Shores: Essays 1986-1999
London: Secker & Warburg, 2001.
£17.99, 380 pages, ISBN 0436233916.
Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work
Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
$23.00, 168 pages, ISBN 0618153144.
Université de Rouen
Aharon Appelfeld, the Holocaust survivor, writes in Hebrew. Not an
obvious choice (or is it?), when you consider his parents spoke German
to him, his grandparents Yiddish, and whenever he stepped out of his
house in Bukovina as a child, he had to speak Ruthenian or Rumanian.
As is now well-known, he spent the war years roaming around Rumania
with a handful of other children, posing as a goy. He also picked
up, as a boy, Ukrainian, Russian, and other European languages. But,
as he tells Philip Roth in Shop Talk, when he arrived in Palestine
in 1946, his head was full of tongues, but the truth of the
matter is that [he] had no language. Roth and Coetzee both have
illuminating things to say about Appelfeld, and their texts can be
read as a pair to great advantage. Appelfeld also has two or three
illuminating things to say about himself. Of course, Saul Bellow and
Bernard Malamud and even Norman Mailer are evoked. Kafkas influence
too. And the questions of what it means to be a Jew now, and what
it meant back in the thirties are addressed, as you might expect.
Indeed, you dont have to agree with Roth when he writes that,
to his mind, Appelfeld does not write Jewish fiction. What is Jewish
Talking about Jewish fiction, Roth also writes about Bernard Malamud,
separately, in a somewhat strange piece entitled Pictures of
Malamud, which is as sad as it is insightful. We learn about
their falling out and their reconciling, and we get a glimpse of Malamud
at work: a lot of pain and little pleasure, apparently. There is a
companion text called Rereading Saul Bellow, which is
precisely that. It is an idiosyncratic rereading that I thoroughly
recommend to Bellows students and fans alike. I wonder what
Roth makes of Bellows 2000 Ravelstein, what he thinks
of the sometimes dubious political content of that book, and of the
roman à clef aspects. Of course, Ravelstein is
nowhere as saddening as Joseph Hellers 2000 Portrait of an
Artist, as an Old Man.
Besides, Roths book offers dialogues with Primo Levi, Ivan Klima,
Bruno Schulz, Milan Kundera and Edna OBrien. Those conversations
are variously inspired, but all have something to be said for them:
we are dealing with two writers exchanging views, as opposed to one
writer and one critic, for a change. There is also an amusing exchange
of letters with Mary McCarthy, that will revolutionize neither Roth
criticism nor McCarthy criticism.
J.M. Coetzee, one of todays most respected novelists, won the
Booker Prize twice, which is an impressive achievement. He is also
a professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town.
Like Roth, he is quite a different writer when he strays away from
fiction. In Stranger Shores, he tackles varied topics, ranging
from What is a classic? to The 1995 Rugby World
Cup. But most of his (uneven) essaysoften published previously
in the New York Review of Booksare about novelists and
short story writers: Defoe, Richardson, Gass, Rilke, Kafka, Musil,
Dostoevsky, Byatt, Gordimer, Lessing, etc. My very favourite dates
back to 1998: it is a review of J.L. Borgess Collected Fictions.
Like many of us, Coetzee finds it hard to refrain from showing
off a little bit, at times. So he lets us know that he is perfectly
familiar with Borgess reception in France and that he is precisely
aware of the specific way French intellectuals helped the Argentines
reputation, and why; he also compares the various translations to
the original Spanish, illustrating his command of Hispanicisms and
Americanisms as well as his insights as far as the art of translation
in general is concerned. It is all perfectly convincing and highly
interesting; especially to those of us who remain gratefully persuaded
that Borges and Nabokov invented everything and playfully paved
the way for indispensable postmodern writers like Donald Barthelme.
That is, everything Laurence Sterne had not invented before, in Tristram
Shandy. Indeed Coetzee is almost reductive when he insists on
Borgess influence on a remarkable generation of Spanish-American
novelists and mentions Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes,
Jose Donoso and Mario Vargas Llosa, however tremendous you may find
those writers. I myself freely admit never having looked at a book
in quite the same way as I used to after reading Fuentess Christopher
Unborn (1990). But Borgess influence is global.
I think I agree with Coetzee when he admires the intellectual
daring of Borges but writes that the finest of the
stories are those where the philosophical argument folds discreetly
into the narrative. That is probably why I dislike Sartres
plays, and am not so fond of John Barths latest novel (reviewed
on this website) in spite of my veneration for most of his previous
efforts. I also enjoy what Coetzee has to say about Borgess
own interventions in the translations, which is very reminiscent of
Nabokov: The changes that Borges [
] introduces in the
process of translating himself can be regarded as authorial revisions
] That is just an extract. The implications are numerous
and fascinating. As are many of Coetzees critical observations
on other writers in this book.