Stranger Shores – J.M. Coetzee
John Maxwell Coetzee or J.M. Coetzee is without doubt one of the foremost writers of the twentieth centuries. Hailing from South Africa he has to his credit been the first person to win the Man Booker Prize twice (Disgrace, Life and Times of Michael K.) and also being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. What we find out in this collection of essays on literary criticism is that he is an accomplished and erudite critic as well.
Stranger Shores is his fourth collection of literary essays, which analyses a number of authors and their literary output and then some extra topics as well. Coetzee takes us on an intellectual journey across so many “shores” of thought, it is mind-boggling at times. But what shines through it all is the awareness of Coetzee's sophisticated handling of the interplay of colonialism, censorship, authorship and history in every one of his essays in this collection.
In the 26 essays included here -- concentrating on major 20th-century authors like Franz Kafka, Joseph Brodsky, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, A. S. Byatt, Naguib Mahfouz, Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer – he outlines the forces at work that have motivated their written output, and gives an amazing overview of the author’s lives that we get plenty of insights into how they became writers in the first place and what motivates their novels.
This collection begins with the essay titled ‘What is a Classic?’. Coetzee's argument is that 'the classic defines itself by surviving'. This doesn't mean that the greatness of the 'classic' should go unquestioned. Rather, it means that such works prove themselves 'classic' precisely by being questioned. He then proceeds to dissect the literary predecessors like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (Coetzee has himself written a very powerful retelling of this novel in his book called Foe) and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, before he explores the works of writers across the length and breadth of the anglophile literary world – from writers from Netherlands (Marcellus Emants, Harry Mulisch, Cess Nooteboom) , German multi-lingual poet Rilke (who denied the German part of his identity throughout his life), Franz Kafka’s translations to lesser known writers like Robert Musil (Austrian) Josef Skvorecky (Czech), Caryl Phillips (Kittian English), Aharon Appelfield etc…. to very enlightening (almost biographical sketches) essays on famous literary giants such as Dostoevsky, Dorris Lessing, Salman Rushdie and J.L. Borges).
The content of each of his essays is quite complicated to briefly state here, but it is suffice to say that these essays will make us realize how limited our purview of English literature could be if we adhere to an insular education and reading of literature. It definitely also led me to wonder at how he is possibly reading so much! And he is well-versed in multiple languages too. No doubt it comes in handy.
Overall it is a quite a densely packed collection of essays, focusing on literary criticism and theoretical analysis at its core. So it mostly would appeal only to a limited reading audience who should find it insightful.