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Duty calls

James Marcus is the author of "Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut" and the proprietor of a blog, House of Mirth.

WHEN J.M. Coetzee received the Nobel Prize in 2003, the citation from the Swedish Academy dwelt primarily on his career as a novelist. That made perfect sense. Although the author had produced a large body of memoir, criticism and polemical prose, it was his pitiless fiction that made the biggest impact, from the quasi-allegory of “Waiting for the Barbarians” to the serial traumas of “Disgrace.” These are major books, despite their slender heft and endless modulations of disgust. Indeed, Coetzee may be the flintiest novelist to win the prize in our era -- compared with him, even Beckett, with his taste for metaphysical slapstick, seems strangely consoling.

Meanwhile, Coetzee was making something of a U-turn. Less and less enthusiastic about traditional narrative, he turned much of “Elizabeth Costello” (2003) into a series of lectures by its eponymous protagonist, herself an aging novelist. Flitting from Pennsylvania to Amsterdam to her native Melbourne, Australia, Costello held forth on her favorite topics: eros, evil and the dubious proposition that “storytelling is good in itself.” Two years later, in “Slow Man,” Coetzee brought back Costello for an encore: This time, she gave the maimed protagonist an extended tutorial on art and life, not to mention the creeping shadow of mortality.

There are, of course, interludes of storytelling in both these novels. Yet the persistent eruption into essayistic argument -- with Costello as Coetzee’s mouthpiece -- is hard to overlook. If nothing else, it whets the reader’s appetite for an honest-to-God collection of essays. And now the author has obliged with “Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005.” The prospect is tantalizing. Might this be the shot of Coetzee we’ve been waiting for -- the fiery nectar straight up, with no fictional dilution?

Unfortunately not. In most of these essays, many of which originally appeared in the New York Review of Books, the author seems to be operating in low gear, as if the greatest challenge were simply to finish writing them.

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In some cases, it’s the subject that fails to stimulate Coetzee’s imagination. His long essay on Sandor Marai, for example, goes on for 20 pages in a mounting atmosphere of critical fatigue. Only in the last sentence does the author finally show his cards: "[H]owever thoughtful a chronicler of the dark decade of the 1940s [Marai] may have been, however bravely (or perhaps just unabashedly) he may have spoken up for the class into which he was born, however provocative his paradoxical philosophy of the mask may be, his conception of the novel form was nevertheless old-fashioned, his grasp of its potentialities limited, and his achievements in the medium consequently slight.”

Coetzee has every right to pan Marai’s work. But if he’s concluded that the Hungarian novelist is strictly second-rate, why make the reader slog through acres of lukewarm prose? And why reprint the piece, which is essentially the equivalent of the surgeon general’s warning on a pack of cigarettes?

Most of the time, though, Coetzee isn’t making the best of a bad assignment. These are his masters, his elective affinities. There’s no doubt he admires Graham Greene, for example, whose agonized explorations of the human conscience make him a kind of distant cousin to the displaced South African. Still, the piece here (written as an introduction to a 2004 edition of Greene’s “Brighton Rock”) has a dutiful tone to it. “The stories of these dubious heroes,” we read, “are told grippingly enough and searchingly enough to engage readers by the millions.” Inoffensive stuff, to be sure. But from an artist of Coetzee’s caliber, we expect something more searching, not a high-end version of CliffsNotes.

Thankfully, there are brighter spots. Coetzee’s essays on Joseph Roth, Robert Musil and Bruno Schulz -- all progeny of the Austro-Hungarian empire -- send out sympathetic sparks. Like the author, each of these giants lived in the debris of a crumbling civilization and regarded the ancien regime with mixed feelings. Needless to say, the empire presided over by Franz Joseph was a much more benign enterprise than apartheid-era South Africa. Perhaps the missing link here is William Faulkner, the subject of another essay and the chronicler of a similar historical twilight. Coetzee’s comment about him seems to triangulate Central Europe, South Africa and the American South: Faulkner is “elegiac because he loves the old world that is being eaten up before his eyes; and despairing for many reasons, not least of which [is] ... that the South he loves was built, as he knows better than anyone, on twin crimes of dispossession and slavery.”

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In any case, the Central Europeans add some extra dash to the author’s sentences. Describing Robert Walser’s brilliance as a miniaturist, he notes how “watercolour shades of sentiment are inspected with the lightest of irony and the prose responds to passing currents of feeling as sensitively as a butterfly’s wing.” Readers of that benighted storyteller will recognize this as not only lovely but exact. Equally exact is the thumbnail of Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities” as “a novel in which the upper crust of Viennese society, oblivious of the dark clouds gathering on the horizon, reflects at length on what form its next festival of self-congratulation should take.” In the other essays, Coetzee sounds like a tourist; here he displays the familiarity of a man on his native terrain.

Oddly enough, the most ardent language in these literary essays crops up in a discussion of a movie. John Huston shot “The Misfits” in 1961 from a script by Arthur Miller, and in the climactic sequence, some cowboys capture a herd of wild mustangs. As Coetzee points out, the terrified animals -- actual wild mustangs -- understand nothing of the artifice surrounding them, an artifice featuring none other than Marilyn Monroe.

“The horses are real,” he writes, “the stuntmen are real, the actors are real; they are all, at this moment, involved in a terrible fight in which the men want to subjugate the horses to their purpose and the horses want to get away; every now and again the blonde woman screams and shouts; it all really happened; and here it is, to be relived for the ten thousandth time before our eyes. Who would dare to say it is just a story?”

With this indignant paragraph, we come full circle, back to “Elizabeth Costello.” That novel-as-lecture-series included a couple of long and eloquent harangues on animal rights from the protagonist. Again, the author seemed to be smuggling the essay into a narrative format. As it happens, though, those harangues had made an earlier appearance in “The Lives of Animals” (1999) -- an actual lecture series, into which Coetzee had smuggled the feisty and fictional Costello. Clearly these hybrids are close to the author’s heart. Yet the straightforward essays assembled in “Inner Workings” are, with a few exceptions, only fair-to-middling creations. Perhaps Elizabeth Costello should have been enlisted to write them all.


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