Novelist as critic
He went beyond mere aesthetic concerns to raise wider political issues
LITERATURE BY M.S. NAGARAJAN
John Michael Coetzee was born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa. He holds the position of the Professorship of General Literature at the University of Cape Town. Besides being a novelist of world acclaim, he is also an accomplished critic and translator. In addition to winning the Premier British award, the Booker Prize twice (1983 and 1999), he has also been the recipient of numerous other prizes among which, the Lannan Award for fiction, the Jerusalem Prize, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize are worthy of special mention. His fourth anthology, Stranger Shores, is a collection of 29 essays in criticism he published during 1986-1999. Twenty-one of these appeared in the New York Review of Books and the rest were either given as lectures or meant for other journals.
This handy volume gets a kick-start with the lecture "What is a Classic?" Apparently, the provocation for this lecture is the 1944 magisterial address of T.S. Eliot to the Virgil Society, London, bearing the same title. Eliot's avowed aim was to reaffirm that Virgil's Aeneid is a classic and reinforce his claim that the whole of Western civilisation is a single unit descending from the Holy Roman Empire. Coetzee calls into question such simplistic notions generally held about the classic that it is timeless and that it speaks unproblematically to all generations across all boundaries. For him a classic is historically constituted, historically conditioned. "The classic defines itself by surviving," and so it is the business of criticism to interrogate the classic, for, "criticism of the most sceptical kind may be what the classic uses to define itself and ensure its survival". The immediate purpose on hand, however, which comes off undisguised, is to demystify Eliot and show that he was all along looking eagerly for some space to establish his political identity and entrench himself as an elder statesman in the domain of criticism. Evidence can be found in one of his write-ups in the Criterion in which he remarks, "The American individual of today has almost no chance of continuous development upon his own soil and in the environment which his ancestors, however humble, helped to form."
The essay on Kafka examines the problems confronted by two of Kafka's English translators, Edwin Muir in 1930 and Mark Harman in 1998. Edwin Muir and his wife Willa were a Scottish couple, self-taught in German. Muir, though not of the calibre of Yeats or Auden, was quite a good poet in his own right. Kafka was introduced to the English-speaking world by this couple. Muir had to depend on the version supplied by Max Brod, who saved the Kafka manuscripts from destruction (by disobeying his instruction that his manuscripts be burnt unread), edited and published them in German. Fidelity to the source text is the hallmark of a good translation. Muir, according to Coetzee, seems to have "included freshness of phrasing and variousness" in his translation and in so doing had introduced a historical dimension to the works and presented The Castle and The Trial as more or less religious allegories. At a later point of time, the original manuscripts were reedited by the German scholar, Malcolm Pasley in 1982, which formed the source text for Harman's new translation, which supersedes Muir's earlier version in many ways. Harman's version shows an improvement on Muir's in trying to reproduce in English the "spareness and the matter-of-factness" and the syntax of the original. In the words of Coetzee, Harman's version "is semantically accurate to an admirable degree, faithful to Kafka's nuances, responsive to the tempo of his sentences and to the larger music of his paragraph construction." When all is said and done, a work of art is an artifact that has its existence in a particular cultural system. The function of a faithful translation is to create a similar role for the work in the target language. Coetzee juxtaposes the two versions of Kafka in order to examine which of the two has the ease and grace of the original.
Coetzee's essays display a remarkable erudition coupled with incisiveness in his knowledge and understanding of other writers. They also show his wide range of taste and scholarship as these writers belong to three Centuries, the 18th, the 19th and the 20th. The writers he examines include Defoe, Richardson, Dostoevsky, Brodsky, Borges, Byatt, Caryl Phillips, Naguib Mahfouz, Daphne Rooke, Doris Lessing, Gordimer, Turgenev, and Alan Paton among others. Coetzee is capable of handling different genres with an enviable degree of felicity. After a few general remarks, he gets into the heart of the work he discusses and offers deep insights into it. Such a criticism is quite bracing in so far as it is sharply focussed on the work on hand. He is on native grounds when it comes to interpreting South African writers. Eleven out of the 29 essays are on South Africans. As a writer of protest fiction and as one so committed to exposing sufferings caused by imperialism and the effects of the apartheid, his readings, his literary investigations and his interpretations raise wider political issues which go much beyond mere aesthetic concerns and evaluation of the literary merits of writers. Since most of these essays were written as review articles, they fall into a set pattern of what might be called literary journalism, the sort of criticism that is prone to being less academic and more judicial in nature. This does not, in any way, lower the value of the book as a critical work. The book lacks an introduction, which would have served the purpose of knitting the essays together to form a coherent whole.
Stranger Shores is an enjoyable work of criticism. Coetzee's prose is lucid; his observations are marked by admirable candour and judgement supported by textual evidence. Informative without being arid, penetrating without being opinionated, Coetzee's essays are exhilarating studies in criticism.
The writer is former Professor and Head, department of English, University of Madras.
(The Literary Review)
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