Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 Paperback – Apr 1 2008
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In his second volume of literary essays, following Stranger Shores (2001), Nobel laureate Coetzee conducts deep readings primarily of major twentieth-century European and American writers. Cosmopolitan in range and erudite in texture, Coetzee's biocritical explications delve into the art, times, and humanity of, among others, Italo Svevo, Robert Musil, Paul Celan, Gunter Grass, Graham Greene, and W. G. Sebald. As a South African expat, Coetzee is attuned to literature under pressure as writers write in lands other than home, contending with language gaps and facing a world in violent upheaval. In his American essays, Coetzee brings an unusual perspective to Walt Whitman's eroticism, Faulkner's vision of the South, Philip Roth's Plot against America, and Arthur Miller's screenplay for The Misfits. In each case, Coetzee tells a story as much as he interprets the work, riding in the slipstream of his subject's life and writings as he parses matters personal, technical, aesthetic, moral, and political with both subtlety and vigor. Coetzee's profound fascination with the clarity and mystery of literature reaffirms its significance. Seaman, Donna --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“Coetzee the critic is every bit as good as Coetzee the novelist.”–Irish Times
“Coetzee writes well about the technicalities of literature: like an engineer he dismantles the texts and suggests ways in which they might run more efficiently.”–Scotland on Sunday
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I was prompted to buy the book when, picking it up in the bookstore last week and skimming its table of contents, I saw that a number of the essays deal with authors I have been reading in the past two or three years -- specifically, the ones listed in the title to this review. I have now read the essays on those authors, as well as ones on Italo Svevo, Robert Musil, and Graham Greene. If and when I have time to read (or re-read) several other authors covered in the book (e.g., Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Philip Roth), I will make a point of going back and reading what Coetzee has to say about them.
The essays are intelligent and informative, well-written and easily comprehensible. There is no in-depth analysis or exegesis, but neither are the essays superficial. Only in some of the essays does Coetzee express strong critical judgments. A few of those are negative. (For instance, he concludes that Sandor Marai's novelistic achievements are "slight.") I don't think INNER WORKINGS constitutes literary criticism or analysis of the first order, but that's alright by me. In each essay I read there was enough new information or fresh perspectives on the author and work(s) at issue to make my reading the essay worth my time.
I will end by quoting two sentences from Coetzee's essay on W.G. Sebald: "Sebald did not call himself a novelist -- prose writer was the term he preferred -- but his enterprise nevertheless depends for its success on attaining lift-off from the biographical or the essayistic -- the prosaic in the everyday sense of the word -- into the realm of the imaginative. The mysterious ease with which he is able to achieve such lift-off is the clearest proof of his genius."
There were many highlights in these essays. The homoeroticism of Walt Whitman's poetic works and volunteer work with the wounded Union soldiers in Washington D.C. was interesting in regard to the perception of same sex affection and attachment in different eras. What seems to be clearly homoerotic in our own era is not necessarily viewed so 150 years ago, especially when Whitman purposely was evasive about his sexuality. Coetzee tries to sort this out and seems to point out that often it was difficult to observe what you think does not exist. Another essay is an analysis of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores which Coetzee relates to Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera but also relates to Cervantes' Don Quixote. The concept that obsession and projection may in fact be a catalyst to higher attainment and even if the obsession seems hopeless and the projection seems unrealistic, that the higher attainment may be real and thus is worth the illusion. Coetzee's description of Saul Bellow's The Victim created such a sense of dread that I am now curious about the novel but certain that it will disturb me greatly. Coetzee offers a great analysis of Nadine Gordimer's The Pickup, which seems to be a novel perfect for our cross cultural understandings and misunderstandings. Coetzee casts a cool eye on William Faulkner, recognizing his amazing literary innovation and also his self destructive tendencies. In the essay on V.S. Naipaul we get a spot-on analysis and interpretation of Half a Life, a sweeping novel on intergenerational consciousness development, exploring how consciousness is shaped by context and time. He also reviews Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America which he reviewed in such detail that I feel no desire to read the novel but I did grow curious about Sabbath's Theater, which Coetzee mentions in just enough detail to heighten my desire to read more. Bruno Schulz, the artist and writer, is also discussed- a man of surreal genius. Graham Greene's Brighton Rock seems deterministic and supportive of Greene's Catholic philosophy that underlies his novels. The most enjoyable essay was commentary on Arthur Miller's screenplay The Misfits. Coetzee analyzes both the screenplay and the manner in which Marilyn Monroe, Eli Wallach, Montgomery Cliff, Clark Gable, and Thelma Ritter brought that screenplay to life. Coetzee points out that a strength of the film is that Monroe plays a women who is essentially herself and thus she had no need to act but to only be herself in the film. It is a screenplay of great power and Coetzee's analysis is superb. The literary essays of Coetzee always make me wish to read and understand more. They fascinate as they explain.