Late Essays 2006-2017 by J.M. Coetzee
Book reviews, literary essays and literary criticism all appear to belong under the same heading of “writing about books,” but the difference between these three fields is more nuanced that some may think. Each is a subjective exploration of a particular author or publication and each has a particular purpose and audience in mind. A book review is relatively simple: one writer discusses the merits and shortcomings of another person’s book, with hopes to pique a reader’s interest or save them from engaging with a book that is better left overlooked. The end goal for a book reviewer is to get people reading — to introduce and excite. What we’ll consider “literary criticism” is a more scholarly take: an academic dissection of a publication that often has an already-established reputation, broken down in a way that changes how readers had previously engaged with that work. The scholar takes an already-heightened book and brings something new to the discussion.
Literary essays lurk at a strange midpoint between these two pillars: the essay often targets those readers who have already read the book in discussion and are looking for another lap of intellectual stimuli. The purpose of these essays is to further contextualize the work and the author’s bibliography and ultimately enhance a person’s original reading. Plots are often openly discussed in a way that a simple book critic would avoid, and by doing so the essayist can move past a cautious, introductory tone and delve into a cursory analysis of the book as a whole.
J.M. Coetzee (winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature) is not only a masterful writer but a fine essayist: Late Essays 2006-2017 is an exemplary collection compiled from the pages of the New York Review of Books and various commissioned book introductions of literary classics. Coetzee’s subjects range from Daniel Defoe to Philip Roth, contextualizing each with a historical and bibliographic background that will sate those readers looking for something deeper. Coetzee rarely brings anything revolutionary to his interpretations, but instead finds a way to be quietly revelatory while maintaining a humble and succinct tone. On The Scarlet Letter, for example, Coetzee writes that “Hawthorne clearly believed or wanted his readers to believe that writing The Scarlet Letter was an act of expiation, meant to acknowledge inherited guilt and to put a distance between himself and his Puritan forebears.” In one of a handful of essays on Samuel Beckett, Coetzee writes that “in Beckett, language is a self-enclosed system, a labyrinth without issue, in which human beings are trapped.” These expansive, explanatory moments crack open these classics in a way that allows Coetzee to develop a few of his own ideas while leaving room for readers to explore further on their own.
By writing for those who have already read a particular subject, essayists are free to discuss books in their entirety. This becomes problematic with contemporary or newly-discovered releases, as spoilers are unavoidable. There is a fine essay on Philip Roth’s novel Nemesis (2010), in which Coetzee calls it an “artfully constructed, suspenseful novel with a cunning twist towards the end.” “The twist is…” Coetzee writes, and continues to explain away the novel’s secrets. In another essay on Irene Nemirovsky (whose unfinished masterpiece Suite Française was discovered and translated in 2004), Coetzee recounts the “affecting” last pages of Nemirovsky’s novel David Golder. Despite Coetzee’s skilled research and contextualizing, It would be unfortunate for a new reader to discover these important novels in this way.
It’s curious to compare a discussion of a Roth ending to a discussion of a Tolstoy finale (there’s also a text on The Death of Ivan Ilyich in Late Essays). Avid readers may agree that one can discuss classics to completion, but may still squirm hearing of a newer novel’s inner workings. But where’s the line between the two, and how does a work cross over from one corner to the other? This brings us to a central tenet of the literary essayist: writers like Coetzee end up exalting novels into the realm of classics, regardless of their publication date or widespread critical appeal. In Late Essays, Coetzee gives writers like Philip Roth, Gerald Murnane and Les Murray the same intellectual rigor as he does Samuel Beckett and Goethe, effectively finding level ground between their discourse.
In one tangent in an essay on Beckett, Coetzee writes:
“Why does the title ‘Franz Kafka, PhD, Professor of Creative Writing, Charles University, Prague’ raise a smile to our lips when the title ‘Saul Bellow, BA, Professor of Social Thought, University of Chicago’ does not?
Because Kafka does not fit, we say. True, artists do not easily fit or fit in, and, when the are fitted in, fit uncomfortably.”
Leave Kafka and Bellow aside for a moment and consider this situation broadly: what Late Essays achieves is a triumph of comfortable fitting. Here, Coetzee presents a disparate swath of artists ranging from the early eighteenth century to less than a decade ago, and, positioned together, declares each similarly worthy of further exploration.