In August I read J. M. Coetzee’s Inner Workings, a book of outstanding literary essays. The earlier collection of essays, Stranger Shores, is also brilliant, worthy to sit on the shelf beside Coetzee’s fiction. It includes superb essays on Joseph Brodsky, Robert Musil, Kafka, Borges and Doris Lessing, as well as a reflection on T. S. Eliot entitled ‘What is a Classic?’ There are twenty-six pieces in total, some less strong but none less than enjoyable.
Rare are those artists whose incandescence stretches to both writing fiction and literary essays: Coetzee, Woolf, Kundera. Though she preferred to be thought a novelist Susan Sontag’s fiction is grandiloquent, best avoided or as she says of Antonin Artaud “rewarding to … read bits of, but who overpower and exhaust if read in large quantities.” Sontag’s form was the essay where her mastery of language, erudition and pedagogic skill achieved its apotheosis. Whatever topic, Sontag’s essays are a joy to read, an adroitness she shares with Geoff Dyer and Gabriel Josipovici.
Under the Sign of Saturn includes a diverse selection of topics. My favourite is the essay on cultural extremist Antonin Artaud, of whom I knew little before. His attempt to create “total art,” an environment that was “magical, paroxysmic, purgative, and, finally opaque” was fascinating and sadly foredoomed, but what a noble ambition. I cannot decide whether I wish to go down the Artaud rathole, tempted though I am.
Artaud offers the greatest quantity of suffering in the history of literature. So drastic and pitiable are the numerous descriptions he gives of his pain that readers, overwhelmed, may be tempted to distance themselves by remembering that Artaud was crazy.
In other essays, Sontag unforgivingly, but necessarily, refutes the attempt to whitewash Leni Riefenstahl’s history as chief Nazi propagandist film-maker, and unpicks how fascist regalia was adopted for sexual theatre. She writes brilliantly of Walter Benjamin’s attraction to astrology and subjects him to a Saturnine analysis. There are shorter, but illuminating, pieces on Barthes and Canetti.
The latter essay spurred me to follow these essays with Canetti’s only novel Auto-da-Fé (1946).
Literary essays by novelists are rarely worth reading. Coetzee, like Woolf and Kundera, is an exception. Inner Workings is compiled from five introductions by Coetzee to contemporary editions of works by Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Robert Musil, Samuel Beckett and Hugo Claus, together with 15 essays for The New York Review of Books.
Two-thirds of the book deals with the literary achievement of the generation of cultured Jewish writers that emerged from the wreckage of the House of Hapsburg (with Walser, Musil and Celan my high-points). The last third is primarily post Second World War British and American writers, and a few contemporaries.
Unlike some novelist-turned-critics, Martin Amis leaps to mind, Coetzee’s reviews are courteous and balanced, no histrionic name calling, but with the wit to place a writer firmly under scrutiny. I mostly concur with his implication that Walter Benjamin was a political poseur who frequently reached beyond his ability to sustain a project, but I cannot claim any deep reading of Benjamin.
To add depth to his criticism, Coetzee provides historical context. As an adept in the English, Afrikaans, Dutch and German languages he is also uniquely able to comment on the translators’ craft. Although praising Michael Hofmann for the expression, poise and precision of his English, he has concerns about his translations of Joseph Roth.
A rewarding set of essays from one of the major writers of our day – I’ve already ordered the set of essays that precedes this collection.
In Kafka one also catches echoes of Walser’s prose, with its lucid syntactic layout, its casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal, and its eerily convincing logic of paradox.
It is not possible to read Robert Walser without thinking of how he may have influenced Kafka. The quote above comes from a superb article on Walser by J. M. Coetzee. Coetzee eclipses any maundering of mine on both Walser and the artistry that is Jakob Von Gunten.
Thus, read the Coetzee article if you need any encouragement to read Walser, then read Jakob Von Gunten, then finish with more Walser. A final Coetzee quote:
As a literary character, Jakob von Gunten is without precedent. In the pleasure he takes in picking away at himself he has something of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and, behind him, of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the Confessions.
There are book bloggers I admire for their unfaltering dedication to a premeditated sequence of reading. Though I enjoy planning my reading, impulse often overtakes my carefully nurtured plans. This post is a corrective for me, an attempt to continue to read with some premeditation.
In November I stated:
Next year I plan to complete my immersion into Saul Bellow’s novels, read my unread Virginia Woolf novels and more of her diaries and essays, and read more deeply of Kafka’s non fiction. Also on my list is to sample more deeply the works of Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, Marguerite Duras and Peter Handke. I’m musing with trying once again to sustain a reading of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m also thinking it is time to reread Proust and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, but we shall see. I hope also to discover a new writer or two from my Reading the Girls List.
In December I declared:
My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.
In January I asserted:
In my twenties and thirties I read (and in some cases understood) much more philosophy, and I intend to read more in this area this year, particularly keen to reread Kierkegaard. Of poetry, my ambition is to read Anne Carson more deeply and to tackle Wallace Stevens.
Further back, at the end of last summer I declared:
It is with Dangling Man I will start my Bellow immersion in the autumn. Inspired by Bibliographing’s Melville project, my intention is to read the fifteen novels, short stories, essay collection and Bellow’s memoir.
The year started as planned with some Kafka and Duras, but Simone de Beauvoir has commandeered my attention. Not just her writing but a posthumous influence that is leading me towards André Gide, Alain-Fournier, Henri Bergson and a rereading of Sartre. Along the way, I have adopted a desire to read all Nabokov’s novels and to tackle some Muriel Spark. There are also some choices of The Wolves that tempt me, starting with February’s Our Horses in Egyptby Rosalind Belben.