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.

Despair

Three chapters into Nabokov’s Despair, one of three Nabokov novels described by Martin Amis as immortal, and I once again I am thrilled with the sheer brilliance of the writing. Where Nabokov is taking his German chocolate manufacturer Hermann I am uncertain but the whiff of madness, the hint of sulphur is palpable.

As ever with Nabokov one must examine carefully every phrase, each word, for few writers toy with their readers to the same degree. Hermann is an unreliable narrator, as he reveals early in the story:

A slight digression: that bit about my mother was a deliberate lie. In reality, she was a woman of the people, simple and coarse, sordidly dressed in a kind of blouse hanging loose at the waist. I could, of course, have crossed it out, but I purposely leave it there as a sample of one of my essential traits: my light-hearted, inspired lying.

Nabokov pulls in the reader, not just an observer but an active participant as voyeur:

Tum-tee-tum. And once more-TUM! No, I have not gone mad. I am merely producing gleeful little sounds. The kind of glee one experiences upon making an April Fool of someone. And a damned good fool I have made of someone. Who is he? Gentle reader, look at yourself in the mirror, as you seem to like mirrors so much.

As Nabokov said of Good Readers, “In reading, one should notice and fondle details. . . . We must see things and hear things, we must visualise the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people.” Of course this is never more true than with Nabokov. The pale blue butterfly alights on the thyme for a purpose.