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  • Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1998
  • Derek Hook (bio)
J M Coetzee (2002) Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1998. London: Vintage

In a previous collection of essays, Doubling the Point (1992), J M Coetzee makes the observation that all autobiography is storytelling, and that all writing is autobiographical. Stranger Shores is both an extension and a variation on this theme, as well as the exploration of a corollary: that all criticism seems at some level biographical. There is a point of some subtlety to be made here about the interconnection of politics, aesthetics and storytelling, and it goes beyond a dull ad hominem kind of criticism.

Perhaps more than his other collections of essays, Stranger Shores seems to have a publisher's motivation behind it: a cover blurb announces Coetzee as the 'Booker Prize-winning author of Disgrace', and too many of the essays have been culled from a single source, namely the New York Review of Books. The essays certainly foreground Coetzee's strengths as a critic and aesthete, even though the last two chapters - thoughts on the 1995 Rugby Wor1d Cup hosted by South Africa, and a brief review of Mona de Beer's collection of photographs of South Africa, A Vision of the Past - could have been omitted. There is, furthermore, a place for dissections of the technical prowess of certain key translations of literary works, although Coetzee's perambulations in a number of chapters of Stranger Shores - most notably on the translations of Kafka - ultimately become pedantic enough to lose the interest of the general reader.

Coetzee's greatest flair seems to come to the fore in his passion for the art and the challenges of fellow authors. Indeed at its best, the book is a set of essays on kindred souls, through which we might be tempted to read Coetzee himself, or, if not that, then certainly something of Coetzee's meditations on the role of writing as means of making the self change. The book makes a means for tracking Coetzee's literary preferences, and as such, [End Page 121] a template for his most personal concerns in writing. Coetzee favours authors writing in moments of political instability or transition, authors that stem from outside the 'First World' metropole, authors who cannot be directly divorced from the context of their works, and whose self-consciousness (or self-writing) in their fictions is more than a little evident.

His essay on Defoe deftly joins these interests, commenting on the merger of narrative and authorial voice that makes Crusoe Defoe himself in Robinson Crusoe, before commenting on how the novel is 'unabashed propaganda for the extension of British mercantile power in the New World' (2002:24). Josef Skvorecky's work is termed as 'autobiographical fiction' in which the author 'appears under the name Danny Smith', whose situation - the tumultuous Czechoslovakia of 50s, 60s and 70s - is Skvorecky's own. Dostoevsky, previously the subject of one of Coetzee's own fictions, The Master of St Petersburg (1994), is described as 'a widower with few social graces and a string of hungry relatives in tow, a convicted subversive with a ten-year spell in Siberia behind him, a writer who, in the popular eye has never really lived up to the promise of his first novel' (2002:135). And if rightist tendencies are identified in Dostoevsky, 'belief in a special world-historical destiny for Russia … calls for Russian hegemony to be extended over other Slavic nationalities, commitment to great-Russian imperialism' (2002:139), they are also thought to exist in Borges, even though the latter is taken to be the 'whipping boy of the press' in Peron's Argentina 'denounced as ... foreign-loving, a lackey of the landowning elite and of international capital' (2002:165). Coetzee also includes commentary on his early confrontation with European classical culture, and the political direction it might have lent him. In the first moment of aesthetic rapture, upon hearing Bach, Coetzee muses, was the spirit of that culture 'speaking to me across the ages ... symbolically electing high European culture, and command of the codes of that culture, as a route that would take me out of my class position in white South...


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