But within these conventions, Coetzee is as perspicacious and erudite a guide as one could hope for. His biographical sketches of the life and times of the authors he addresses are excellent, concretely informative while also marbled with interesting tidbits. (Robert Walser, I learned, developed “psychosomatic cramps” in his right hand that he attributed to an unconscious enmity for the pen, leading him to adopt an alternative form of script he called his “pencil system.”) But the meat of Coetzee’s overviews can be found in other good introductions by other critics. What can’t be found anywhere else, where Coetzee is unparalleled, is his ability to capture the psychology of individual characters, to lay bare the inner working of their minds, and in so doing bring to light the source of their enduring interest to readers.
Of Defoe’s heroine Roxana, for example, Coetzee writes: “Roxana does not pretend that the virtue whose loss she intermittently laments is something she deeply and sincerely believes in. On the contrary, she is happy to remain in a divided, ambivalent state in which she wants to resist seduction but equally wants her resistance to be swept away. She is well aware of this division or ambivalence within herself. … Implicitly she recognizes that she finds being seduced more interesting (more engaging, more thrilling, more erotic, more seductive in prospect) than giving herself in a direct, unambiguous way; that the prelude to the sexual act can be more desirable, more erotically fulfilling, than the act itself. Seduction, the thought of seduction, the approach of seduction, the imagined experience of seduction, turns out to be profoundly seductive, even irresistible.”
If one is to appreciate Coetzee’s essays, one must recognize how precisely, with what concentration, he lays bare a terrifically complex psychology, giving readers a handhold on which to build even more complex readings of their own. (Readings that would likely, in today’s atmosphere, quickly point out that “irresistible” seduction isn’t the fruit of effective persuasion but rape, a fact Coetzee draws attention to elsewhere in the chapter.) One must also admire the subtle brilliance of Coetzee’s sentences, as in the last line of the passage quoted above, in which seduction is discussed in a manner that itself impersonates seduction, with the repetition of phrases (the thought of seduction, the approach of seduction and so on) heightening the thrill for the reader until the sentence succumbs to the seduction it has performed by landing upon “even irresistible.”
“Late Essays” is filled with many moments of such perfect insight, moments when the reader is left enthralled by Coetzee’s powers of perception. Another example is this gem, on the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert: “What is wrong with systems, to Herbert, is that they are systems. What is wrong with laws is that they are laws. Beware of angels and other executives of perfection.”
At certain points, “Late Essays” can suddenly become “Last Essays.” At this stage of Coetzee’s career, one might of course expect reflections on matters of mortality and finality, or at least an interest in the late style of literary giants. But Coetzee doesn’t dwell on such issues any more than a younger writer would. In one instance, however, he lets slip his admiration for a particular scene at the end of Philip Roth’s “Everyman,” where the protagonist observes at his work, and then converses with, the aging gravedigger who dug his parents’ graves and who will perform the same service for the protagonist when the time comes. After the gravedigger has carefully described the process by which a grave comes to be dug, Roth’s unnamed Everyman says, “I want to thank you. … You couldn’t have made things more concrete. It’s a good education for an older person.”
In these essays, Coetzee is doing for the writers who came before him what I imagine he hopes will be done for him by the writers who will follow. He is gravedigging, with probity, with the greatest reverence for the craft they share, and in this way is saying thank you in the only way one writer can really say it to another, which is by writing about them well.