Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Inner Workings" is J.M. Coetzee's second collection of literary essays (my review of the outstanding first set, "Stranger Shores", can be found here ), written between 2000 and 2005. Coetzee again covers a wide spectrum of authors, ranging from some very well known to me, like Gabriel Garcia Márquez, William Faulkner, or Günter Grass, to ones whose names - due to my ignorance about world literature - I can barely recognize, for example Walter Benjamin or Hugo Claus. Like in my review of the previous collection, I am just scribbling some random thoughts about selected essays, ones that resonated with me stronger. Let me say it up front, though: all 21 essays are superb and greatly recommended.
In the essay "Günter Grass and the Wilhelm Gustloff" Coetzee points out that Grass was among the first "to attack the consensus of silence about the complicity of ordinary Germans in Nazi rule". This is a very important point: one who reads about European history may be tempted to think that in 1930-1940s there was a strange nation living between the borders of France and Poland, the nation of Nazis. The sad truth is that this purported Naziland was called Germany, and its inhabitants were ordinary Germans. Not for the first time Coetzee suggests that ordinary people, people like you and me, can be led to commit unspeakable atrocities.
Günter Grass's "Tin Drum" was the first European work of magic realism, which provides a neat segue to the absolutely fascinating essay entitled "Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores", where Coetzee quotes Márquez' definition of magic realism: it is "a matter of telling hard-to-believe stories with a straight face, a trick he learned from his grandmother in Cartagena." To me, the highest point of this essay, and of the entire collection, is the juxtaposition of Cervantes' Dom Quixote and Garcia Marquez' Florentino Ariza: a nameless young factory girl is transformed into the virgin Delgadina by "the same process of idealisation by which the peasant girl of Toboso is transformed into the [Quixote's] Lady Dulcinea." While there are several other startling insights in this incomparable essay, not only am I unqualified to discuss them here, but first and foremost I lack the courage.
The essay on Walt Whitman shows a rare side of Coetzee - his sense of humor, constrained and acerbic yet very funny. Having defined the phrenological terms of "amativeness" (basically meaning "sexual ardor") and "adhesiveness" (meaning "attachment, friendship, comradeship"), notions that were very important for Whitman in his life, erotic or otherwise, Coetzee writes "'the nature of [Whitman's] physical relationship' with young men can refer to only one thing: what Whitman and the young men in question did with their organs of amativeness when they were alone together." In a fascinating aside Coetzee mentions the major change of paradigm of heterosexual versus homosexual that occurred some time after 1880: while in mid 1800s men could kiss in public and could hold hands in purely asexual way, the same actions signified altogether different relationship in the 20th century.
My review is, as usual, getting way too long, so here's an itemization of some other tasty morsels from "Inner Workings":
-> Walter Benjamin's Arcade Project", in Coetzee's words "a great ruin of twentieth-century literature", with its principle of "montage", which may be thought of as a very early version of the hypertext concept.
-> William Faulkner catching a glimpse of but not approaching James Joyce in a Parisian café.
-> Disturbing passages about capturing wild horses in Nevada, during filming a movie, in the essay "Arthur Miller, The Misfits".
-> The mathematical metaphor of rational vs. irrational numbers as applied to human behavior in the essay "Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless"; only Coetzee, who has a degree in mathematics could pull this one off.
-> Bruno Schulz (the author of Cinnamon Shops) being too late with his planned escape from Drohobycz to Warsaw in 1942.
-> In-depth examinations of the art and craft of translation (Coetzee is an accomplished professional translator himself): about conveying the meaning, the rhythm, the tone, the mood, and the beauty of the original in a translation.
Four and a quarter stars.
View all my reviews