Elegant collection of essays

2008-10-02 08:04

In the more than three decades that J.M. Coetzee has forged a reputation as one of the world's greatest novelists, a status confirmed in 2003 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he has also made a name for himself as a precise and cerebral literary critic and reviewer, chiefly in the New York Review of Books.

Yet while his novels - among them Dusklands, Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, Age of Iron and Disgrace - are well known in literary circles, as are his fictionalised autobiographies Boyhood and Youth, his critical works are less so. White Writing, a collection of essays on South African literature and culture, appeared in 1988, but it was not until 2001 with the publication of Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999, that the public had an opportunity to read a comprehensive collection of his reviews.

And now, with the publication of Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 has appeared a further volume of his critical writings. Typically of Coetzee, the writers he dissects are themselves intellectuals who in their different ways have operated near the pinnacle of literary achievement, even if they aren't particularly familiar to the general public: among them, Italo Svevo, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth and W. G. Sebald. Others, like Samuel Beckett, Nadine Gordimer, Günter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and V. S. Naipaul, perhaps have a wider audience. But in each case, Coetzee applies his razor eye to the work in question, laying bare the creation itself and the culture and history behind it.

While Inner Workings is not a racy read, it is an elegant and challenging collection of essays of the kind that Coetzee's admirers have come to expect of him, and respect.

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