J. M. Coetzee’s novel The Childhood of Jesus was published in March 2013. He is Professor of Literature at the University of Adelaide and in 2003 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Patrick White: Within a Budding Grove

Patrick White, Sydney, Australia, 1973
The nineteenth century was the heyday of the Great Writer. In our times the concept of greatness has fallen under suspicion, especially when attached to whiteness and maleness, and Great Writers courses have largely been retired from the college curriculum. But to call Patrick White a Great Writer—specifically a Great Writer in the Romantic mold—seems right, if only because he had the typically great-writerly sense of being marked out from birth for an uncommon destiny and granted a talent—not necessarily a welcome one—that it is death to hide, that talent consisting in the power to see, intermittently, flashes of the truth behind appearances.

The Quest for the Girl from Bendigo Street

Photograph by Trent Parke from 'Dream/Life,' a series of his images of Australia
As a writer, Gerald Murnane is a radical idealist. His fictional personages or “image-persons” (characters is a term he does not use) have their existence in a world much like the world of myth, purer, simpler, and more real than the world from which they take their origin. For readers who, despite Murnane’s best efforts, cannot tell the difference between image-persons and figments of the human imagination, it may be best to treat Murnane’s theorizing—which extends into the very texture of his fiction—as no more than an elaborate way of warning us not to identify the storytelling I with the man Gerald Murnane, and therefore not to read his books as autobiographical records, accountable to the same standard of truth as history is. The I who tells the story will be no less a constructed figure than the actors in it.

Storm Over Young Goethe

José Carreras as Werther and Frederica von Stade as Charlotte in Werther, Jules Massenet’s opera based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel. Their 1980 recording, conducted by Sir Colin Davis with the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has just been reissued by Decca.
Two energies go into the making of Werther: the confessional, which gives the book its tragic emotional force, and the political. Passionate and idealistic, Werther is representative of the best of a new generation of Germans sensitive to the stirrings of history, impatient to see the renewal of a torpid social order. An unhappy love affair may precipitate his suicide, but the deeper cause is the failure of German society to offer young people like him anything but what Goethe would later call “dull, spiritless citizen life.”

The Angry Genius of Les Murray

Les Murray, December 1962
What is at stake in the choice for or against Modernism is, in Les Murray’s eyes, not just the survival in Australia of simple, humane, communal, old-fashioned country values but, more widely, the survival worldwide of a way of life thousands of years old. Murray’s conservatism is defined by his defense of this traditional way of life.

On the Moral Brink

Philip Roth in New York City with an old map of Newark, 2007
Philip Roth’s Nemesis, set in Newark in the polio summer of 1944, places him in a line of writers who have used the plague condition to explore the resolve of human beings and the durability of their institutions under attack by an invisible, inscrutable, and deadly force. In this respect the plague condition is simply a heightened state of the condition of being mortal.

From ‘Summertime’: Notebooks 1972–1975

Miki Odagiri as the secretary and Takashi Shimura as the bureaucrat in Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (To Live; 1952)
22 August 1972 In yesterday’s Sunday Times, a report from Francistown in Botswana. Sometime last week, in the middle of the night, a car, a white American model, drove up to a house in a residential area. Men wearing balaclavas jumped out, kicked down the front door, and began shooting.

From ‘Summertime’: ‘Undated Fragments’

Renata Tebaldi in the title role of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, 
Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 1958
It is a Saturday afternoon in winter, ritual time for the game of rugby. With his father he catches a train to Newlands in time for the 2:15 curtain-raiser. The curtain-raiser will be followed at 4:00 by the main match. After the main match they will catch a train home …

The Making of Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett, Paris, 1964
In 1923 Samuel Barclay Beckett, aged seventeen, was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, to study Romance languages. He proved an exceptional student, and was taken under the wing of Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of French, who did all he could to advance the young man’s career, securing for him on graduation …

Irène Némirovsky: The Dogs & the Wolves

The reputation of Irène Némirovsky, in the English-speaking world as in France, rests on Suite Française, an unfinished multipart novel that appeared in print only in 2004, some sixty years after its author’s death. During her lifetime Némirovsky was best known for an early work, the novel David Golder (1929).

Look Homeward, Angel

In the summer of 2003, as part of that year’s Lincoln Center Festival, members of the public were offered a guided walk around selected New York sites, beginning on Roosevelt Island and ending in the Chrysler Building. As they proceeded from site to site, they were invited to keep an …

Diary of a Bad Year

ONE: STRONG OPINIONS September 12, 2005—May 31, 2006 01. On the origins of the state Every account of the origins of the state starts from the premise that “we”—not we the readers but some generic we so wide as to exclude no one—participate in its coming into being. But the …

Portrait of the Monster as a Young Artist

In his dual biography of the two bloodiest butchers and worst moral monsters of the twentieth century, Stalin and Hitler (but is Mao not up there with them? and does Pol Pot not get a look-in?), Alan Bullock reprints side by side class photographs of young Iosif and young Adolf …

The Poet in the Tower

In the depths of the Second World War, in a London battered by German bombs, a young Jew named Michael Hamburger penned a lament in the voice of the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin: Diotima is dead, and silent The island’s singing bird. The temple I raised from ruin …

Sleeping Beauty

###1. Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera ends with Florentino Ariza, at last united with the woman he has loved from afar all his life, cruising up and down the Magdalena River in a steamboat flying the yellow flag of cholera. The couple are seventy-six and …

Love and Walt Whitman

In August of 1863 Private Erastus Haskell of the 141st New York Volunteers died of typhoid fever in Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter his parents received a long letter from a stranger. “I was very anxious [Erastus] should be saved,” the stranger wrote, & so were they all—he …

The Making of William Faulkner

“Now I realise for the first time,” wrote William Faulkner to a woman friend, looking back from the vantage point of his mid-fifties, “what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made.

What Philip Knew

In 1993, over the name “Philip Roth,” there appeared a book entitled Operation Shylock: A Confession, which besides being a dazzling raid into territory that had seemed to be staked out by John Barth and the metafictionists, was also about Israel and its relations with the Jewish Diaspora. The book …

Bellow’s Gift

Among American novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century, Saul Bellow stands out as one of the giants, perhaps the giant. His noontime stretches from the early 1950s (The Adventures of Augie March) to the mid-1970s (Humboldt’s Gift), though as late as 2000 he was still publishing notable …

As a Woman Grows Older

She is visiting her daughter in Nice, her first visit there in years. Her son will fly out from the United States to spend a few days with them, on the way to some conference or other. It interests her, this confluence of dates. She wonders whether there has not …

Basho

We know poetic poetry the common dangers of moonstruckness, bel canto. Embalsamed air, that is all, unless you turn it into pebbles that flash and hurt. You, old master, polish the pebbles that you fling to bring down a thrush. Out of the world you …

Awakening

In one of the stories in Nadine Gordimer’s collection Jump (1991), a working-class family in England takes in a lodger, a quiet, studious young man from the Middle East. The daughter of the family becomes intimate with him and falls pregnant. He proposes marriage; dubiously the parents consent. But first, …

Victims

Günter Grass burst on the literary scene in 1959 with The Tin Drum, a novel which, with its mix of the fabulous—a hero who in protest against the world around him refuses to grow—and the realistic—a densely textured realization of pre-war Danzig—announced the advent of magic realism. Made financially independent …

Sweet Persuasions of the Dark

In his earliest childhood recollection, young Bruno Schulz sits on the floor ringed by an admiring household while he scrawls one “drawing” after another over the pages of old newspapers. In his creative transports, the child still inhabits “the age of genius,” still has unselfconscious access to the realm of …

Heir of a Dark History

W.G. Sebald was born in 1944 in the corner of southern Germany where Germany, Austria, and Switzerland converge. In his early twenties he left for England to further his studies in German literature, and spent most of his working life teaching there at a provincial university. By the time of …

The Genius of Trieste

A man—a very big man beside whom you feel very small—invites you to meet his four daughters and choose one to marry. Their names all begin with A; your name begins with Z. You pay a visit and try to make polite conversation, but insults come tumbling out of your …

Emperor of Nostalgia

At the apogee of a reign that commenced in 1848 and ran until 1916, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, ruled over some fifty million subjects. Of these fewer than a quarter spoke German as a first language. Even within Austria itself every second person was a …

Dupe of History

We are with the old General, Henrik, in his castle in Hungary. The year is 1940. For twenty years the General has not appeared in public. Now he is to have a visitor, the bosom friend of his youth, Konrad. The General gazes at the portraits of his parents: his …

The Razor’s Edge

In later life the English writer W. Somerset Maugham developed an interest in Indian spirituality. He visited India in 1938, and in Madras was taken to an ashram to meet a man who, born Venkataraman, had retreated to a life of silence, self-mortification, and prayer, and was now known simply …

In the Midst of Losses

Paul Antschel was born in 1920 in Czernowitz in the territory of Buko-vina, which after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 had become part of Romania. Czernowitz was in those days an intellectually lively city with a sizable minority of German-speaking Jews. Antschel was brought up speaking High …