Beyond criticism

Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2006by J.M. CoetzeeHarvill Secker £17.99, 304 pagesFT bookshop price: £14.39

Touchstones: Essays on Literature, Art and Politicsby Mario Vargas LlosaFaber and Faber £25, 354 pagesFT bookshop price: £16

Literary criticism comes in many forms. At the shallow end is the book review, topical by definition and expected to pass summary judgment on the work in question. The deeper waters of literary criticism are inhabited by the academic variety, which aims for definitive interpretations of canonical works. Somewhere between the two is that hybrid we call the literary essay - more considered and contextualised than a straightforward review, less opaque to the average reader than scholarly exegesis.

The English language literary essay has a distinguished pedigree that goes back to the early 18th century, when periodical publications such as The Spectator made it as valid a form of entertainment as political commentary or social gossip. Because it accommodates all themes and styles, the form has continued to flourish; penning thoughtful essays on consecrated authors or on obscure but worthy works of literature is now central to most authors' chores.

For some writers, such forays into criticism can result in a body of work as worthy of attention as their fiction. Writing literary essays satisfies a variety of needs: there is the literary essay as didactic tool (Vladimir Nabokov), as homage (Julian Barnes) and as performance (Martin Amis). At its worst, it is an exercise in intellectual recycling, a medium to vent personal grudges, or a study in narcissism. At its best it allows the novelist to present, in a new light, a literary work of particular interest. It allows him or her also to make a statement, overt or veiled, about their own aesthetic creed.

“Why might one be drawn to read a collection of the book reviews and literary introductions of a writer known above all for his fiction?” asks the preface to Inner Workings, the latest volume of essays by South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. A reader hopes, first, that these essays will shed light on the “often oblique novels” that constitute the essays' subjects. Readers may also wish to see how the author of Waiting for the Barbarians “engages with his peers, commenting not as a critic from the outside but as one who works with the same raw materials”. The underlying belief here - not always borne out - is that no one can shed light on his fellow writers' art like a novelist can.

Inner Workings, a compendium of literary essays written between 2000 and 2005, is a sequel to Coetzee's Stranger Shores, a collection of his critical work published between 1986 and 1999. As in the earlier volume, the texts appeared originally as introductions to modern editions of classic novels or as extended reviews in The New York Review of Books. Each essay offers a masterclass in concision, clarity and critical sharpness.

Though it is broad in range, the book has a Mitteleuropean slant to it: the first seven essays are given over to novelists such as Robert Musil, who chronicled the agony of the Austro- Hungarian Empire and the turbulent emergence of a more brutal order. Coetzee illustrates the way in which each of them responded to the contemporary yet conflicting ideas of nationalism, which hoists collective identities upon its adherents, and psychoanalysis, which plumbs the individual's deepest recesses.

There are also essays on books by three German-language writers (Paul Celan, Gunter Grass and W.G. Sebald) and one Dutch (Hugo Claus). A piece on Graham Greene argues that Brighton Rock is as good as the best work by Henry James and Joseph Conrad. One on Samuel Beckett explains why reading his short fictions is the key to understanding his full artistic range. The Americans he discusses include William Faulkner and Saul Bellow - “perhaps the giant” among novelists of the latter half of the 20th century. The final essays tackle the latest novels by fellow Nobel laureates V.S. Naipaul, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Nadine Gordimer.

Coetzee has been a professor of modern literature, and thus wears both the novelist's and the academic's caps. In Inner Workings he achieves the remarkable feat of being thoroughly informative without ever appearing donnish (there isn't a hint of literary theory in this collection). He assumes no prior knowledge of any of the authors - his texts are perfect starting points for readers unfamiliar with their work, but they are still thought- provoking for those already acquainted with it.

The tone is never anything but serious, yet even the grave Professor Coetzee allows himself a wry smile every now and then. After retelling the story of Walter Benjamin's failed attempt to smuggle the manuscript that would later become his Arcades Project out of France, he asks: “Why all the concern for a treatise on shopping in 19th-century Paris?”

Though Coetzee must find all the authors he has chosen for this collection worthy of attention, he is not blind to their faults. “The recent flare-up of interest in Sandor Marai is not easy to explain,” he writes about the Hungarian author of Embers. “His conception of the novel form was... old-fashioned, his grasp of its potentialities limited, and his achievements in the medium consequently slight.”

There is, in his analyses, a vague sense of geographic and biographic determinism. Yet when unravelling the identity of the narrator of Philip Roth's The War Against America, he declares that searching into the life and character of the real Philip Roth is “a questionable enterprise under any circumstances”. Here, perhaps, is a useful key to anyone trying to fathom the relationship between Coetzee and his many novels.

That relationship, never straightforward for any writer, is even more intricate with Coetzee. Famously media-shy, he is a novelist who has, of late, offered more space within his fictional work to an academic alter-ego, Elizabeth Costello, and to her apparently non-fictional musings, than to conventional storytelling. He is also someone whose Nobel Lecture (usually an opportunity for the recipient to take stock of his career) was couched in the guise of fiction - a sort of epilogue to his Foe, a novella that can be read as a meditation about the nature of literary composition.

Still, this book offers rare glimpses of Coetzee's ethos and of his preoccupations as an artist. Discussing Nadine Gordimer's The Pickup, he writes about its protagonist: “Julie is tired of South Africa in a way that, while it may be hard to find credible in someone so young, is all too easy to believe in someone of Gordimer's generation - tired of the daily demands that a country with a centuries-long history of exploitation and violence and disheartening contrasts of poverty and affluence makes upon the moral conscience.” Is this a coded admission of the rationale behind Coetzee's recent adoption of Australian citizenship?

It is because Coetzee has consistently shunned the public eye that his essays are tantalising. Could it be that, since he so rarely airs them, reading his thoughts on other writers is as close as we get to his views on his own work? If so, we must face another question: are we interested in his views because they are illuminating, or because they are his? There may be an element of the cult of the author that even someone as self-effacing as the South African Nobel laureate cannot escape.

Whereas Coetzee strives for an impossible detachment from the personal in his literary essays, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa makes the personal a springboard for his criticism. The opening piece of Touchstones, a collection of essays on literature, art and politics, is a meditation about his earliest readings. It was at the age of five, while his family lived in Bolivia, that he first discovered, in the boys' adventure stories he was given for Christmas, a world richer and more exciting than his own privileged life. “There is no doubt that my vocation as a writer began to gestate there..., in the shade of these readings and as a natural derivation of the hypnotic happiness that I felt as I lived all those adventures through the miracle of reading... Every writer is firstly a reader and to be a writer is also a different way to continue to read.”

Vargas Llosa's interpretation of other people's writing is often filtered though his own experience. “I read The Tin Drum for the first time, in English, in the sixties, in a neighbourhood in the suburbs of London where I lived among quiet shopkeepers who turned out the lights in their houses at ten at night,” he writes.

Are such recollections of more than anecdotal interest, and would a reader care about them if they were not written down by the celebrated author of The Time of the Hero? Probably not. Yet such glances into the circumstances in which a book is read and reviewed also reveal how literary criticism is practised: subjectively, depending on a reviewer's moods and preferences and affiliations. It is significant, surely, that Vargas Llosa rereads and reviews Grass's novel while running for the Peruvian presidency in 1990.

Touchstones is an uneven miscellany of Vargas Llosa's non- fiction. Though all the texts were composed as occasional pieces, some are more occasional than others. It is perhaps the editor's selection, rather than the author's writing, which lets down the work as a coherent whole. Alongside exquisite literary essays (there is a remarkable text on Joseph Conrad) the book includes many of Vargas Llosa's regular columns for Spanish newspaper El Pais on topics ranging from art exhibitions to the new international world order.

Outstanding among the press pieces is “Iraq Diary”, written in the course of a 12-day visit to the blighted country three months after Saddam's fall. “Iraq is the freest country in the world,” he writes after his first day, “but since freedom without order and without law is tantamount to chaos, it is also the most dangerous.” One must praise the courage of a writer who refuses to go along with remotely received information, whatever its source, and decamps to Baghdad, “the ugliest city in the world”. Though he originally stood against the war, the visit changes his mind: “With what I have seen and heard in this short stay, I would have supported the intervention without hesitation.”

Unlike Coetzee, once chided by fellow South Africans for remaining aloof to the struggle against apartheid, the author of The War of the End of the World has never flinched from public tussles. His role model is French writer and polemicist Andre Malraux, who displayed “that very rare alliance of thought and action”, and about whom he declares: “I knew that his was the life that I would have liked to have led.”

It was in this spirit that Vargas Llosa put himself forward as a presidential candidate for the centre-right Democratic Front alliance. Not surprisingly, his most scathing words in Touchstones are reserved for Alberto Fujimori, who narrowly defeated him, and for Fujimori's head of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos. Vargas Llosa the politician loathes the moral decrepitude of the Fujimori- Montesinos regime, yet one senses the fascination that duo exercises over Vargas Llosa the novelist. It is the same fascination with power that inspired The Feast of the Goat, his novel about the Dominican Republic's infamous dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

Politics in a literary work may be, in Stendhal's formulation, like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert. But, as even Coetzee's essays vividly illustrate, literature cannot exist independently of politics and mankind's countless other pursuits. While Inner Workings offers a novelist's elegant critical appraisals without revealing much about the author himself, Touchstones serves up the smooth alongside the rough to offer a more candid view of another equally accomplished writer.

Ultimately, what sets these two masters of the literary essay apart is how much of themselves they are prepared to expose in their readings of others.

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