JM Coetzee would rather rake leaves in his garden than read “a run-of the-mill novel”. This princely nugget appears in Here and Now (2013), a collection of letters that he exchanged with his fellow author Paul Auster. Coetzee goes on to say that he gets “impatient with fiction that doesn’t try something that hasn’t been tried before, preferably with the medium itself”.
The much-garlanded South African novelist’s own experiments in fiction are legion: ranging from the Kafka-esque disorder of Life and Times of Michael K to the allegorical postmodernism of The Childhood of Jesus and its recent sequel The Schooldays of Jesus. As an essayist Coetzee clearly seeks out kindred spirits: novelists and poets whose creativity is constantly being stretched to its limit.
The emblematic writer of this latest collection, most of which emanates from Coetzee’s writing for the New York Review of Books, is Samuel Beckett, to whom four essays are devoted. What seems to interest Coetzee most, as he succinctly puts it in an essay on Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel The Good Soldier, is “to plumb the obscurer, more personal sources of [a writer’s] urge to write”. Thus, Coetzee explores Beckett’s problematic relationship with his mother, his initially servile relationship with James Joyce and his dislike of formal English, which led him to write most of his masterpieces in French.
Coetzee focuses less on youthful panache than in what a seasoned writer with accumulated (often painful) experience can bring to an oeuvre. In his essay on Ford, he suggests that it was not until the author had come to terms with a very public marital crisis that he gained the insight he needed to expose the cul-de-sacs of English society’s “maintenance of ‘good’ standards”.
Ford was in his forties when The Good Soldier, his most accomplished novel, was published. Coetzee’s essays on writers as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Daniel Defoe, Heinrich von Kleist, Gustave…