Terry Eagleton reviews the collection for The Times Literary Supplement
|Paul Auster (left) and J. M. Coetzee (right)|
There is a vein of rather distasteful back-scratching: Coetzee, an austere, laconic man hardly given to extravagant compliments, speaks of the “pleasure of having [Auster] visit our living room”, and goes on to admire his “enviably considered, just, and well-formed sentences”, rather as though he has just been conversing with an unusually intelligent computer. He also expresses “a certain fraternal tenderness for you and your dogged, unappreciated bravery”, a bravery which turns out to be no more exacting on Auster’s part than sitting alone at his desk all day. There have been more illustrious acts of courage. Auster, in his more emotive American style, is the more ingratiating of the two, declaring his “unbounded faith in [Coetzee’s] work” and sounding mildly distressed at the prospect of having to disagree with him. There is not the faintest chance that either author is going to submit the other’s work to a rigorously critical analysis.
Like a good many writers, these two novelists share a predictable distaste for critics. The more eminent the author, the less accustomed he or she usually is to negative comment, and thus the more prickly and thin-skinned when it comes along. Auster remarks of a notoriously abrasive assault on his work by the critic James Wood that it felt like being mugged by a stranger, a simile which those who have been coshed over the head and robbed might well regard as a touch hyperbolic. (How many people are mugged by friends?) The critic, Coetzee grumbles, is “like the child lobbing pebbles at the gorilla in the zoo, knowing that he is protected by the bars”. Apart from being untrue – critics have actually been punched by irate writers, as Auster himself concedes, or savaged by their wrathful responses – the zoo image is unwittingly revealing. Are all critics really infantile, and all writers helpless, lumbering victims of their poisoned shafts? Auster himself isn’t averse to a spot of character assassination, deploring the “arrogance, self-importance, and single-minded, all-consuming vanity” of a deceased friend, though this, admittedly, is for private consumption only.
The fact that Coetzee is the better novelist is reflected in the difference between two men’s epistolary styles. Even in a casual letter, Coetzee writes a sculpted, disciplined, meticulous prose, in contrast to Auster’s more garrulous, loose-jointed brand of English. (The latter speaks at one point of certain Norwegian landscapes as being “literally” not of this earth). There are times when the precisely worded South African sounds more like the author of a legal textbook than a spinner of imaginary worlds; but he has a current of subdued ironic humour largely lacking in his interlocutor, who cracks one good joke and two or three abysmal ones. Perhaps it is no coincidence in this respect that Auster is also given to high-flown cliché, such as “We crave friendship because we are social beings” and (toe-curlingly) “I am an ardent believer in universal happiness”. He also produces such sententious, Boy Scoutish tags as “There is pleasure in the new, but also pleasure in the known” and “The idea [in sport] is not to win but to do well”. When Coetzee indulges in some wry self-criticism, deriding his own role as an elderly moaner at the ills of modernity, Auster overlooks the sardonic tone and earnestly exhorts the two of them to “carry on with utmost vigilance, scorned prophets crying into the wilderness”. The air of self-importance is distinctly un-Coetzeean. [Read More]
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