Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986-1999


The only author ever to win the Booker Prize twice, J. M. Coetzee is one of the world's greatest novelists. Now his many admirers can have the pleasure of reading his significant body of literary criticism. This volume gathers together for the first time in book form twenty-six pieces on books and writing. Stranger Shores opens with "What Is a Classic?" in which Coetzee explores the answer to his own question -- "What does it mean in living terms to say that the classic is what survives?" -- by way of T. S. ...
See more details below
This Hardcover is Not Available through
Note: This is a bargain book and quantities are limited. Bargain books are new but may have slight markings from the publisher and/or stickers showing their discounted price. More about bargain books
Sending request ...


The only author ever to win the Booker Prize twice, J. M. Coetzee is one of the world's greatest novelists. Now his many admirers can have the pleasure of reading his significant body of literary criticism. This volume gathers together for the first time in book form twenty-six pieces on books and writing. Stranger Shores opens with "What Is a Classic?" in which Coetzee explores the answer to his own question -- "What does it mean in living terms to say that the classic is what survives?" -- by way of T. S. Eliot, Johann Sebastian Bach and Zbigniew Herbert. His subjects range from the great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Ivan Turgenev to the great German modernists Rilke, Kafka, and Musil to the giants of late-twentieth-century literature, among them Harry Mulisch, Joseph Brodsky, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, Amos Oz, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer, and Doris Lessing.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Tackling works by Rushdie, Naguib Mahfouz, Doris Lessing, Borges and A.S. Byatt, Stranger Shores: Literary Essays collects critical work by South African author and two-time Booker-winner J.M. Coetzee. Coetzee posits in "What Is a Classic" that "[c]riticism... is duty-bound to interrogate the classic" and thereby "may be what the classic uses to define itself and ensure its survival." None of these thoughtful, deft and erudite essays, all but one of which were previously published, land heavily or obviously (if at all) on any side of a literary, critical or political issue like Coetzee's poised fiction. (Aug. 27) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians) is one of South Africa's major novelists. In this collection of 26 essays, many of them first published in the New York Review of Books, he gives careful, fair-minded, and nuanced readings of many different authors. Coetzee is especially concerned and attentive to questions of translation and the craft of the novelist. Dutch authors (Marcellus Emants and Harry Mulisch) are insightfully covered, as are African authors (Nadine Gordimer and Breyten Breytenbach). The essays on European writers Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, and Robert Musil and on Middle Eastern authors Aharon Appelfeld, Amos Oz, and Naguib Mahfouz reveal Coetzee's great insights in history, politics, and the relationships of literature to culture and society. Finally, a review of Noel Mostert's epic Frontiers powerfully depicts the harsh history of South Africa. Coetzee honestly states his agreements and differences with the authors he reviews. Recommended for literature collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/01.] Gene Shaw, NYPL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A striking collection of 26 literary essays, many taken from "The New York Review of Books", that amply display Coetzee's freethinking erudition and go-your-own-way intellectual honesty. In prose that is smooth as milk over the bottle's lip, Coetzee ("Disgrace", 2000, etc.) unleashes his take on a battery of writers ranging from Samuel Richardson and Daniel Dafoe to William Gass and Daphne Rooke. He chides Salman Rushdie for not knowing what he's talking about ("with all respect due to the author, one must demure"), even when what he's talking about is "The Moor's Last Sigh". He covers Joseph Brodsky's critical poetics in a voice that is as vibrant as the Russian's own, and he wittily observes that A.S. Byatt's characters "in times of crisis ... do not go into therapy." There are quick, lambent biographies of Breyten Breytenbach, Noel Mostert, Alan Paton, and Helen Suzman, as well as one of Thomas Pringle, father of English-language poetry in South Africa (whom Coetzee garrotes, labeling his work "indifferent"). He cuts Cees Nooteboom for his lack of anguish over the expulsion of heartfelt imagination from the world, but he applauds fellow Dutchman Harry Mulisch's sure handling of the "terrible fissure in European history opened by the Holocaust." He lauds Amos Oz for that same sure hand, accompanied by a light touch, in his politically-charged novels set in the fluid margins of Israel. Coetzee allows his emotional sentiments to percolate through these critiques and tries to measure the same in his subjects, as in an essay on Nadine Gordimer reconnoitering the realm of the artist's special calling, that "art tells a truth transcending the truth of history," wherein the goal of writingcan strive for the transformation of society. Deeply intelligent, provocative, and enjoyable literary investigations.
From the Publisher
“Coetzee is one of the greatest writers of our time.” –Los Angeles Times

“One of the the best novelists alive.” –Sunday Times

“J.M. Coetzee’s vision goes to the nerve-centre of being. What he finds there is more than most people will ever know about themselves.” –Nadine Gordimer
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641549304
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 8/23/2001
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.86 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee is a professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town. He is the author of seven novels, most recently The Master of Petersburg, and of the memoir Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. His many awards include the Booker Prize in 1983 for The Life & Times of Micahel K, the Prix Femina and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. J.M. Coetzee is the first author ever to be awarded two Booker Prizes.


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.

Read More Show Less
    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

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

What Is a Classic?: A Lecture


    In October of 1944, as Allied forces were battling on the European mainland and German rockets were falling on London, Thomas Stearns Eliot, aged fifty-six, gave his presidential address to the Virgil Society in London. In his lecture Eliot does not mention wartime circumstances, save for a single reference—oblique, understated, in his best British manner—to "accidents of the present time" that had made it difficult to get access to the books he needed to prepare the lecture. It is a way of reminding his auditors that there is a perspective in which the war is only a hiccup, however massive, in the life of Europe.

    The title of the lecture was "What Is a Classic?" and its aim was to consolidate and reargue a case Eliot had long been advancing: that the civilization of Western Europe is a single civilization, that its descent is from Rome via the Church of Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, and that its originary classic must therefore be the epic of Rome, Virgil's Aeneid. Each time this case was reargued, it was reargued by a man of greater public authority, a man who by 1944, as poet, dramatist, critic, publisher, and cultural commentator, could be said to dominate English letters. This man had targeted London as the metropolis of the English-speaking world, and with a diffidence concealing ruthless singleness of purpose had made himself into the deliberately magisterial voice of that metropolis. Now he was arguing for Virgil as the dominant voice of metropolitan,imperial Rome, and Rome, furthermore, imperial in transcendent ways that Virgil could not have been expected to understand.

    "What Is a Classic?" is not one of Eliot's best pieces of criticism. The address de haut en bas, which in the 1920s he had used to such great effect to impose his personal predilections on the London world of letters, has become mannered. There is a tiredness to the prose, too. Nevertheless, the piece is never less than intelligent, and—once one begins to explore its background—more coherent than might appear at first reading. Furthermore, behind it is a clear awareness that the ending of World War II must bring with it a new cultural order, with new opportunities and new threats. What struck me when I reread Eliot's lecture in preparation for the present lecture, however, was the fact that nowhere does Eliot reflect on the fact of his own Americanness, or at least his American origins, and therefore on the somewhat odd angle at which he comes, honoring a European poet to a European audience.

    I say "European" but of course even the Europeanness of Eliot's British audience is an issue, as is the line of descent of English literature from the literature of Rome. For one of the writers Eliot claims not to have been able to reread in preparation for his lecture is Sainte-Beuve, who in his lectures on Virgil claimed Virgil as "the poet of all Latinity," of France and Spain and Italy but not of all Europe. So Eliot's project of claiming a line of descent from Virgil has to start with claiming a fully European identity for Virgil; and also with asserting for England a European identity that has sometimes been begrudged it and that it has not always been eager to embrace.

    Rather than follow in detail the moves Eliot makes to link Virgil's Rome to the England of the 1940s, let me ask how and why Eliot himself became English enough for the issue to matter to him.

    Why did Eliot "become" English at all? My sense is that at first the motives were complex: partly Anglophilia, partly solidarity with the English middle-class intelligentsia, partly as a protective disguise in which a certain embarrassment about American barbarousness may have figured, partly as a parody, from a man who enjoyed acting (passing as English is surely one of the most difficult acts to bring off). I would suspect that the inner logic was, first, residence in London (rather than England), then the assumption of a London social identity, then the specific chain of reflections on cultural identity that would eventually lead him to claim a European and Roman identity under which London identity, English identity, and Anglo-American identity were subsumed and transcended.

    By 1944 the investment in this identity was total. Eliot was an Englishman, though, in his own mind at least, a Roman Englishman. He had just completed a cycle of poems in which he named his forebears and reclaimed as his own East Coker in Somersetshire, home of the Elyots. "Home is where one starts from," he writes. "In my beginning is my end." "What you own is what you do not own"—or, to put it another way, what you do not own is what you own. Not only did he now assert that rootedness which is so important to his understanding of culture, but he had equipped himself with a theory of history in which England and America were defined as provinces of an eternal metropolis, Rome.

    So one can see how it is that in 1944 Eliot feels no need to present himself to the Virgil Society as an outsider, an American talking to Englishmen. How then does he present himself?

    For a poet who had such success, in his heyday, in importing the yardstick of impersonality into criticism, Eliot's poetry is astonishingly personal, not to say autobiographical. So it is not surprising to discover, as we read the Virgil lecture, that it has a subtext and that subtext concerns Eliot himself. The figure of Eliot in the lecture is not, as we might expect, Virgil, but Aeneas, understood or even transformed in a particularly Eliotic way into a rather weary middle-aged man who "would have preferred to stop in Troy, but becomes an exile ... exiled for a purpose greater than he can know, but which he recognises." "Not, in a human sense, a happy or successful man," whose "reward [is] hardly more than a narrow beachhead and a political marriage in a weary middle age: his youth interred" (WIC, pp. 28, 28, 32).

    From the major romantic episode of Aeneas's life, the affair with Queen Dido that ends with Dido's suicide, Eliot singles out for mention neither the high passion of the lovers nor Dido's Liebestod but what he calls the "civilised manners" of the couple when they meet later in the Underworld, and the fact that "Aeneas does not forgive himself ... in spite of the fact that all that he has done has been in compliance with destiny" (WIC, p. 21). It is hard not to see a parallel between the story of the lovers as related by Eliot and the story of Eliot's own unhappy first marriage.

    The element of what I would call compulsiveness—just the opposite of impersonality—that makes Eliot articulate the story of Aeneas, in this lecture and before this audience, as an allegory of his own life is not my concern here. What I want to stress instead is that in reading the Aeneid in this way, Eliot is not only using its fable of exile followed by home founding—"In my end is my beginning"—as the pattern of his own intercontinental migration—a migration that I do not call an odyssey precisely because Eliot is concerned to validate the destiny-inspired trajectory of Aeneas over the idle and ultimately circular wanderings of Odysseus—but is also appropriating the cultural weight of the epic to back himself.

    Thus in the palimpsest Eliot sets before us, he, Eliot, is not only Virgil's dutiful (pius) Aeneas who leaves the continent of his birth to set up a beachhead in Europe (beachhead is a word one could not have used in October of 1944 without evoking the landings in Normandy just a few months earlier, as well as the 1943 landings in Italy) but Aeneas's Virgil. If Aeneas is recharacterized as an Eliotic hero, Virgil is characterized as a rather Eliot-like "learned Author," whose task, as seen by Eliot, was that of "re-writing Latin poetry" (the phrase Eliot preferred for himself was "purifying the dialect of the tribe") (WIC, p. 21).

     Of course I would be traducing Eliot if I left the impression that in 1944 he was in any simpleminded way setting himself up as the reincarnation of Virgil. His theory of history, and his conception of the classic, are much too sophisticated for that. To Eliot, there can be only one Virgil because there is only one Christ, one Church, one Rome, one Western Christian civilization, and one originary classic of that Roman-Christian civilization. Nevertheless, while he does not go so far as to identify himself with the so-called adventist interpretation of the Aeneid—namely, that Virgil prophesies a new Christian era—he does leave the door open to the suggestion that Virgil was being used by an agency greater than himself for a purpose of which he could not have been aware—that is, that in the greater pattern of European history he may have fulfilled a role that might be called prophetic.

    Read from the inside, Eliot's lecture is an attempt to reaffirm the Aeneid as a classic not just in Horatian terms—as a book that has lasted a long time (est vetus atque probus, centum qui perfecit annos)—but in allegorical terms: as a book that will bear the weight of having read into it a meaning for Eliot's own age. The meaning for Eliot's age includes not only the allegory of Aeneas the sad, long-suffering, middle-aged widower hero but the Virgil who appears in the Four Quartets as one element of the composite "dead master" who speaks to fire warden Eliot in the ruins of London, the poet without whom, even more than Dante, Eliot would not have become himself. Read from the outside, and read unsympathetically, it is an attempt to give a certain historical backing to a radically conservative political program for Europe, a program opened up by the imminent end of hostilities and the challenge of reconstruction. Broadly stated, this would be a program for a Europe of nation-states in which every effort would be made to keep people on the land, in which national cultures would be encouraged and an overall Christian character maintained—a Europe, in fact, in which the Catholic Church would be left as the principal supranational organization.

    Continuing this reading from the outside, at a personal but still unsympathetic level, the Virgil lecture can be fitted into a decades-long program on Eliot's part to redefine and resituate nationality in such a way that he, Eliot, could not be sidelined as an eager American cultural arriviste lecturing the English and/or the Europeans about their heritage and trying to persuade them to live up to it—a stereotype into which Eliot's onetime collaborator Ezra Pound all too easily fell. At a more general level, the lecture is an attempt to claim a cultural-historical unity for Western European Christendom, including its provinces, within which the cultures of its constituent nations would belong only as parts of a greater whole.

    This is not quite the program that would be followed by the new North Atlantic order that was to emerge after the war—the urgency for that program came from events Eliot could not have foreseen in 1944—but is nevertheless highly compatible with it. Where Eliot went wrong was in failing to foresee that the new order would be directed from Washington, not London and certainly not Rome. Looking further ahead, Eliot would of course have been disappointed by the form toward which Western Europe in fact evolved—toward economic community but even more toward cultural homogeneity.

    The process I have been describing, extrapolating from Eliot's 1944 lecture, is one of the most spectacular that occur to me of a writer attempting to make a new identity, claiming that identity not on the basis of immigration, settlement, residence, domestication, acculturation, as other people do, or not only by such means—since Eliot with characteristic tenacity did all of the above but by defining nationality to suit himself and then using all of his accumulated cultural power to impose that definition on educated opinion, and by resituating nationality within a specific—in this case Catholic—brand of internationalism or cosmopolitanism in terms of which he would emerge not as a Johnny-come-lately but as a pioneer and indeed a kind of prophet; a claiming of identity, furthermore, in which a new and hitherto unsuspected paternity is asserted—a line of descent less from the Eliots of New England and/or Somerset than from Virgil and Dante, or at least a line in which the Eliots are an eccentric offshoot of the great Virgil-Dante line.

    "Born in a half-savage country, out of date," Pound called his Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. The feeling of being out of date, of having been born into too late an epoch, or of surviving unnaturally beyond one's term, is all over Eliot's early poetry, from "Prufrock" to "Gerontion." The attempt to understand this feeling or this fate, and indeed to give it meaning, is part of the enterprise of his poetry and criticism. This is a not uncommon sense of the self among colonials—whom Eliot subsumes under what he calls provincials—particularly young colonials struggling to match their inherited culture to their daily experience.

    To such young people, the high culture of the metropolis may arrive in the form of powerful experiences which cannot, however, be embedded in their lives in any obvious way, and which seem therefore to have their existence in some transcendent realm. In extreme cases, they are led to blame their environment for not living up to art and to take up residence in an art-world. This is a provincial fate—Gustave Flaubert diagnosed it in Emma Bovary, subtitling his case study Moeurs de province—but particularly a colonial fate, for those colonials brought up in the culture of what is usually called the mother country but in this context deserves to be called the father country.

    Eliot as a man and particularly as a young man was open to experience, both aesthetic and real-life, to the point of being suggestible and even vulnerable. His poetry is in many ways a meditation on, and a struggling with, such experiences; in the process of making them into poetry, he makes himself over into a new person. The experiences are perhaps not of the order of religious experience, but they are of the same genre.

    There are many ways of understanding a life's enterprise like Eliot's, among which I will isolate two. One, broadly sympathetic, is to treat these transcendental experiences as the subject's point of origin and read the entirety of the rest of the enterprise in their light. This is an approach which would take seriously the call from Virgil that seems to come to Eliot from across the centuries. It would trace the self-fashioning that takes place in the wake of that call as part of a lived poetic vocation. That is, it would read Eliot very much in his own framework, the framework he elected for himself when he defined tradition as an order you cannot escape, in which you may try to locate yourself, but in which your place gets to be defined, and continually redefined, by succeeding generations—an entirely transpersonal order, in fact.

    The other (and broadly unsympathetic) way of understanding Eliot is the sociocultural one I outlined a moment ago: of treating his efforts as the essentially magical enterprise of a man trying to redefine the world around himself—America, Europe—rather than confronting the reality of his not-so-grand position as a man whose narrowly academic, Eurocentric education had prepared him for little else but life as a mandarin in one of the New England ivory towers.


Excerpted from Stranger Shores by J. M. Coetzee. Copyright © 2001 by J. M. Coetzee. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

1 What Is a Classic?: A Lecture 1
2 Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe 17
3 Samuel Richardson, Clarissa 23
4 Marcellus Emants, A Posthumous Confession 34
5 Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven 39
6 Cees Nooteboom, Novelist and Traveler 49
7 William Gass's Rilke 60
8 Translating Kafka 74
9 Robert Musil's Diaries 88
10 Josef Skvorecky 104
11 Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years 114
12 The Essays of Joseph Brodsky 127
13 J. L. Borges, Collected Fictions 139
14 A. S. Byatt 151
15 Caryl Phillips 160
16 Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh 169
17 Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks 179
18 Amos Oz 184
19 Naguib Mahfouz, The Harafish 191
20 The Poems of Thomas Pringle 203
21 Daphne Rooke 208
22 Gordimer and Turgenev 219
23 The Autobiography of Doris Lessing 232
24 The Memoirs of Breyten Breytenbach 249
25 South African Liberals: Alan Paton, Helen Suzman 261
26 Noel Mostert and the Eastern Cape Frontier 272
Notes 282
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)