The Tribune - Spectrum


, September 22, 2002

Tuned to the not so obvious
M. L. Raina

Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999
by J. M. Coetzee. Viking, New York. Pages viii+295. $24.95

Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999J. M. Coetzee’s critical method reminds us of the cricketing technique of the legendary Duleepsinghji: he creates his effects by just metaphorically flicking his wrist. As in the novels, he is deliberate in his judgments, likes classical writers and poets and has a style that leaves contemporary professorial prose smelling like over-fermented cheese.

He probably acquired it from T. S. Eliot, though he avoids his mentor’s occasional Uncle Curmudgeon tone. His measured intelligence also derives from Eliot and, possibly, Virginia Woolf’s essays, as does his capacity to win the readers’ assent. Not for nothing does he invoke Eliot in the very first essay ‘What is a Classic.’

Taking a cue from Eliot’s 1944 lecture of the same title, Coetzee speaks of the classic in this way: "What does it mean in living terms to say that a classic is what survives? How does such a concept of the classic manifest itself in people’s lives?" This statement brings the classic from its supposed transcendental realm into the hurly-burly of history and makes it amenable not to passing fashions but to the sustaining values of each epoch. Whatever survives history’s ephemera, ‘that,’ according to Coetzee, ‘is the classic.’


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."

Uniqueness and 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 present collection.

As an 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!