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A Frog’s Life

James Wood: Coetzee’s Confessions, 23 October 2003

Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons 
by J.M. Coetzee.
Secker, 233 pp., £14.99, September 2003, 0 436 20616 1
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... There may be many readers who, on hearing of J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel Prize, immediately thought about the cost of clarity. There is so much, after all, missing from Coetzee’s distinguished books. His prose is precise, but blanched; in place of comedy there is only bitter irony (this is Coetzee’s large difference from Beckett, whom he so clearly admires); in place of society, with its domestic and familial affiliations, there is political society; and underfoot is often the tricky camber of allegory, insisting on pulling one’s step in certain directions ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘Project Nim’, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ , 8 September 2011

Project Nim 
directed by James Marsh.
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Rise of the Planet of the Apes 
directed by Rupert Wyatt.
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... us. It was rehearsed long ago by Kafka in ‘A Report to an Academy’, and more recently by J.M. Coetzee in his Elizabeth Costello stories. We can refuse to recognise the otherness of other animals by pretending they are like us, versions of us; and we can, it seems, understand their otherness only by a more refined use of the same method. But what ...

Before I Began

Christopher Tayler: Coetzee Makes a Leap, 4 June 2020

The Death of Jesus 
by J.M. Coetzee.
Harvill Secker, 208 pp., £18.99, January, 978 1 78730 211 2
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... now.’ What would our lives be like under these conditions?For the best part of a decade, J.M. Coetzee has been exploring this question in a series of novels named for stages in the life of Jesus: The Childhood of Jesus (2013), The Schooldays of Jesus (2016) and now The Death of Jesus. That the novels don’t mention Jesus, and allude to stories from the ...

All about Me

Kevin Kopelson: Don Bachardy, 9 April 2015

by Don Bachardy.
Glitterati, 368 pp., £45, October 2014, 978 0 9913419 2 4
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... growth.’ Like, you know, whatever.) Or can Bachardy be said to have what the non-gay writer J.M. Coetzee considered a late style? (‘Late style, to me,’ Coetzee once wrote, ‘starts with an ideal of a simple, subdued, unornamented language and a concentration on questions of real import, even questions of life and ...


D.A.N. Jones, 23 May 1985

Secret Villages 
by Douglas Dunn.
Faber, 170 pp., £8.95, April 1985, 0 571 13443 2
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Miss Peabody’s Inheritance 
by Elizabeth Jolley.
Viking, 157 pp., £7.95, April 1985, 0 670 47952 7
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Mr Scobie’s Riddle 
by Elizabeth Jolley.
Penguin, 226 pp., £2.95, April 1985, 0 14 007490 2
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The Modern Common Wind 
by Don Bloch.
Heinemann, 234 pp., £9.95, May 1985, 0 434 07551 5
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by Denis Johnson.
Chatto, 221 pp., £9.50, May 1985, 0 7011 2935 2
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... and John Buchan), but books from white-settler territory, by such authors as Athol Fugard or J.M. Coetzee, seem to present them as permanently morose, deformed in body and soul, to be pitied from a great height. I exaggerate, but Donald Bloch’s morbid novel supports my exaggeration. The narrator keeps making hyper-critical remarks about ‘we ...


Michael Wood: Chinese Whispers, 8 August 2013

edited by Adam Thirlwell.
Portobello, 380 pp., £20, August 2013, 978 1 84627 537 1
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... or specificities that really can be lost. There are comic differences too, as when J.M. Coetzee, by the small shift from the word ‘private’ to the world ‘privy’, makes clear a lavatory joke that Kierkegaard was only distantly hinting at. But the kind of trail found in the following sequence is more common, and is very close to the effect of ...

Great Male Narcissist

Christopher Tayler: Sigrid Nunez, 1 August 2019

Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury 
by Sigrid Nunez.
Soft Skull, 172 pp., £12.50, August 2019, 978 1 59376 582 8
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The Friend 
by Sigrid Nunez.
Virago, 213 pp., £8.99, February 2019, 978 0 349 01281 0
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... and in any case the narrator is out ahead of both types of reader, pointing to Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, a touchstone both for her and her dead friend. ‘Something very bad,’ she observes, ‘happens to a lot of dogs in Disgrace.’ David Lurie – ‘same age, same job, same proclivities’ – hears the clock ticking on his sexual being and forces ...

High Punctuation

Christopher Ricks, 14 May 1992

But I digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse 
by John Lennard.
Oxford, 324 pp., £35, November 1991, 0 19 811247 5
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... in a speech by Pearle to suggest a pearl within an oyster; and in the novel Foe (1986) J.M. Coetzee wrote of storytelling: ‘Teasing and braiding can, like any craft, be learned. But as to determining which episodes hold promise (as oysters hold pearls), it is not without justice that this art is called divining.’Lennard:I asked Dr ...

Hourglass or Penny-Farthing?

Christopher Tayler: Damon Galgut, 31 July 2014

Arctic Summer 
by Damon Galgut.
Atlantic, 357 pp., £17.99, May 2014, 978 0 85789 718 3
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... the cold, controlled tones and ominous historic present associated with Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. Early on, Galgut’s use of these tones could be too homageful. ‘My name is James. I can’t help that,’ the narrator says in one of the stories in Small Circle of Beings (1988). (Coetzee’s first novel ...

Dead Ends

Christopher Tayler: ‘Not a Novel’, 7 October 2021

Not a Novel: Collected Writings and Reflections 
by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Kurt Beals.
Granta, 208 pp., £14.99, November 2020, 978 1 78378 609 1
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... experience, and his quizzical attitude towards the global order, he could almost be a J.M. Coetzee character. In a novel by Coetzee, however, there would be an impassable line of otherness and guilt to be negotiated. Richard just wanders over the line and gets on with ...

Horrors and Hidden Money

D.A.N. Jones, 6 February 1986

Jackdaw Cake: ‘An Autobiography’ 
by Norman Lewis.
Hamish Hamilton, 214 pp., £9.95, September 1985, 0 241 11689 9
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... victory.) When such stories are ploddingly told in Booker-McConnell prize-winning novels, by J.M. Coetzee or Keri Hulme, the books are described as ‘compassionate’ and the judges, at least, seem deeply moved. With Norman Lewis’s tone, especially in ‘non-fiction’, it is possible to provoke a different response – like the response of Denton Welch in ...

Because He’s Worth It

David Simpson: Young Werther, 13 September 2012

The Sufferings of Young Werther 
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Stanley Corngold.
Norton, 151 pp., £16.99, January 2012, 978 0 393 07938 8
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... last meeting before Werther’s gruesome end. It takes 12 hours for him to die. Corngold (as J.M. Coetzee has pointed out in a review of the book) misses the theme of secondariness in the Ossian scene by printing Macpherson’s ‘original’ English (itself a notorious forgery and recognised as such from its first appearance) rather than trying to render the ...


Elizabeth Lowry: Binyavanga Wainaina, 23 February 2012

One Day I Will Write about This Place 
by Binyavanga Wainaina.
Granta, 256 pp., £15.99, November 2011, 978 1 84708 021 9
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... the filter for Wainaina’s account of a charged event in Kenya’s national life, the funeral of Jomo Kenyatta in 1978. Watching the lavishly staged ceremony on television while tooting on his mouth organ, Wainaina is, even at seven years old, sceptical of all synthetic ethnicities, whether American or Kenyan: In my mouth is the plastic yellow grin world of ...

Stainless Steel Banana Slicer

David Trotter, 18 March 2021

Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form 
by Sianne Ngai.
Harvard, 401 pp., £28.95, June 2020, 978 0 674 98454 7
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... talents as a close reader of word and image: one on the novel of ideas from Thomas Mann to J.M. Coetzee and Nicola Barker; the other on the creepily insouciant photographs of Torbjørn Rødland. In both cases, the gimmick’s compromised form seems like the only way to accommodate ‘“ideas” imported from criticism or philosophy’ within a genre, or a ...

V-2 into Space

Adam Mars-Jones: Michael Chabon, 2 March 2017

by Michael Chabon.
HarperCollins, 448 pp., £18.99, January 2017, 978 0 00 754891 0
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... would never recover from this syndrome, this affliction of the desk-bound and lionised, and J.M. Coetzee too showed signs of becoming a chronic case. Now Michael Chabon has produced Moonglow, supposedly based on conversations from 1989 between a writer called Michael Chabon and his dying grandfather, an engineer for whom space travel in general and rockets ...

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