The more I look at Darkness, the harder it gets. It's not that I'm starting to cry. It's that evil, censorship, influence, mature morality, healthy art - these are tangled subjects, hard to be sure of. I will not write on them in a trivial way, or with nothing clear and new to say. It is foolish to enter disturbing territory, if there is no wisdom to share at the end of the journey. So I turn sideways, from J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, with its chapter on The Problem of Evil. That will be my subject next week.
I discovered J. M. Coetzee last November, when I wrote a diary on his Life & Times of Michael K. I found Coetzee's fiction compelling but chilly, lucid but hard to like. As James Wood put it, in A Frog's Life (a review of Elizabeth Costello):
There may be many readers who, on hearing of J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel Prize, immediately thought about the cost of clarity. There is so much, after all, missing from Coetzee’s distinguished books. His prose is precise, but blanched; in place of comedy there is only bitter irony (this is Coetzee’s large difference from Beckett, whom he so clearly admires); in place of society, with its domestic and familial affiliations, there is political society; and underfoot is often the tricky camber of allegory, insisting on pulling one’s step in certain directions. Coetzee has himself, with characteristic honesty, lamented that South African literature is ‘a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power … it is exactly the kind of literature one would expect people to write from a prison.’The problem I found with Life & Times of Michael K., which seems to hold for most of Coetzee's fiction (especially pre-2000) is, there's nothing easy about it. He doesn't give you a locomotive plot, to keep you turning the pages hungrily; neither does he write characters who suck you into their touching humanity; nor does he decorate his fictional world with such precise and varied details, that you see and smell it. His South Africa is credible, but not immersive. It feels like warmth is irrelevant, he just wants to shed light, and even that comes slowly, in epiphanies in minor keys.
A few months later I discovered J. M. Coetzee's reviews and criticism. They are brilliant, showing careful, flexible thought and penetrating insight. After his arid storytelling, I was surprised at how well-furnished his criticism is. You can see how much reading and research he does, from all the information he imparts. He chews on his subject like a terrier, shaking it in all directions until he brings the whole thing to the ground.
I will be reading a lot more of Coetzee. So far, I've found his criticism more absorbing and warm-blooded than his fiction. I highly recommend Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999, which has chapters on Defoe, Richardson, Rilke, Kafka, Musil, Dostoevsky, Borges, Byatt, Rushdie, Lessing and others, including "What is a Classic?", starting from a lecture of the same name that T. S. Eliot gave.
(I expect Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 is nearly as good - but I haven't read much of it yet.)
Coetzee’s latest book, a series of philosophical dialogues bound into rather fitful fiction, might initially seem unappetising. For some time now, he has been in the habit, when invited to deliver a lecture, of employing a richly deflective device: he reads out a story about a writer asked to give a lecture. That writer is not an alter ego, though how much she shares with her creator is one of the device’s loitering teases. Her name is Elizabeth Costello, an Australian novelist born in 1928, famous like Coetzee for her rewriting of a classic novel (in Coetzee’s case, Robinson Crusoe; in Costello’s, Ulysses). The frame story allows Coetzee to share ideas while obscuring his overt possession of them. . . .I find Elizabeth Costello an engaging story, and protagonist; and I enjoy all the literary background and philosophical debate sandwiched within Elizabeth's travels and lectures. The book got me thinking about vegetarianism, and taught me about oral traditions and African Novels, and how textual analysis of the Bible lay the foundation for literary criticism. That knowledge is not reliable, it came from characters with their own views and flaws. As in Plato, the debates broaden your view of the subjects discussed.
The paradox of the chosen form is that on the one hand Coetzee seems to be playing his usual withholding game: the famous ascetic, the pale undeliverer, the non-interviewee, who instead of tying himself to a series of propositions puts them in the mouth of a fictional creation and slips away behind her; yet, on the other hand, the ideas that Elizabeth Costello wants to propose in her lectures are so intense, so passionate and even at times irrational, that their extremity necessarily encourages us to follow them back to their recessed author, Coetzee himself. . . .
Elizabeth Costello collects eight of these tales – ironically called ‘lessons’ in Coetzee’s subtitle. In addition to her trips to Amsterdam and Appleton College, Costello talks about realism at a college in Pennsylvania, takes a job on a cruise ship to lecture to the passengers about the future of the novel (she is pessimistic), and, on a visit to Johannesburg, talks about the possibility of learning anything from the humanities. The book has a shape, rather a religious one: it inclines towards death. The penultimate chapter is a Kafka-like parable in which Costello seems to be at the gate of heaven, only to find that she must give an account of her beliefs to a presiding jury.
Against all likelihood, the book is more affecting than anything else he has written, and, I think, deeply confessional. . . .
James Wood is a successful and popular book critic, who is most famous for coining the term Hysterical Realism in a review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, called Human, All Too Inhuman. It's a pretty long review. Hysterical Realism is an interesting topic, for another day. If you want a quick grasp of it, try Wood's much shorter piece, Tell me how does it feel?
James Wood's essays are enjoyable to read: They're well-written, with sound judgment, and a strong, broad grasp of literature to back them up.
The most satisfying Wood I've found, of the four I've looked into, was the most coherent, How Fiction Works. From the front sleeve:
In the tradition of E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, How Fiction Works is a scintillating study of the magic of fiction--an analysis of its main elements and a celebration of its lasting power. Here one of the most prominent and stylish critics of our time looks into the machinery of storytelling to ask some fundamental questions: What do we mean when we say we "know" a fictional character? What constitutes a telling detail? When is a metaphor successful? Is Realism realistic? Why do some literary conventions become dated while others stay fresh?Wood is like Austen to Coetzee's Eliot. This book is a joy to read, stuffed with wit and learning, told in a very likable voice. Like Austen, he has unerring good sense.
James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.
If you try that and want more, the richest of his three books of essays I've read is The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief. It has chapters on Harold Bloom's view of Shakespeare, Austen's Heroic Consciousness, God and Metaphor in Melville, Gogol's Realism, Woolf's Mysticism, Lawrence's Occultism, Pynchon and the Problem of Allegory, and Updike's Complacent God, among others.
Oh dear, this diary is already late. Two neighbors had a row, the police came, and I was busy as a witness and peacemaker. It's fine now, but it took awhile.
Do you have any favorite literary critics, anyone who writes essays or reviews that are a joy to read and teach you to see more in other books? Who are they? What are the best books you've ever read about books or literature? Are there any magazines, papers or websites, that you find good book articles in?