On Literary Treasures
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Much like Milan Kundera and John Updike, J.M. Coetzee combines elegant prose with razor-sharp insights into literature as a means of always keeping before us the books and writers that have shaped and continue to shape our literary art. For Kundera, of course, it’s Rabelais, Cervantes, and Flaubert. For Updike, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne. For Coetzee, it’s Kafka and Dostoevsky, among others. In his latest collection of literary essays, Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000-2005 (Viking; $25.95), many of which appeared for the first time in The New York Review of Books, Coetzee once again shows off his marvelous range in writing about mostly contemporary European, American, and British writers in an effort not only to recover these writers for our canons but to explore the ways in which these writers and their works have influenced each other and us. These essays also recover forgotten or books mostly unread today, classics that deserve to be picked up once again.
Coetzee’s elegant prose seduces us into paths we might never otherwise travel. When was the last time you picked up Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project and lost yourself in its labyrinthine passages? Who reads Robert Musil these days? Well, for that matter, who reads Thomas Mann or Herman Hesse (although Coetzee doesn’t write about these authors)? Does anyone read Graham Greene these days? Apart from the controversy surrounding Peeling the Onion, which in America was short-lived, but which in Germany produced a best-selling book filled with newspaper articles devoted to the controversy, who reads Günter Grass these days? Is Bellow still fondly remembered?
Coetzee ranges over these writers and their works, as well as numerous others, including his ex-fellow native writer, Nadine Gordimer. (Coetzee moved to Australia from his homeland of South Africa in 2002, and took Australian citizenship.) Coetzee dispenses doses of strong medicine; not only does he work to recover neglected writers, he never shies away from contending that a particular writer fails or succeeds at his or her task. To Gordimer, for example, who has condemned several of Coetzee’s recent novels, he offers a rather back-handed compliment. “The fiction she has published in the new century shows a welcome readiness to pursue new avenues and a new sense of the world. If the writing tends to be somewhat bodiless, somewhat sketchy by comparison with the writing of her major period . . . if she is sometimes content to gesture toward what she means rather than pinning it down exactly in words, that is, one senses, because she feels she has already proved herself, does not need to perform those Herculean labours anew.”
Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is likely one of the least read of the great German novels of the early part of the twentieth century. The first volume appeared in 1930, while a more fragmentary volume appeared three years later. After his death, Musil’s widow published a third volume comprised of disordered fragments. The novel was one of the first Modernist volumes to attempt to demonstrate the failure of reason—the social and political doctorine of the Enlightenment—to deal with the new urbanization and the masses moving into the cities. Musil’s earlier and shorter novel, The Confusion of Young Törless (1905) is a kind of sexual coming-of-age story, though it, too, is now hardly read. Coetzee recovers Musil for us, turning our attention to his groundbreaking fiction and also to his style of writing. “Musil’s preferred guide in the realm of the unconscious was Nietzsche. In Nietzsche Musil found an approach to questions of morality that went beyond a simple polarity of good and evil; a recognition that art can itself be a form of intellectual exploration; and a mode of philosophizing, aphoristic rather than systematic, that suited his own skeptical temperament. The tradition of fictional realism has never been strong in Germany; as Musil developed as a writer, his fiction became increasingly essayistic in structure, with only perfunctory gestures in the direction of realistic narrative.”
In much the same way, Coetzee brings Walter Benjamin before our gaze. Best known for his classic essay on cinema and photography, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin also implicated himself in history, literary criticism, and philosophy. His monumental The Arcades Project is a collection of seemingly disparate pieces on art, politics, and fashion, among other topics. Was he a fascist? Where did his political allegiance lie? Coetzee ponders, “What was Walter Benjamin? A philosopher? A critic? A historian? A mere ‘writer’? The best answer is perhaps Hannah Arendt’s: he was ‘one of the unclassifiable ones . . . whose work neither fits the existing order nor introduces a new genre’.”
On Benjamin’s most substantial project, Coetzee avers: “The Arcades book, whatever our verdict on it ruin, failure, impossible project suggests a new way of writing about a civilization, using its rubbish as materials rather than its artworks: history from below rather than from above. And his call (in the ‘Theses’) for a history centered on the sufferings of the vanquished, rather than on the achievements of the victors, is prophetic of the way in which history-writing has begun to think of itself in our lifetime.”
In every one of his essays, Coetzee leads us into new corners occupied by the world’s literature. On the German poet Paul Celan and the art of translation: “Celan is the towering European poet of the middle decades of the twentieth century, one who, rather than transcending his times—he had no wish to transcend them—acted as a lightning rod for their most terrible discharges. His unremitting, intimate wrestlings with the German language, which form the substrate of all his later poetry, come across in translation as, at best, overheard rather than heard directly. In this sense translation of the later poetry must always fail. Nevertheless, two generations of translators have striven, with striking resourcefulness and devotion, to bring home in English what can be brought. Others will without doubt follow.”
On Günter Grass: “Günter Grass has never been a great prose stylist or a pioneer of fictional form. His strength lies elsewhere: in the acuteness of his observation of German society at all levels, his ability to access the deeper currents of the national psyche, and his ethical steadiness.”
On Samuel Beckett: “Beckett was an artist possessed by a vision of life without consolation or dignity or promise of grace, in the face of which our only duty inexplicable and futile of attainment, but a duty nonetheless is not to lie to ourselves. It is a vision to which he gave expression in language of a virile strength and intellectual subtlety that marks him as one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century.”
On Saul Bellow: “Among American novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century, Saul Bellow stands out as one of the giants, perhaps the giant.”
Coetzee’s brilliant writing in Inner Workings invites us to explore older literary works anew, to discover some treasures long hidden from our sight, and to reevaluate many of our long-held opinions about writers or books we have held dear. Like the writers about whom he writes, Coetzee is meant to be read and reread.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at