Stranger Shores: Literary Essays by J.M. Coetzee
A collection of literary criticism essays? Must be my first; well, maybe about half a century ago, in high school, I had to read a few essays when preparing for the rigorous graduation exam. Yet if the essays have been written by one of my favorite authors, J.M. Coetzee, I just had to try. "Stranger Shores. Literary Essays 1986 - 1999" totally captivates: another great work of the master. The twenty six essays deal with a wide spectrum of writers, for instance, Borges, Defoe, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Mulisch, Oz, Rilke, Rushdie, Turgenev, and a number of South African authors and writers with roots in Africa, including Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing, both - like Coetzee - Nobel Prize winners.
"Stranger Shores" is a rather loose collection of essays whose common denominator is their extremely high quality: incisive depth and superb writing. Thus, in this review (characterized by lack of depth and lame writing) I will just offer somewhat random comments on a few essays with which I have stronger thematic connections because of my heritage and background. No organizing theme can be discerned in this review
The novel "In the Dutch Mountains" (from the essay "Cees Nooteboom, Novelist and Traveler") instantaneously made my To Read list. Let's quote Coetzee: "This version of the Snow Queen story constitutes the pre-text of Nooteboom's novel. But the pre-text is surrounded by a substantial frame, namely the story of how the Snow Queen story gets to be told [...]" A must read.
In the essay about R.M. Rilke ("William Gass's Rilke") Coetzee quotes the German poet's vibrant passage "We are the bees of the invisible, [...] Tremulously we gather in the honey of the visible to store up in the great golden hive of the Invisible". And that refers to the American-style mass production of items that were flooding European market in the early 1900s, items that no longer were like the originals, the ones "into which the hopes and pensiveness of our forefathers have been transfused..."
In the piece entitled "The Essays of Joseph Brodsky" Coetzee writes, among many other issues, about how Brodsky suggests to Vaclav Havel, the first president of the free Czechoslovakia, to "drop the pretense that Communism in Central Europe was imposed from abroad and acknowledge that it was the result of 'an extraordinary anthropological backslide'". Regardless of whether we agree with Brodsky or not, it quite strikes me that a South African writer, a citizen of Australia, writes with great insight about the subtle differences of opinions between Brodsky, Havel, and Solzhenitsyn.
"The Autobiography of Doris Lessing" is a fascinating essay, with strong contemporary relevance. Coetzee explores Lessing's Communist phase and emphasizes the unfashionable yet deeply moral questions she raised: Why did many Western intellectuals who supported Stalin and Stalinism believed Soviet lies against the evidence of their own eyes? And even more important "Why does no one any longer care?" Further, Coetzee praises Lessing's unwillingness to bend to the political correctness climate of the 1990s and points out that she herself rightly traces the correctness to the Party and the Party line.
To me, the first essay, "What Is A Classic?: A Lecture" stands out. Its starting point is a lecture that Thomas Stearns Eliot gave in 1944, in which he argued that the civilization of Western Europe is a single civilization that is descended from Rome, thus making Aeneid, Virgil's epic of Rome, the originary classic. Coetzee uses the example of Bach's music as "some kind of touchstone because [Bach] has passed the scrutiny of hundreds of thousands of intelligences before me, by hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings." Yet for the "most serious" answer to the question "What is a classic?" Coetzee follows the lead of Zbigniew Herbert, who - drawing from Polish history - provides a dramatic definition of a classic. Coetzee summarizes it saying that a classic is "what survives the worst of barbarism, surviving because generations of people cannot afford to let go of it and therefore hold on to it at all costs."
I can't wait to read Coetzee's other collections of essays.
Four and a half stars.
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