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Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005


In addition to being one of the most acclaimed and accomplished fiction writers in the world, Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee is also a literary critic of the highest caliber. In this collection of twenty essays, Coetzee examines the work of some of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers—from Samuel Beckett and Günter Grass to Gabriel García Márquez and Philip Roth. Brilliantly insightful, challenging yet accessible, these pieces demonstrate Coetzee’s sharp eye and unwavering critical acumen. Written with ...

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In addition to being one of the most acclaimed and accomplished fiction writers in the world, Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee is also a literary critic of the highest caliber. In this collection of twenty essays, Coetzee examines the work of some of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers—from Samuel Beckett and Günter Grass to Gabriel García Márquez and Philip Roth. Brilliantly insightful, challenging yet accessible, these pieces demonstrate Coetzee’s sharp eye and unwavering critical acumen. Written with great clarity and precision, they offer a window into twenty immortal texts that will be of major interest to all readers of international literature, as well as to Coetzee’s many fans.

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Editorial Reviews

Walter Kirn
That Coetzee can make such exotic eminences as Sebald and Benjamin less forbidding is a testament to his prowess as an interpreter but also to his charm as a companion. His erudition and analytic acumen—both considerable, to say the least, and best displayed in his remarks on the nuances of literary translation—are so well dissolved into his elegant bearing that walking beside him rarely feels intimidating. And when, about halfway through the book, he leads us to the smoother ground of writers who compose in English and whom we've already presumably met (Faulkner, Beckett, Bellow, Roth and others), the stroll speeds up some and grows more invigorating…Inner Workings is Coetzee's master class, and he honors us, too, by letting us sit in on it, despite our spotty preparation and the hasty ways we may use it. Knowing something about W. G. Sebald feels a lot better than knowing nothing—particularly when the little knowledge one does have comes from a source as reliable as Coetzee and inspires one to make time to learn much more.
—The New York Times
Library Journal

Written in Coetzee's (Disgrace) spare yet precise style, these essays cover a wide range of literature. His subjects, both European and American writers, range from Walt Whitman to Nadine Gordimer. Throughout, Coetzee demonstrates a comfortable grasp of the authors' body of work, their life and era, and other critical commentary surrounding their work. This command of his material blends well with the scrupulous rigor with which he examines the authors' meaning and intent. Coetzee's sage analysis is accompanied by concise plot summaries of relevant works, a useful feature for those unfamiliar with all the writings of the author in question. This collection would therefore be useful both to those studying the subjects of his essays and to those wishing for an introduction to the authors. Furthermore, as noted in Derek Attridge's (J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading) introduction, the essays allow oblique insights into Coetzee's own well-rewarded body of literature and will thus also be positively received by established followers of his fiction writing. Suited to academic and larger public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ3/15/07.]
—Rebecca Bollen Manalac

Kirkus Reviews
Issues of political and moral choice and commitment and of literary theory and practice are considered in the South African Nobel laureate's fourth collection of criticism. Gathered here are 16 book reviews, four summary "introductions" to new translations or editions of major writers' works and a single celebration of a "classic" film ("Arthur Miller, The Misfits"), which appeared in the anthology Writers at the Movies. Coetzee's great strength is his sure sense of form-notably displayed in a meticulous deconstruction of Philip Roth's "dystopian" alternate-history novel The Plot Against America and a stringent explication of enfolded levels of irony and self-deception in Coetzee's countrywoman Nadine Gordimer's subtle political novel The Pickup. He also does his homework, assiduously. A wealth of painstakingly absorbed historical and biographical information enriches his dissections of scholar-critic Walter Benjamin's "the Arcades Project" (an encyclopedic analysis of Parisian social life "under capitalism"); Gunter Grass's challenging historical novel Crabwalk (based on a maritime disaster which has spawned numerous conflicting treatments of its details and significance); and the recently rediscovered fiction of 20th-century Hungarian author Sandor Marai, both a bold critic of fascism and a haughty apologist for an embattled aristocracy. Elsewhere, Coetzee pays due (if predictable) tribute to consensus European masters (Robert Musil, Paul Celan, Italo Svevo) and their less celebrated peers (Bruno Schulz, Joseph Roth, Hugo Claus), fellow Nobelists (Faulkner, Bellow, Naipaul), the underrated (Swiss miniaturist Robert Walser) and the unclassifiable (eclectic memoirist W.G. Sebald). Evenmiddling essays on Whitman, Beckett and Graham Greene are redeemed by startlingly precise insights (e.g., that Greene's "entertainment" Brighton Rock is energized by distinctions drawn between Good and Evil and Right and Wrong). Dare we suggest that Coetzee is actually a better critical essayist than a novelist? This trenchant, rewarding volume suggests it just may be so.
From the Publisher
“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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641957277
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 7/19/2007
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

J.M. Coetzee

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 9, 1940, John Michael Coetzee studied first at Cape Town and later at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a Ph.D. degree in literature. In 1972 he returned to South Africa and joined the faculty of the University of Cape Town. His works of fiction include Dusklands, Waiting for the Barbarians, which won South Africa’s highest literary honor, the Central News Agency Literary Award, and the Life and Times of Michael K., for which Coetzee was awarded his first Booker Prize in 1983. He has also published a memoir, Boyhood: Scenes From a Provincial Life, and several essays collections. He has won many other literary prizes including the Lannan Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize and The Irish Times International Fiction Prize. In 1999 he again won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for Disgrace, becoming the first author to win the award twice in its 31-year history. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.


John Maxwell Coetzee was born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa. He is of both Boer and English descent. His parents sent him to an English school, and he grew up using English as his first language.

At the beginning of the 1960s he moved to England, where he worked initially as a computer programmer. He studied literature in the United States and has gone on to teach at several American universities, the University of Cape Town, and the University of Adelaide.

Coetzee made his debut as a writer of fiction in 1974. His first book, Dusklands was published in South Africa. His international breakthrough came in 1980 with the novel Waiting for the Barbarian. In 1983 he won the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom for Life and Times of Michael K. In 1999, he became the first author to be twice awarded the Booker Prize, this time for his novel, Disgrace. In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The Academy cited the astonishing wealth of variety in Coetzee's stories, many of which are set against the backdrop of apartheid.

In addition to his novels, Coetzee has written numerous essays and interviews. His literary criticism has been published in journals and collected into anthologies.

Good To Know

Described by friends as a reclusive and private man, Coetzee did not make the trip to London in 1984 to receive the Booker Prize for Life and Times of Michael K, nor when he again won the prize for Disgrace in 1999.

His 1977 novel, In the Heart of the Country, was filmed as the motion picture Dust in 1985.

Coetzee has also been active as a translator of Dutch and Afrikaans literature.

In 2002, Coetzee emigrated to Australia.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Maxwell Coetzee
    2. Hometown:
      Adelaide, Australia
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 9, 1940
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cape Town, South Africa
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Cape Town, 1960; M.A., 1963; Ph.D. in Literature, University of Texas, Austin, 1969

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements     vii
Introduction     ix
Italo Svevo     1
Robert Walser     15
Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Torless     30
Walter Benjamin, the Arcades Project     40
Bruno Schulz     65
Joseph Roth, the stories     79
Sandor Marai     94
Paul Celan and his translators     114
Gunter Grass and the Wilhelm Gustloff     132
W. G. Sebald, After Nature     145
Hugo Claus, poet     155
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock     160
Samuel Beckett, the short fiction     169
Walt Whitman     174
William Faulkner and his biographers     189
Saul Bellow, the early novels     207
Arthur Miller, The Misfits     222
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America     228
Nadine Gordimer     244
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores     257
V. S. Naipaul, Half a Life     272
Notes and References     292
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