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Stimulating criticism


Salman Rushdie ... the subject of literary criticism.

A COUPLE of weeks ago J.M. Coetzee reviewed V.S Naipaul's Half a Life in the New York Review of Books. After a masterly dissection of the novel, and praise for its flashes of brilliance, the reviewer said the novel did not quite work because it lacked heart. I have not yet seen a better review of the 2001 Nobel laureate's latest effort. Indeed, Coetzee the critic is as stimulating and subversive to read as Coetzee the novelist and that is pretty high praise for as a storyteller he is among the top two or three in the world today.

Stranger Shores: Literary Essays collects the best of the novelist's literary criticism from 1986-1999 (the publisher is Viking, so please make allowances for any potential conflict of interest here). The writers whose work is submitted to Coetzee's penetrating gaze include T.S. Eliot, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Harry Mulisch, Cees Noteboom, William Gass (for his volume on Rilke), Robert Musil, Josef Skvorecky, Joseph Brodsky, J.L. Borges, A.S. Byatt, Salman Rushdie, Amos Oz, Naguib Mahfouz and several South African writers. Most of the essays in the book revolve around a recent book or books by the author, from which central point Coetzee spins out a more expansive view of the writer and his work. His style is easy and lucid and he does not lay on the scholarly guff more thickly than he should — this makes the book easy to assimilate rather than indigestible, as usually happens when an insecure or inferior critic is attempting to show off his scholarship without in any way illuminating the work he is attempting to review.

Naturally enough, the first essay I turned to was the essay on Salman Rushdie and The Moor's Last Sigh (as I have mentioned at the outset of these essays date from a few years back). To illustrate the style that Coetzee generally employs throughout the book it is instructive to see how he begins the Rushdie piece. "The notion of personal identity has dramatically narrowed in our times. Identity has become in the first place a matter of group identification: of claiming membership of a group, or being claimed by a group. Identity in this sense has hovered as a problem over Salman Rushdie's head for most of his life. India is where his imagination lives. Yet as a British citizen of Muslim ancestry and, since Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, of indeterminate residence, it has become less and less easy for him to assert, when he writes about India, the country of his birth, that he writes as an insider."

This is Coetzee's hallmark as a reviewer. First, the establishing of a broad perception of the writer as viewed through the filter of both his imagination as also his own place in the world, followed by a zeroing in on the particulars of the novel that is being reviewed. In the Rushdie essay, we are told about the obsessions of Rushdie — in no particular order these are India, India's place in the world, Islam, fundamentalism, notions of history, identity and so on.

He discusses the technique Rushdie has often used so brilliantly — palimpsetting as also ekphrasis, "the conduct of narration through the description of imaginary works of art," in addition to the sources from which Rushdie draws his stories and references. Finally, drawing all the various strands together, he delivers his verdict on the novel — The Moor's Last Sigh passes muster.

Indeed, Coetzee's learning is formidable if this book is anything to go by. In addition to the world of Rushdie, he is familiar with the dramatically different fictional landscape of Borges, the matrix in which the poetry of Rilke is grounded, the ins and outs of the Habsburg Empire that gave rise to the fiction of Robert Musil, the metafiction of the Dutch novelist Cees Noteboom, Cairene alleyways of Naguib Mahfouz, to name just a few. He is as much at home with the classics as with modern fiction, not something that could be said about most of the reviewers at work today.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Stranger Shores will be enjoyed by anyone who has read and enjoyed J.M. Coetzee's fiction. Such readers will surely enjoy the novelist's view of the work of some of his finest contemporaries as well as some of his favourite classics.

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