I have a vague half-memory of a pop star in the 1980s complaining (was it Bono?) that, after putting a lot of time and thought into the order of tracks on their new album, the fans then just hit shuffle on the CD player.
I can only imagine that editors of anthologies feel similarly peeved when we flip back and forth between the stories at random, so I try to read collections in the order the editor or author intended. And I tried that with JM Coetzee’s latest collection of literary criticism, Late Essays 2006 – 2017.
With every book, I start the flap text, the ‘also by’ page, the dedication and even the copyright page. But when I got to the contents page this time, I saw there were four essays on Samuel Beckett and wanted to jump straight there. But I didn’t, I dutifully read the first essay on Daniel Defoe’s Roxana, where Coetzee tells us that the novel is ‘repetitive (it could safely be cut be a third)’ and that ‘it seems not to have been revised at all’. Scathing, I thought. And then I skipped to the chapters on Beckett. What was he going to say about my hero?
Coetzee has a lot of sympathy for the ‘chronically self-doubting author’. He looks at Watt and Molloy, Beckett’s interest in psychoanalysis and how his friend Wilfred Bion might have influenced his writing (or how Beckett influenced Bion). Coetzee also examines ‘one of the recurring questions about Beckett’, namely: why did he start writing in French instead of his native English? It is indeed a recurring question, appearing in three of these essays alone, each with a slightly different answer. That leads – in the Beckett chapters, at least – to some repetition of themes and ideas. This is a consequence, I guess, of the essays being written over time (between 2006 and 2017, as the title suggests). The repetition gave me something of a deja vu feeling as I read, but nothing that disturbed my enjoyment.
I continued with the second half of the book, from the four essays on Beckett straight to the two on Patrick White. Coetzee, a South African by birth and now an Australian citizen, declares White to be ‘the greatest writer Australia has produced’ and then immediately questions if Australia produced this great writer at all. White, Coetzee reminds us, went to school in England, studied at Cambridge and lived in London before serving in the British armed forces in World War Two. But Coetzee then contends that Australia did have some influence on White – positively and negatively.
After that, I went back to chapter two track with the essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne where Coetzee gives some great details on the writing of The Scarlet Letter. The ‘rambling preface’, he tells us, was only added after the publisher told Hawthorne that the book was too short. He then gives his thoughts on the other criticism The Scarlet Letter has received over the years, including from Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.
From there, Coetzee looks at Ford Madox Ford and why he ‘published one novel after another in which the construction is careless, the plot uninteresting, the characterisation shallow, and the prose merely passable’. Ford needed the money is the short answer.
Coetzee then tackles some greats, including Roth’s Tale of the Plague, Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The last of these is one of three essays where Coetzee digs deeper into his interest of German literature.
The stand out piece for me, however, is the final essay, which doesn’t even discuss a work of great literature. It is the diary of Henrik Witbooi, a nineteenth-century cattle rustler turned revolutionary in what we now know as Namibia. Here, Coetzee’s background in Southern Africa and his interest in German literature help him unravel the difficulties Witbooi faced as he battled the German imperialists. Witbooi fought like a gentleman officer, and expected the same of the Germans, but they had adopted different rules and went on to kill Witbooi in battle and take the lives and land from his and other native Namibian people.
Any Cop?: Even if literary criticism is not your usual kind of thing, Late Essays still has a lot to offer anyone interested in literature in general, and some of Coetzee’s fascinating facts about these great works might help you some day in a pub quiz. But it is also an accessible and engaging read, from cover to cover, or in whatever order you like.