When I read that an author rarely gives interviews, I often assume that it’s out of a noble dedication to the notion that what they say about their work shouldn’t be given equal regard to the work itself. They’ve written the novel, now it’s in the world, and readers will make of it what they will. But the author’s job is done. After the book’s publication the writer doesn’t get to explain, defend, or apologize. The novel lives, the author is dead.
J.M. Coetzee is one of those authors who rarely gives interviews. Articles about him mention his reticence, the rarity of his consent to discuss his work. So he is usually not available to be asked about the extent of autobiography in his work. As this New York Times article points out, he might relish any confusion he creates, offering in his book Diary of a Bad Year a protagonist named J.C. who has written a book with the same name as one of Coetzee’s books and who has recently moved to Australia, as Coetzee did. Is the character Coetzee himself? Can a character ever be the author? We might wonder about Coetzee himself, but a look at the nonfiction collected in Late Essays: 2006-2017 leaves little doubt as to Coetzee’s ideas about the relationship between author and work. If Roland Barthes declared the death of the author fifty years ago, Coetzee never saw the obituary.
Coetzee’s clear-eyed, informative essays about fiction are just as much essays about the authors–not just their work, but their lives. Whether he’s writing about a titan of literature like Tolstoy or an overlooked Argentinian great like Antonio di Benedetto, Coetzee breaks down their work as it relates to their life and applies the things they’ve said in interviews and letters to an analysis of their work. His masterful essay on di Benedetto moves back and forth between plot summary of the novel Zama, a cogent analysis of literary influence (Borges and Kafka), and a history lesson on the political situation in Argentina. Though he never says it in as many words, Coetzee clearly sees the biographical details of his subjects as inextricable from the content of their work.
I don’t share the view that an author’s life or even overt statements of intent should necessarily inform our view of the fiction, partly out of a pseudo-mystical belief that something inexplicable and potentially magical happens once a work of art has been put out into the world. But it’s also out of weariness. It can be too easy to claim to find insight via background, or to skip the hard work of figuring out what’s on the page and go straight to what we can assume about intention.
So it was a pleasure to read Coetzee write with such incision and decisiveness about the lives of the authors whose work he’s criticizing, analyzing, and explaining. There is no shortcut to real insight, and in Late Essays, it’s clear Coetzee’s route is as valid and rewarding as any.
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