Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999
J.M. Coetzee
London: Secker & Warburg, 2001.
£17.99, 380 pages, ISBN 0436233916.

Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work
Philip Roth
Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
$23.00, 168 pages, ISBN 0618153144.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
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. Kafka’s 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 don’t have to agree with Roth when he writes that, to his mind, Appelfeld does not write Jewish fiction. What is Jewish fiction anyway?

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 Bellow’s students and fans alike. I wonder what Roth makes of Bellow’s 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 Heller’s 2000 Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man.

Besides, Roth’s book offers dialogues with Primo Levi, Ivan Klima, Bruno Schulz, Milan Kundera and Edna O’Brien. 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 today’s 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) essays—often published previously in the New York Review of Books—are 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. Borges’s 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 Borges’s reception in France and that he is precisely aware of the specific way French intellectuals helped the Argentine’s 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 Borges’s 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 Fuentes’s Christopher Unborn (1990). But Borges’s 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 Sartre’s plays, and am not so fond of John Barth’s 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 Borges’s 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 Coetzee’s critical observations on other writers in this book.