coetzee on roth


If the intensity of the Roth of old, the “major” Roth, has died down, has anything new come in its place? Toward the end of his life on earth, “he,” the protagonist of Everyman, visits the graveyard where his parents lie buried and strikes up a conversation with a gravedigger, a man who takes a solid, professional pride in his work. From him “he” elicits a full, clear, and concise account of how a good grave is dug. (Among the subsidiary pleasures Roth provides are the expert little how-to essays embedded in the novels: how to make a good glove, how to dress a butcher’s display window.) This is the man, “he” reflects, who when the time comes will dig his grave, see to it that his coffin is well seated, and, once the mourners have dispersed, fill in the earth over him. He bids farewell to the gravedigger—his gravedigger—in a curiously lightened mood: “I want to thank you…. You couldn’t have made things more concrete. It’s a good education for an older person.” This modest but beautifully composed little ten-page episode does indeed provide a good education, and not just for older persons: how to dig a grave, how to write, how to face death, all in one.

more from J. M. Coetzee at the NYRB here.