Coetzee’s Master Class in Literary Criticism

By J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 304 pages, $25.95

Each of the 21 essays included in Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 is named for the author whose works it examines, making the collection’s table of contents read like a syllabus. In the first half of the course, J.M. Coetzee lectures on European literature of the first half of the 20th century, in translation from Italian, German, Hungarian and Polish. It’s an honor roll of anomie: the Swiss writer Robert Walser, for example, whose works went largely neglected during his lifetime, the last years of which he spent institutionalized; or the Austrian Robert Musil, whose The Man Without Qualities (1930) chronicled the breakdown of Enlightenment liberalism that prefigured the rise of fascism in Europe.

The second half of Mr. Coetzee’s course is almost entirely devoted to literature in English. And since this is an elective taught by tenured—not to mention Nobel Prize–winning—faculty, it is capriciously thrown together: Subjects include Walt Whitman, Graham Greene, Saul Bellow and V.S. Naipaul.

In line with the sensibility of The New York Review of Books (where most of these pieces first appeared), Mr. Coetzee describes his subjects using a variety of approaches, in a highly readable style. His patience for interpretive excess is short. The famously terse Coetzee scolds biographer Jay Parini, for example, for suggesting that William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying “as a symbolic act of aggression by Faulkner against his own mother as well as a ‘perverse’ wedding present to his wife.”

Mr. Coetzee writes, “Perhaps it is indeed the province of the biographer to trouble the text with fancies plucked from the air; perhaps not. More to the point is whether either Faulkner’s mother or his wife understood the novel as a personal attack on them. There is no record that either did.”

What’s left for literary critics once you revoke their interpretive license? In the strongest essay of the collection, “Paul Celan and his translators,” Mr. Coetzee demonstrates. He handles debates over the interpretation of Celan’s often-opaque poetry with patience and restraint, laying out the salient facts of the poet’s life and death, and how the poet has been received by his translators and interpreters. Judgments are delivered casually along the way. “Death Fugue,” Celan’s famous evocation of the World War II German death camps, “absorbs from the Surrealists everything that is worth absorbing.” After summarizing the view of Celan biographer John Felstiner, Mr. Coetzee does him one better: “Celan developed from being a German poet whose fate it was to be a Jew to being a Jewish poet whose fate it was to write in German.”

In the collection’s only weak spot, “Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” Mr. Coetzee lets his erudition get the best of him. The essay’s straightforward title is a trap to lure the reader into a free-associative labyrinth of comparison between several of Márquez’s works, Don Quixote, Yasunari Kawabata’s 1961 novella “House of the Sleeping Beauties” and Chaucer’s Merchant’s tale. Mr. Coetzee argues convincingly that one theme unites these works: the pathetic lust of old men for young women. But the loose, wandering style only brings the judicious restraint of the collection’s other essays into sharper focus.

Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer. Coetzee’s Master Class in Literary Criticism