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Living a long time: J.M. Coetzee on Faulkner

The first thing you have to do to win a Nobel Prize is to live a long time. J.M. Coetzee

I’ve been reading his fabulous essay on William Faulkner which has convinced me to read Faulkner for real. (Coetzee was a writing teacher of mine from Johns Hopkins).

Here’s some of Coetzee’s online essays. I don’t have strong opinions about his fiction (not yet anyway), but his essay collection Stranger Shores is one of the most striking pieces of criticism I’d read.

Here’s an entertaining puff piece on J.M. Coetzee which pretty much squares away with my memory of him.

Coetzee told his audience that he stopped giving lectures after delivering a final two at Princeton University in 1998. He said he had been invited by the university to lecture on any topic within the area of “human values”.

“My immediate thought when I read the letter was, ‘F— human values. Who cares about human values when the appalling slaughter of the other than human goes on around us every day?’ ” he said.

The Princeton lectures, or lessons as he called them, were called “The Lives of Animals” and he made them his last.

“They liberated me, I hope forever, from the unhappy role of lecturer,” said Coetzee, who supervises the thesis of a PhD student at Adelaide University by email and failed to turn up twice to collect the Booker Prize.

“Since that day I have never given a lecture, unless what I am saying now turns into a lecture, which I am going to forestall by wringing its neck pretty promptly.”

Sidenote: I have always been embarrassed about my lack of linguistic prowess, but it occurred to me that (like Mr. Coetzee, who actually gained a Phd in Comparative Literature at University of Texas at Austin) I can read 5 foreign languages fairly comfortably: Latin (need some brushing up, but I could do it), Albanian (for a while I was fluent), Spanish (I’ve read a lot of simple stuff as well as poetry), and German. I’ve read the most in German, and probably my reading skills have stayed pretty good, although I couldn’t speak worth a damn. My only regret was never having the time to learn Russian; during my year in Ukraine, I concentrated on learning Ukrainian, which though interesting did not have practical value for reading. Also, circumstances prevented me to learning that in any depth either. But what joy it would give me to read Chekhov or Pushkin in the original language! Just from the standpoint of being able to download public domain texts it would have been glorious.

The thought has occurred to me at various times that if I had stayed in Albania for another year (either through Peace Corps or some other group), I would have been a shoe-in for a Fulbright. Albania’s most esteemed writer, Ismail Kadare, still hasn’t been translated from Albanian to English; instead, there have been English translations of his French translations (a nightmare just to imagine). There’s a certain knack for being a good translator (as Kevin Kinsella can probably attest). I am good at finding the “objective correlative” for phrases in another language, less good at textual fidelity and less good at foreign languages in general.

Interestingly, while I don’t consider myself very fluent in any nonEnglish language, I find that I like referring to the original text to get a sense of the rhythm and specific word being used. Finally, given the paucity of English translations for pre-1923 works, I’ve become more tempted to download texts in their original language on my ebookwise reader. As long as you can find texts of all levels, you are not constantly having to look things up Wouldn’t it be great if an ebook reader allowed you to press any word of a text and look it up in your native dictionary? That’s closer to reality than one might think.

I always used to be impressed by authors or intellectuals who could read and even write in several languages. And I have met prodigies who can absorb languages effortlessly (it is partly a byproduct of having a good memory for words and grammatical rules). Over time, though, I’ve come to think that linguistic abilities are often a matter of your context; in some cultures or societies you are expected to be bilingual or trilingual. In Albania you are expected to know Italian and Albanian and probably even Greek. Then the best students (those who want to study abroad) assiduously learn English. The Internet and the world economy has made English an important language, although in the next decade, that will be shifting to Mandarin. Really, the only profession that should care about languages are writers and critics, whose job it is to make sense of linguistic niceties.

Should we care though? It all boils down to availability of translations; how much are we missing out on? The army of English translators is generally excellent; it is amazing how many works have been translated in English (with the exception perhaps of Albanian and Indonesian and African languages).

One note about Ezra Pound, who if you remember liked to use lots of Greek and Latin phrases in his poems (and Mandarin if I recall correctly). I once read a hilarious interview with Pound’s former Latin teacher who described Pound to be one of her worst Latin students ever.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Arin 9/9/2009, 4:52 pm

    JM Coetzee is possibly the only person on this earth that I would faint for upon meeting. I am very jealous that you had a chance to study from this great man.

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