NOT A WHITE HEAT: J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Late Essays: 2006–2017’

J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays: 2006–2017 (Harvill Secker, 2017)

Reviewed by Daniel Davis Wood

Has J.M. Coetzee become an anxious man? Never mind the cool, terse prose style that colours all his work, or the aloof perspective on shocking events that makes his novels so disquieting. Set aside the fact that he’s the only writer on the planet to have won the sorts of accolades that should dispel anxieties about status and reputation, twice taking home the Booker Prize and then claiming the Nobel. Coetzee’s most recent book, Late Essays, 2006—2017, is his third collection of literary criticism. It follows on directly from Stranger Shores: Essays, 1986—1999 (2002) and Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000—2005 (2008), and it basically serves as a platform for Coetzee to air his views on other writers of global stature. But what emerges most clearly from the collection, when the essays are read in aggregate, is a picture of a writer concerned about the security of his own place in literary history and in search of ways he might shore it up.

On its most basic level, Late Essays stands as a simple continuation of the critical trajectory that Coetzee followed throughout his first two volumes of criticism. Every essay it contains is as even-tempered, as dispassionate, as the essays in Stranger Shores and Inner Workings, including those that focus on the writers whose work ostensibly makes Coetzee excited. “One of the tenets of realism is that acts have causes,” he explains as a preamble to expressing his admiration for Anna Karenina, “from which it follows that the novelist has a duty to supply plausible psychological motives for the actions of his characters.” “The metre is asclepiadic,” he writes of a favourite poem by Hölderlin, “an intricate pattern of iambs and dactyls broken by caesurae in the longer first two lines of each four-line strophe.” Why do these words of adulation sound so anaesthetised? Literature, for Coetzee, is to be appreciated first and foremost on a cerebral level and emphatically not an emotional one. This means that the primary objects of the critic’s attention must be the technical devices favoured by an author and the historical and biographical forces that influence the author’s choice of those devices. Even on the rare occasions when Coetzee betrays at least a hint of an emotional response to literature, he sees his reactions as bound tightly to the devices at play in the work. Swept along by the rapid pace of Heinrich von Kleist’s ‘Michael Kohlhaas,’ for instance, he points out only that “Kleist developed a prose style that is uniquely his own, succinct and fast-moving,” so that “the forward drive never relents; there is no time for physical description […] or for scene-setting; the focus is always on what happens.” The pages of Late Essays are peppered with remarks of this nature, of this tone, which characterise Coetzee’s resolutely cerebral view of the literary experience and make this new collection of a piece with his critical writings up to this point.

And yet, on another level, given its title and its overriding interest in the late works of various writers, Late Essays also brings to a climax the trajectory of Coetzee’s earlier volumes of criticism. Where Coetzee’s work has always questioned the value of a literary sensibility in the face of grotesque injustices, essentially taking a jaundiced view of its own cultural status, Late Essays pointedly questions the value of composing a work of literature while the spectre of oblivion looms. The book opens with a piercing analysis of Daniel Defoe’s final novel, Roxana, then moves into a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, written when Hawthorne was past middle-age. Elsewhere, Coetzee assesses the posthumously published works of Patrick White and Irène Némirovsky, and he looks into the late poems of Les Murray, the late fictions of Gerald Murnane, and the late metaphysics of Leo Tolstoy. What the title Late Essays implicitly promises, the essays faithfully deliver: Coetzee’s views on the works that great writers have produced in their twilight years. But then, too, the title suggests that these new essays also stand as instances of Coetzee’s own “late” writing, and so it gives them an aura of distinction and grants them a sort of elevated status. It presents them as essays written from a height, as it were, from a more knowing, more reflective vantage point than the essays in the earlier collections.

This isn’t just a matter of affectation. Some of the essays explicitly hark back to Stranger Shores and Inner Workings and take advantage of the bygone years. In the Defoe essay as well as in essays on Philip Roth, Robert Walser, Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Samuel Beckett, Coetzee flirts with revisionary criticism. In addressing the theme of sexual seduction in Roxana — it is, he says, “always resistible” because “it is precisely its being resistible that distinguishes it from rape” — Coetzee makes remarks that echo, extend, and amend an essay in Stranger Shores that deals with the same theme in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Likewise, in his essay on Walser’s The Assistant, he first revisits his own coverage of Walser’s microscripts in Inner Workings before he branches off in a new direction, and he returns to his earlier analysis of Beckett’s short fiction, also from Inner Workings, in order to offer a fresh reading of the novel Watt. In effect, Coetzee uses portions of Late Essays to sift through his earlier work and say things that he didn’t have the space, the focus, or the insight to say as a younger man. In places, the book reads like an elaborate effort to set straight his own record as a critic and to put a seal on it.

The results are mixed. On the one hand, Coetzee’s greatest gifts as a critic are his eye for narrative design and his ability to elucidate why, under pressure from both the intrinsic demands of the artworks they sought to compose and the cultures in which they lived and laboured, classic writers decided to give their work this or that scope, tone, momentum, and design. On the other hand, Coetzee’s view of these writers is never less than enamoured, sometimes almost envious, and it is this view above all that hints at his anxieties. Often he seeks to pinpoint the lodestones of these writers’ legacies, to determine what technical innovations their achievements and their reputations rest on, and when he does this it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s wondering what his own work looks like in the shadows cast by theirs. From time to time, especially when he discusses the novels of Roth and Beckett, Coetzee even gives the impression that he’s trying to trace a literary lineage in which he hopes to place his oeuvre. His recurrent attraction to past masters looks like an effort to measure up to them in fits and starts, a piecemeal strategy for finessing his own position in relation to theirs. There’s nothing amiss with this per se, but Coetzee’s way of going about it comes at a cost. Eyes on the heavens, staking his longevity solely on writers he looks up to, he forfeits the opportunity to take a look around himself and survey those who have gathered in the shadow he casts.

That Coetzee does have a venerable status in contemporary literature, a status that deserves respect and warrants thoughtful cultivation, is pretty much beyond dispute. But what is the good of a status like his? What aims, what vision, does Coetzee use it in service of? To what extent does he trade on his status as litterateur to shape, rather than simply give comment on, what was once called the republic of letters? To what extent does he see himself as an influential citizen of this republic, a citizen whose status invests him with rare powers and responsibilities of stewardship? He certainly does see himself this way at intervals, and he does use his status to call attention to works of literature that he believes are as yet underappreciated. Particularly when he writes essays for publication in the New York Review of Books, as in his coverage of Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama and Gerald Murnane’s Inland and Barley Patch, he has a habit of celebrating obscure books from the more provincial parts of the world in order to expand their readership in the United States. Impressively, too, about half of all of Coetzee’s essays focus on literature in translation, including ten of those in this new collection, and in each one he takes care to credit the artistry of the translator as much as that of the original author. In Late Essays, for example, his consideration of Michael Hamburger’s translations of Hölderlin is a masterpiece of sober, respectful judgment, of genuine sympathy with the translator’s task and intentions, and of discernment in the aesthetic effects of one translation over against those of an older variant or a hypothetical alternative. Coetzee has previously shown the same perspicacity and generosity to William Gass’ translations of Rilke, Edwin and Willa Muir’s translations of Kafka, and various translators’ renderings of the poetry of Paul Celan. We’re living at a time when translated works account for only a fraction of the literary marketplace, and when even the few publications that review them tend to offer only a cursory appraisal of the capabilities of translators. The greatest flair in Coetzee’s criticism comes from his habit of treating translators not as rote interpreters of other languages, but as writers whose own creative gifts deserve to be recognised and admired.

For the most part, though, Coetzee emerges as a surprisingly conservative critic — perhaps genuinely in his tastes and preferences, perhaps only in the criteria he uses to decide which books and authors are worthy of his public appreciation. There are twenty-three pieces collected in Late Essays. The only one to focus on the work of a woman is a survey of the novels of Némirovsky. The only one to focus on a non-white writer is a discussion of the diaries of the nineteenth century Namibian tribal chief Hendrik Witbooi. Broaden your view to take in the rest of Coetzee’s essays, seventy-three across the three volumes, and the numbers only barely shift. Prior to the piece on Némirovsky, Coetzee has written just six essays on women: two on Nadine Gordimer, and one each on Doris Lessing, Daphne Rooke, A.S. Byatt, and the South African anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman. Prior to the piece on Witbooi, a scant five essays have focused on the work of writers who are not of European descent: Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Caryl Phillips, Naguib Mahfouz, and Ali Mazrui. It’s true that Coetzee has written about the work of such writers elsewhere — at length in his more scholarly publications, briefly here and there in his fictionalised autobiographies — but there’s no getting around the fact that the bulk of his essays keep their work confined to the margins of his critical vision.

Just as dispiritingly, a writer’s youth is every bit a disqualifying factor as their gender or ethnic background. About half the pieces in Late Essays deal with writers long dead, as do about half of Coetzee’s total essays. All of the others deal with writers of quite advanced years. At age 78, Gerald Murnane is the youngest living writer to be discussed in Late Essays. Les Murray follows closely at age 79, and Philip Roth takes third place at age 84. While it would certainly be unfair to criticise a book about “late” writing for its exclusion of younger writers, the retrospective animus of Late Essays invites a reconsideration of Coetzee’s earlier collections and reveals that his gravitation towards the elder statesmen of global literature reflects a lifelong tendency. In Inner Workings, at 74 years of age, Roth was the youngest writer to win his attention. In Stranger Shores the distinction went to Caryl Phillips, then aged 42, and to this day, having reached age 59, Phillips remains the youngest writer to be celebrated in any of Coetzee’s essays.

It’s impossible to believe that Coetzee simply doesn’t read literature by writers under fifty. It’s inconceivable that anyone with as powerful an investment in literature, and in the cutting edge of literary artistry, could totally and with unwavering conviction ignore the work of younger writers. So then what? If Coetzee is willing to use his status to raise the profile of important works of literature, why would he not do so for books by writers of more recent generations? Does he really find no value in their work? Does he simply not have the time, or does he not feel that they are yet deserving of it? And if he is as anxious as he seems to be about the security of his status, as concerned with implicitly placing his own work in proximity to books he reveres, why does he not also consider the ways in which his position might be made firm by his legacy, by his influence on others? He isn’t blind to his place in the dynamics of intergenerational indebtedness: he sometimes blurbs new novels by younger writers (Ross Raisin, Omar Robert Hamilton) and he has recently donated funds to help expand the Writers’ Centre in Norwich for the express purpose of “showcas[ing] emerging UK writers to new audiences.” Nor does he turn away from the issue of intergenerational indebtedness in Late Essays: after one essay gives an account of the success of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, another finds the young Heinrich von Kleist building his reputation on his dealings with Goethe as an older man. But why has Coetzee shirked the role of literary patron in its fullest sense, beyond offering pecuniary support and the occasional blurb? How could he have written his essays on Goethe and Kleist without wondering whether he might appear as a Goethe figure to a junior writer, without feeling inclined to cast his gaze across the Kleists of today who might be looking up to him?

Admittedly, it’s improper to criticise a book for failing to attend to things beyond its remit. Mea culpa. But since Late Essays repeatedly questions the wisdom of how various writers have spent their energies as they neared the end of their years, it seems fair to ask whether Coetzee might be doing himself a disservice by opting out of assessing the worth of writers inspired by his successes in extending the capabilities of fiction. In 2012, for instance, apropos of nothing, Teju Cole tweeted this praise for Coetzee: “Interesting fact: JM Coetzee has won the Booker Prize six times, in my house.” Who could honestly believe that Coetzee has nothing compelling to say about Open City or Every Day Is for the Thief? Odds are good that anything he might say about Cole’s work would have a value far greater than his remarks on a writer such as Juan Ramón Jiménez. The same is likely true of his thoughts on, say, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which is clearly indebted to Elizabeth Coetzee, or the terse, oblique fictions of Iván Repila and Joanna Walsh, which bear the mark of novels like Waiting for the Barbarians and Diary of a Bad Year.

This isn’t to suggest that writers who are already as successful as Cole and Cusk might need Coetzee to bring greater attention to their work. It’s just to say that Late Essays has a hole at its core, a hole where there should be some sense that literature has a future worth thinking about. Without remarks to fill that hole, Coetzee’s implicit concerns about his own future seem trite. Whereas the English language has a word to denote a child who has lost his or her parents, it famously has no word to denote a parent who has lost his or her children. But that missing word, whatever it may be, would be the word most apt to describe Coetzee as he indirectly construes himself in Late Essays, as a man bewitched by the tracing of a literary genealogy that leads from the eighteenth century to the present day and reaches its terminal point in him. This comes across as especially peculiar when it’s plain to anyone familiar with Coetzee that the future of literature has already been coloured in part by his advancements, that a certain genealogy already extends onwards through time by way of his achievements.

Ultimately, then, Late Essays is something of a hobbled beast. While individual essays stride with confidence and clarity of purpose across Coetzee’s favoured critical terrain, from essay to essay the book as a whole limps around the invisible centre of the living author, casting sideways glances at the worth of the work to which he has dedicated his life. Its prevailing weakness can be pinpointed, ironically, by the notable absence of one of the things Coetzee himself values the most. Coetzee praises Hawthorne for writing The Scarlet Letter “in a state of total absorption,” in a “spurt of creative energy,” and he praises Flaubert for writing Madame Bovary “in the white heat of creation.” Conversely, he laments the fact that “the creative flame” is not “burning at white heat” in Philip Roth’s late novels, and he criticises Patrick White for having written parts of The Vivisector “at less than white heat.” But there’s not a trace of burning passion in Late Essays, neither for nor against any of the books under consideration; there’s no heat, no sensations at all, no sense of a living being affected bodily by either the works of literature he reads or the mysterious impetus to respond to them in writing. The absence of such things can be a great asset of critical essays written in a minor note, intent upon saying things solely about a given work of literature. Once a number of those essays huddle between the covers of a book, however, their sudden closeness enables them to converse together in whispers, to collectively mutter things that none of them explicitly articulates. What Late Essays shows is that their suggested kinships can raise persistent questions not about their various subjects but about the sensibility they’ve sprung from — questions that finally bristle and nag, because the answers to them lie just beyond the array of great works on which the essays fix their eyes.