual heat from the piercing gaze Coetzee turns on his subjects illuminates the reader's understanding of Coetzee's subjects rather than incinerates him in his ignorance.

Stargazing is another reason for picking up a book like this - with Coetzee himself at the far end of the telescope. Hero-worshipping readers might understandably

espy here a means of appreciating one of the most personally impenetrable fixtures in the literary firmament; and in a roundabout way their desires are satisfied.

So although it may not have been his intention, how does Coetzee spin the wheel from an apparent ragbag of Italian, Swiss, Hungarian, Austrian, German and Polish writers dealing with an early to middle 20th-century Europe in turmoil; German authors picking over post-war Europe; American literary giants struggling to find their place in a country that just might be malignant towards its own; the incomparable Graham Greene and the desolate Samuel Beckett; and three fellow Nobel titans, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, V.S. Naipaul and Nadine Gordimer, all the way back to himself?

Unpredictably, for a novelist considered grouchy of internal voice, in these critical essays Coetzee comes across as an avuncular lecturer (educator, at American and South African universities, is another string to Coetzee's prodigious bow). The result is an approachability and clarity that could almost make each essay an examination primer for the relevant author. Plots are economically summarised, protagonists stripped bare with a surgeon's precision, themes deconstructed and leading lights demystified with the dexterity of the master craftsman Coetzee is in his highest-profile other life.

Curious about Italo Svevo? Nor was I until, within two pages, Coetzee brought the early 20th-century novelist dancing onto the page. He was 'Freudian in ... [showing] how the lives of ordinary people are filled with slips and parapraxes and symbols'; he was taught English by an obscure Irishman named James Joyce; he lived in Austrian Trieste at a time when ethnic strife was bubbling up through the city prior to exploding at Sarajevo in 1914; and his home town later became part of an Italy soon to turn fascist. Svevo, by the way, was Jewish.

In Saul Bellow's Dangling Man, Joseph is the distillation of forlorn characters from Dostoevsky and Gogol; Greene's unconventional heroine in Brighton Rock, Ida Arnold, is a channel through which the author, a (figuratively) tortured Catholic, censures the Catholic Church. The motivation for Beckett's 'short fiction' and novels is encapsulated as a quest for 'some verbal formula' to 'annihilate the unnamable residue of the self and ... achieve silence'.

With a prompt of Coetzee's calibre the reader can approach the conceits of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and the psychological shimmies throughout the sensuous works of Marquez free from the yoke of having to think too hard - which usually hurts.

For all his expert advice, however, Coetzee might be considered a bit of a show-off. The breadth of his reading around his subjects is enough to frighten the think-shy into having a lie down, but he is tempted to overdo it. Does an appraisal of old soak novelist William Faulkner really need to wander so far out of bounds that it discusses unrelated works by a Faulkner biographer? Nor is he slow to erect signposts to his skill as a translator, peppering his evaluations of authors not writing in English with assessments of the translator's craft.

Quibbles aside, the ultimate value of a book such as Inner Workings may be that it finally convinces the curious if lazy reader of the advisability of picking up The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald or Naipaul's Half a Life. And from there to progress to a work or two by Coetzee - perhaps his Booker Prize winners Disgrace and The Life and Times of Michael K.

Whether this collection leads us further into the psyche of Coetzee is arguable. Adopting an oblique approach to the mind of this most private of novelists through examination of his thoughts on others may make for an unproductive journey. It might, however, prove more illuminating than cornering him at a party.