Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
J.M. Coetzee is a cold fish, and James Wood is a hot fish. No one’s going to do anything about that. These are men who are firmly what they are. Hume once said that philosophies ultimately boil down to personalities. It is an insight that sounds trite when you’re young and looking for complicated answers, but it gets deeper with the years. But because they are two of the most astute literary minds of our times at the height of their powers, their respective hotnesses and coldnesses are worthy of further scrutiny.
The publication of J.M. Coetzee’s most recent collection of essays (Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005) provides an opportunity for the study of these two minds, two moods, two styles. This is because it just so happens that Wood and Coetzee are interested in many of the same literary figures. And not only are they interested in the same figures, but they’re also interested in the same figures for many of the same reasons. Take, for instance, Italo Svevo. You wouldn’t necessarily think that a secondary and quirky figure of early 20th century fiction would inspire the deepest thoughts about the function and purpose of modern literature. But it so turns out that for both Wood and Coetzee, Svevo serves as a kind of key to their projects in general.
Svevo was an Italian writer whose comic novels were first introduced to a wider readership by James Joyce’s, and who has since become celebrated among those who know him as a master at portraying the delightfully screwed up workings of the human psyche. That, in fact, is exactly what both Wood and Coetzee value in Svevo. More specifically, Coetzee and Wood are both taken with the way in which Svevo was able to enter the world of his literary creations with complete sympathy while at the same time exposing those characters as messes of internal contradictions and self-delusions.