Nobel and Booker Prize winner Coetzee (The Schooldays of Jesus, 2017, etc.) offers another collection of reflective and erudite essays on a variety of poets and novelists.
Originally published as introductions to foreign translations or in the New York Review of Books, some of the author’s favorites recur: Daniel Defoe, Robert Walser, Zbigniew Herbert, Philip Roth, and Samuel Beckett, the “philosophical satirist,” whom Coetzee covers in four of the essays. While discussing Beckett’s letters and two novels—Watt, a “fable cum treatise that for long stretches manages to be hypnotically fascinating,” and Molloy, a “mysterious work, inviting interpretation and resisting it at the same time”—the author focuses on Beckett’s language, a “self-enclosed system, a labyrinth without issue, in which human beings are trapped.” An acclaimed translator himself, Coetzee is particularly interested in the translations of some authors’ works. He laments that any translation of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther that would be “true” for readers of the 1770s as well as for today’s is “an unattainable ideal.” He quibbles that Michael Hamburger’s translations of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetry are “only intermittently…touched with divine fire.” But the “achievement is nevertheless considerable.” The essay on Patrick White, the “greatest writer Australia has produced,” confronts the dilemma faced by literary executors. Coetzee praises White’s agent Barbara Mobbs as well as Kafka’s friend Max Brod for refusing to carry out their authors’ wishes to have their writings destroyed. As Coetzee writes, “the world is a richer place now that we have [White’s] The Hanging Garden.” As a longtime advocate for animal rights, his short piece on Juan Ramón Jiménez’s tale of a donkey, Platero and I, is especially poignant. Other subjects of Coetzee’s probing eye include Flaubert, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Heinrich Von Kleist, Antonio Di Benedetto, Les Murray, Gerald Murnane, Irène Némirovsky, Ford Madox Ford, and Hendrik Witbooi.
Thought-provoking essays that offer more than mere opinion, as the author plumbs the writers’ philosophical and psychological depths.