J.M. Coetzee (1940–), the South African-born Nobel Prize-winning author of such novels as Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999), is also a scholar and critic who was a professor of literature at his alma mater, the University of Cape Town, before moving to Australia in 2002. Coetzee trained as an academic researcher in his youth and did not begin writing fiction until he was already teaching at a university. He continued to pursue a dual career as writer and academic. He was thus different from a guest lecturer invited merely because of his prominence as a novelist. Nearly all of Coetzee’s novels have been translated into Japanese, but his critical writings are only to be found in Japan in Essays on World Literature, published by Misuzu Shobō in 2015, which I edited and translated. The book introduced here is the sequel to this publication.
To date, there have been published six compilations of critical essays by Coetzee. Of these, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988), Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992), and Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1996) are full-fledged academic volumes while Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 (2001), Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000–2005 (2007), and Late Essays: 2006–2017 (2017) are mainly collections of book reviews published in such forums as The New York Review of Books. The latter three contain, respectively, 26, 21, and 23 essays. Essays on World Literature covered a broad range of Coetzee’s essays, from his earliest academic works to those in Inner Workings to give a full overview of Coetzee’s critical writings. In this second volume, however, I have chosen to focus on his most recent critical work by selecting only from the last two collections, Inner Workings and Late Essays.
The centerpiece of Late Essays is the collection of prefaces to the 12 volumes of Coetzee’s Spanish-language “Personal Library” published by the Argentinean publisher El Hilo de Ariadna (Ariadne's Thread) between 2013 and 2015. For his “Personal Library,” Coetzee chose classics of world literature that were important in his own personal development as a writer, with an eye to Jorge Luis Borges who in his last years contemplated (and left unfinished) a personal library of one hundred volumes. Five of his prefaces (marked by an asterisk in the Table of Contents) are included in this second volume.
Coetzee writes of his excitement of having his “Personal Library” published first in the Spanish-speaking world. His antipathy in recent years to English-centrism is well known. He has deliberately delayed the publication of his works in English, preferring to publish them first in Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese (while a Japanese translation of Moral Tales is available, the English version has yet to be published). The publication of his “Personal Library” in the Spanish-speaking world further indicates his commitment to the “literature of the South.”
At a time when literature appears to have diminishing status, Coetzee seems to be deliberately acting as an arbiter and sustainer of contemporary world literature by choosing to review books that are unlikely to be popular despite their literary value. I believe this second volume highlights such a stance of Coetzee. My hope is that the readers will enjoy the luxury of re-visiting the classics of world literature as viewed through the eyes of one of the most discerning readers of our time.
(Written by TAJIRI Yoshiki, Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences / 2020)