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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Pole


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To purchase The Pole

Title: The Pole
Author: J.M.Coetzee
Genre: Novel
Written: 2022
Length: 166 pages
Availability: The Pole - US
The Pole and Other Stories - UK
The Pole - Canada
Der Pole - Deutschland
Il Polacco - Italia
El polaco - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Originally published in a Spanish translation by Mariana Dimópulos as El polaco; first English language edition published in 2023
  • The UK and Australian editions include five stories; the US edition just consists of The Pole

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Our Assessment:

A- : neatly done exploration of writing, interpretation, and translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times* . 5/10/2023 Christian Lorentzen
FASz . 3/6/2023 Simona Pfister
The Guardian* . 13/10/2023 John Banville
Literary Review* . 10/2023 James Purdon
London Rev. of Books* . 7/3/2024 Nicholas Spice
The LA Times . 22/9/2023 David L. Ulin
New Statesman* . 18/10/2023 Ann Manov
The NY Rev. of Books . 2/11/2023 Michael Gorra
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/10/2023 Dwight Garner
The New Yorker . 2/10/2023 Jennifer Wilson
The Observer* . 8/10/2023 John Self
The Spectator* . 9/12/2023 A.S.H. Smyth
The Telegraph* A 13/10/2023 Tim Smith-Laing
Sunday Times* . 1/10/2023 Claire Lowdon
TLS . 2/12/2022 Martin Beagles
Die Welt . 6/6/2023 Gisela Trahms
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2023 J.R.Patterson
Die Zeit . 20/6/2023 Gregor Dotzauer

* review of The Pole and Other Stories

  Review Consensus:

  Not his best, but a solid late work

  From the Reviews:
  • "Invoking Dante and Plato, Coetzee has his lovers contemplate the transcendent qualities of love, music and poetry. If time means nothing, what meaning could old age have ?" - Christian Lorentzen, Financial Times

  • "Die Frage nach den Möglichkeiten der Übersetzung und der „originalen“ Bedeutung -- und Coetzees Antwort darauf -- ist das eigentlich Interessante an diesem Roman. Die Protagonisten werden beständig von Übersetzungsproblemen geplagt, und immer ist es das Englische, das scheinbar zwischen ihnen vermittelt und dabei doch verhindert, dass die beiden sich verstehen. (...) Die Charaktere und ihre Sprachen, ihre Kultur und ihre Art zu lieben bleiben in den Details unübersetzbar. (...) Wie in früheren Werken mischt Coetzee also auch diesmal Romanerzählung mit Literaturtheorie" - Simona Pfister, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "The plot of the novella is simple, and as strange as simple things always are. (...) Coetzee the purist has always written close to degree zero; the prose in The Pole is glacial, though we sense swift torrents flowing deep under the ice. The novella is set out in numbered sections, it is not clear to what purpose, and the tone of the dialogue is as wintry as the narrative passages." - John Banville, The Guardian

  • "The stories in The Pole reflect on the relationship between ageing and artistry, touching on many of Coetzee’s characteristic preoccupations: self-knowledge and self-deception; suffering and empathy; the rights of the vulnerable. Together they might be said to constitute his portrait of the artist as an old man." - James Purdon, Literary Review

  • "Its trajectory is a kind of descent, as Beatriz falls from ledge to ledge of her resistances towards an outcome that she consciously refuses at every stage. (...) The story is overborne by its title -- ugly, graceless, singular. The Pole. Coetzee sanctioned the publication of the Spanish translation of the book before the appearance of the English original, apparently saying that the Spanish version better represented what he intended (a characteristic Coetzee-ism). It’s inconceivable, nonetheless, that in choosing the English title he did not have its ambiguities in mind." - Nicholas Spice, London Review of Books

  • "(A)mong the pleasures of The Pole are the layers it reveals. It is a book not only of the living but also of the dead. What does love mean ? Coetzee wants us to consider. And memory -- what consolations can it offer when we know it doesn’t last ? (...) In this deeply moving novel, Coetzee reminds us of what we wish we didn’t have to remember: that everything dissolves." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "If Coetzee’s best known work is a harrowing expression of the barbarians always at the gate, his strange, slim novella The Pole is, by comparison, almost stiflingly civilised. (...) The Pole is in some respects a strangely sterile story: it nominally takes place in Spain in 2015, but it’s a firmly global one. (...) This is a book about deep themes -- death, decay, despair, all three combined in an elderly character with a striking resemblance to his creator -- and one that offers little consolation." - Ann Manov, New Statesman

  • "How predictable this two-hander all seems ! Even to Beatriz, and yet her creator could not write predictably if he tried. J.M. Coetzee has divided this spare and slippery novel into six chapters, each defining a different stage in his characters’ relationship (.....) Yet even so apparently bare and toneless a prose as his own will have its undertow, an unwilled accretion of meaning that no other language can capture. Pole. Maybe that’s why translation plays such an important part in this book." - Michael Gorra, The New York Review of Books

  • "This is a convincing late-period novel. If it doesn’t rank with this Nobelist’s finest work, it is no embarrassment. It’s a pared-down book that avoids the excess philosophizing that has dragged down some of his more recent novels. Among this book’s themes is the nature of austerity itself. (...) This is also a book about philanthropy and charity. The world is in flames and our notion of a noble deed is flying in a disgruntled pianist ?" - Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "With The Pole, Coetzee muddies the waters of national purity with his trademark clarity. (...) While some might read The Pole as a love story that unfolds across a language barrier, it is at its heart a novel about language that can be told only through a love plot. Desire seeks out definitions, and is fuelled by that labor." - Jennifer Wilson, The New Yorker

  • "There are enough surprises in The Pole (...) to make further digging into the plot feel like bad sport, but the story is just the tip of the pleasure. In another author’s hands, the scenario -- a powerful man propositioning a younger woman -- would be the springboard for a clearcut morality tale. Coetzee, however, does not like to tell us what to think; he prefers to provoke thought. (...) But The Pole is also about writing fiction, and about Coetzee himself. (...) The execution of story and ideas in The Pole is so exquisite that it comes almost as a relief -- he’s human, after all ! -- when the other stories fall short." - John Self, The Observer

  • "Meanwhile, the author is having plenty of fun, peppering the story with knowing jokes (.....) (T)he story is, thankfully, greater than the sum of its apparently unpromising parts." - A.S.H. Smyth, The Spectator

  • "Coetzee is a writer whose qualities are as profound as they are unshowy, and The Pole and Other Stories, a collection of one novella and five tales, finds him, at 83, as good as ever, pursuing the ethical and artistic questions that have animated his whole career. Despite its gathering work from as far back as 2004, this book feels like a coherent whole, and one with lateness written all over it." - Tim Smith-Laing, The Telegraph

  • "(T)he prose is economical and direct, a style that will be instantly recognizable to readers of early-to mid-period Coetzee, and there’s none of the allegorical opacity of the author’s more recent work. (...) This brief late work won’t rank as one of Coetzee’s more forceful fictions. Though plausible enough, its narrative seems inconsequential: the affair is humdrum rather than riveting, and the poems Beatriz inherits from Witold do little to alter her view of the essential vapidity of their story. The appearance of El polaco does, however, raise interesting formal questions. It is impossible not to notice, for instance, that much of the action connects with the publication history of the book itself: this is a translated version of a novella that hinges on cross-linguistic manoeuvres and the performance of multiple acts of translation and interpreting. (...) The story of El polaco is driven by failures in translation, and readers could choose to see Dimópulos’s shortcomings as more, deliberate evidence of that fallibility." - Martin Beagles, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Die Geschichte hat Tempo. (...) Nur das Wesentliche wird erzählt, die minimalen „Kapitel“ sind nummeriert, sodass das Ganze wie eine atemlos vorgetragene Aufzählung wirkt. Die Fragen, die den Text durchziehen, kommen dem Leser als die eigenen entgegen. (...) Im Untergrund dieses eleganten Buches hört man den immer noch gewaltigen Grimm des Autors Coetzee über Gottes fehlerhaftes Geschöpf Mensch rumoren. Wie töricht verhält er sich, was tut er dem Mitmenschen an! Keine Heilung in Aussicht. Aber die Zuneigung des Lesers ist dem Polen gewiss." - Gisela Trahms, Die Welt

  • "If it feels skeletal, it is because the bones are visible: it is a clear retelling of the story of Dante and Beatrice (.....) With The Pole, Coetzee, ever enigmatic, plays slowly, deliberately, with a delicate nuance that continues to impress." - J.R.Patterson, World Literature Today

  • "Fangen die Missverständnisse nicht schon bei den alltäglichsten Wörtern an? Ein Schleier verhindert die ungehinderte Kommunikation, ein Netz von Bedeutungsverschiebungen, die gering erscheinen, aber am Ende das Gegenteil erzeugen. (...) Von der Mühe, die es J. M. Coetzee mittlerweile nach eigenem Eingeständnis kostet, überhaupt noch zu schreiben, ist in diesem wider Erwarten auch heiteren Roman nichts zu spüren." - Gregor Dotzauer, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Pole is presented in six sections; in all but the final one these are divided into short -- some only a sentence or two long --, numbered sections. These do form a relatively smooth narrative, but a sense of the novel as made up of building-blocks remains -- not least because the novel's opening shows the author at work, the idea for the story slowly taking on form, with the author having a clear idea and concept of his two protagonists, yet him also struggling with what to do with them.
       The novel opens:

1. The woman is the first to give him trouble, followed soon afterwards by the man.
       And soon:
4. Where do they come from, the tall Polish pianist and the elegant woman with the gliding walk, the banker's wife who occupies her days in good works? All year they have been knocking at the door, wanting to be let in or else dismissed and laid to rest. Now, at last, has their time come ?
       It has, as Coetzee then lets a story unfold around these two, the Pole of the title, pianist Witold Walczykiewicz (his name with: "so many w's and z's in it that no one on the board even tries to pronounce it -- they refer to him simply as 'the Pole'") and the Catalan Beatriz. He is seventy-two when the novel opens, in the twilight of his career and his life (even if: "he does not look his age" when they first meet, though he soon will); she is almost a quarter of a century younger, in her forties. Beatriz administers a series of music recitals given by a Circle she is involved with in Barcelona, and they invite the Pole -- known for having: "led the way for a new generation of Chopin interpreters in his native land" -- to play. He comes, and Beatriz plays host after the concert, taking him out to dinner with another couple from the Circle and then bringing him back to his hotel -- a few unexceptional hours spent together. A week later, she receives a CD and a thank-you note in the mail.
       The novel focuses entirely on Beatriz's perspective, the narrative following her rather than the Pole. After that first encounter, we are told that: "She is sorry, mildly sorry, that she will not see him again", but while the encounter made only a limited impression on Beatriz -- she can't be bothered to listen to the CD the Pole sent, for example -- it made a deep and profound one on the Pole, who is besotted. A few months later, he has occasion to be in Girona and invites her to visit; she is surprised that he's back in the area and wants clarity -- which he gladly provides per e-mail: "I am here for you. I do not forget you".
       The Pole makes his interest -- his passion -- clear, but Beatriz doesn't respond in kind. Still, there is a back and forth of communication and even meeting; Beatriz is intrigued by the attention -- and where it comes from; after all, as she tells him: "you know nothing of who or what I am". (There's also the fact that her husband is unfaithful and that the passion has gone out of their otherwise satisfactory marriage.)
       Beatriz toys some with the Pole -- and herself, it feels like. At one point Coetzee writes:
6. She has no intention of going to Valldemossa to hear the Pole play. Let him come to her.
     Plotting. Plotting.
       'Plotting' here is also the authorial voice coming through again, overlapping and echoing what's happening in the novel, a reminder of what Coetzee -- and his character -- are trying to do. And the Pole as well: even halfway through the novel, Beatriz wonders, asking him (as Coetzee also seems to be asking both himself and his characters):
But your grand design still escapes me -- your design, your plan. Why are you here, now that you are here ?
       There is engagement between the two; briefly, one might think of it as an affair -- though certainly it is much more meaningful to the obsessed Pole than to Beatriz. Though Dante's love for Beatrice is repeatedly invoked, what romance there is in The Pole pales beside it -- as Beatriz sees it: "he was using the wrong myth". Simply put -- and putting another meaning to the novel's title --:
31. Between a man and a woman, between the two poles, electricity either crackles or does not crackle. So it has been since the beginning of time. A man and a woman, not just a man, a woman. Without and there is no conjunction. Between herself and the Pole there is no and.
       But Dante's passion is related from Dante's perspective, while here the focus is on what Beatriz experiences, thinks, and feels. Coetzee occasionally lets the Pole try to explain himself -- but those explanations include: "Dearest lady, I do not have the words. Not the words in English, not the words in any language". So also, as time passes:
     She does not miss the Pole, not at all. He writes to her. She deletes his letters without reading them.
       Only near the book's conclusion can he try to more fully express himself, as a large collection of poems that he wrote come to her, and she goes through the effort of having them translated so that she can read them -- finding that they: "are not an act of revenge, not at all. They are, in the broadest sense, a record of love".
       Language plays a central role in the novel, and the difficulty of communication is constantly brought up. The Pole and Beatriz communicate in English, which he speaks "after a fashion" (though Beatriz is fluent), and characters try to communicate in a variety of languages; at one point Beatriz enlists a Russian-speaker to contact someone in Poland (texting in the Roman alphabet, no less -- "Is not good Russian, but maybe Polish lady understands", he tells her; typically, too: "There is no reply to the Russian's text"). When Beatriz hires someone to translate the poems, the woman tells her: "I translate your poems for you, and then you decide what they mean" -- a sentence that nearly perfectly sums up what Coetzee is getting after in this novel.
       Though first published in Spanish translation, The Pole was written in English, and English is the lingua franca characters often fall back on -- but: "I don't know how to say it in English", whether expressed that directly or not, is often an issue. So also, early on, Beatriz wonders:
Whatever the words mean in English, whatever they mean in the Polish that presumably lies behind the English, what do they mean in reality ?
       Again one hears the authorial voice rising in (as it shapes ...) the text .....
       The last of the novel's six section differs in presentation from the rest, consisting of letters Beatriz writes to the Pole (and including two of the Pole's poems, each "in its new Spanish guise" (though in fact here presented in English ...)). It is a very direct, personal form of communication -- more heartfelt that Beatriz had been in their face-to-face communications -- and Beatriz even closes with a P.S.: "I will write again". Writing these letters is, however, pointless for Beatriz, at least in the sense one usually writes letters: she is writing to a void, the Pole can and will not ever read them. But then they are not conventional letters -- communication with another individual -- but rather an example of writing in its larger sense, echoing what Dante, and what Coetzee, do, capturing and conveying in words for oneself and for the abstract. And so too we can read into the novel's closing words Coetzee's authorial voice rising to the fore again: even as he opened the novel struggling to shape some fiction, some form of writing out of it, he managed -- and here, in this P.S. announces too that he will, he must continue: "I will write again".
       The 'story' in The Pole can seem underdeveloped -- too blocky, too, in its presentation with the numbered sections -- but as scaffolding for a novel of ideas, about writing, interpretation, and translation, it is very well used by Coetzee. In sum -- and in many of its pieces -- The Pole impresses, and while it is a smaller effort -- novella rather than novel, really -- it is a very fine work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 October 2023

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The Pole: Reviews (* review of The Pole and Other Stories): J.M.Coetzee: Other books by J.M.Coetzee under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. He has won many literary prizes, and was the 2003 Nobel laureate in literature.

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© 2023-2024 the complete review

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