Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 by J. M. Coetzee

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.

Inner Workings by J. M. Coetzee

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.

Thoughts on 2010 and 2011 Reading

Before this year is over I have a week on business in New York, and a fortnight’s trip to the Far East. That’s almost forty hours of reading time. I’m looking forward to the periods of sustained concentration, and pondering what to read to occupy those long hours on the aeroplane.

This year is already a watershed in my reading life. My Joycean summer and discovery of the sheer brilliance of Ulysses alone would mark 2010 as pivotal. But in the same year I have fallen heavily for the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, and the critical works of Gabriel Josipovici. The thrill of reading Don Quixote is merely the cherry on the trifle.

The transition between years is arbitrary, but a useful juncture for reflection. 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.

I have lost my innate scepticism about the concept of reading groups. This year’s shared reading of Madame Bovary, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves has been revelatory. The posts and ensuing discussions in comments have, in each case, enhanced my understanding and appreciation of each book. I thank Frances for getting me started and very much look forward to reading, posting and commenting along with some of “The Wolves” selections for 2011. I’ll be posting my thoughts on ‘Vilnius Poker’ later in the week.

Reality Hunger by David Shields

The debate is old but David Shields, in Reality Hunger, revives the argument against artifice in the novel. Forget conventional fiction is his manifesto, the energy in literature today is found in essays, memoirs, diaries and non-fiction. His book is a collage, constructed from a mixture of his own content and excerpts and quotations, very hip hop.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what those terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows …

. . . . . . . .

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218 …

Part of the argument is persuasive. There is terrific vigour in writing that blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Ryszard Kapuscinski, Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, and J. M. Coetzee create first-rate novels. The diaries, essays and letters of writers like Woolf, Chekhov, Gide, Musil, Beckett are amongst their finest creations.

The validity of Shield’s contention falls down, for me, on the premise that there is such a thing as a “standard” novel. I’m currently reading Zadie Smith’s essays (terrific by the way), in a discussion about Eliot and the Victorian novel she writes:

What is universal and timeless in literature is need – we continue to need  novelists who seem to know and feel, and move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though is form. Forms, styles, structures – whatever word you prefer – should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form; we say. ‘This form here, this is what reality is like,’ and it pleases us to say that …

Thankfully the form continues to evolve. David Shields provides many examples of contemporary writers successfully moving the style of novels forward. But the need is for literature to contain multitudes. As much as I am enjoying Zadie Smith’s essays and read Reality Hunger with genuine enthusiasm, I relish the freedom to pick up The Brothers Karamazov, follow it with a David Markson, then segue into Cervantes. Too much reality gets old. Though I don’t entirely buy David Shield’s argument, the book is great fun to read, and there are some terrific quotations, as long as you haven’t taken a razor blade to the citations to know their origin.

Virginia Woolf – A Writer’s Diary

When she was 36, Virginia Woolf imagined an older version of herself reading her diaries:

If Virginia Wool at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books, is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them But how I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better.

Reading this extract of her diaries ninety-one years years later, it seems that Woolf wrote her diaries with posterity in view. This edition A Writer’s Diary comprise extracts made by Leonard Woolf to “throw light upon Virginia Woolf’s intentions, objects, and methods as a writer.” He writes:

I have been carefully through the 26 volumes of diary and have extracted and now publish in this volume practically everything which referred to her own writing. I have included also three other kinds of extract. The first consists of a certain number of passages in which she is obviously using the diary as a method of practising or trying out the art of writing. The second consists of a few passages which, though not directly or indirectly concerned with her writings, I have deliberately selected because they give the reader an idea of the direct impact upon her mind of scenes and persons, i.e. of the raw material of her art. Thirdly I have included a certain number of passages in which she comments upon the books she was reading.

The third part is compelling. You could have a wonderful time reading through Woolf’s own reading list. Woolf is an epic reader. As Moyra Davey says in her essay The Problem of Reading

Woolf laid out some of her core ideas about books and reading. A great proponent of voracious, indiscriminate reading, everything from “bad” contemporary novels to the forgotten memoirs and letters one discovers buried in secondhand bookstores. Woolf would concur with Calvino that to really appreciate the classics one must come at them from the vantage point of contemporary literature. It is only then that one can experience “a complete finality about [the classics] . . . a consecration [that]. . . we return to life, feeling it more keenly and understanding it more deeply than before.”

More than anything reading these extracts has given me an appetite to read the full set of diaries. Whilst you get the sense that Woolf has an eye to posterity, there is an intimacy and candour that enables you to see how life may have looked to this unusual woman.

Woolf and her Bloomsbury set were undoubtedly elitist and moved in the typically restricted social circles of 1920’s London. Her thoughts on reading Ulysses, “I finished Ulysses and think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.” The “underbred, not only in the obvious sense” is revealing. Occasionally this restricted, and frequently to Woolf, suffocating view produces moments of laugh-out-loud humour:

Brafani: three people watching the door open and shut. Commenting on visitors like fates-summing up, placing. A woman with a hard aquiline face-red lips-bird like-perfectly self-satisfied. French pendulous men, a rather poor sister. Now they sit nibbling at human nature. We are rescued by the excellence of our luggage.

Given its writer and subject A Writer’s Diarycould not fail to be fascinating. These diaries go further though in placing you right into the emotional roller-coaster of being Virginia Woolf. They are an impeccable preparation for a deeper reading of the novels. For me, even in extracted form, these diaries exceed the insight and sheer enjoyment to be had from the diaries of Robert Musil and André Gide. That is high praise.