As he looks afresh at his subjects, ranging from Defoe to
Rushdie to Nadine Gordimer, he invites his readers to delve into
several new aspects of these writers or to find a different
angle to the familiar ones. What he says about Joseph Brodsky’
essays applies to his own pieces gathered here. "Entering
into dialogue with great literature, Brodsky continues, fosters
in the reading subject a sense of uniqueness of individuality,
of separateness—thus turning him into an autonomous."
separateness, those abiding qualities of a classic, are what
distinguishes Coetzee’s authors from the merely popular or
best-selling ones. So that when he says Robinson Crusoe
bends an adventure story to fit a scriptural pattern of
disobedience and repentance, we are made to adjust our received
views accordingly. Similarly he commends Joseph Brodsky for
fertilizing Russian poetry with formal innovations inspired by
English and American verse, not a view popular among the former
Soviet critics who hauled him up for precisely the same efforts.
Great writing is
like a low-powered microphone: you need attentive ears to grasp
what it communicates. Coetzee’s choice of authors attests to
this fact. Most, if not all, of the writers he writes about
prefer subtle insinuatory methods to explicit pronouncements. Or
if they are not totally indirect (Dostoevsky is a case in
point), Coetzee detects indirections where least expected.
In Rilke, he
detects the language of ‘essential gestures…simultaneously
blessing and denying." In Borges he fixes on the master’s
‘Englishness’ as opposed to his other qualities brought out
by critics. In both he locates a submerged individuality not
readily visible. In spite of Dostoevsky’s openly stated
religious ideas, Coetzee’s sharp eye can find instances of
sheer peasant consciousness permeating his avowed statements.
This search for
under-the-surface meaning (not necessarily of mystic or symbolic
kind) is the constant demand a classic makes on a reader and
Coetzee himself is meticulously fine-tuned and close in his
responses. These qualities he shares with another contemporary,
Harold Bloom, in whose commentaries respect for the writer’s
word goes hand in hand with openness to their contexts, however
unsettling these might be to the critic.
In novels such as The
Master of Petersburg, and the more recent Disgrace,
there is much more than meets the eye. In both cases Coetzee may
be exploring the very role of art in troubled times even as the
plot-lines of both point elsewhere. It is his indirections that
alert us to their real meanings, a trait amply exhibited in the
essayist-critic not burdened with dogmatism, Coetzee excels in
studying the evolution and historical contexts of his writers.
As a result we can sense the drift in Mahfouz from the realism
of the Cairo trilogy to the allegorical depth of Harafish
and Children of Gabalawi, just as we can use his Diaries
to understand Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities or
get into the essence of Dostoevsky’s art via Joseph Frank’s
acclaimed biography. This applies equally well to his fellow
South African contemporaries and others not so well known.
Ever since I
ceased to be an accredited academic, I have found deeper rewards
in reading genuine critics than courting their priggish clones
eternally hoist on their own evangelical zeal. Coetzee does not
conquer with five-minutes-of-fame word-bytes but provides
lasting intellectual pleasure this side of postmodernist
ecstasy. May his near-extinct tribe prosper yet again!