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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism

Stranger Shores


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To purchase Stranger Shores

Title: Stranger Shores
Author: J.M.Coetzee
Genre: Literary criticism
Written: (2001)
Length: 281 pages
Availability: Stranger Shores - US
Stranger Shores - UK
Stranger Shores - Canada
  • Literary Essays
  • 1986-1999
  • These piece were previously published elsewhere, most of them in The New York Review of Books

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Our Assessment:

B : solid collection, good introductions to authors and works

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist B- 15/9/2001 .
New Statesman . 17/12/2001 D.J.Taylor
The NY Times Book Rev. A 16/9/2001 James Shapiro
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2002 E. Kim Stone
The Spectator . 22/9/2001 Alberto Manguel
TLS . 5/10/2001 Michael Gorra
World Literature Today A Spring/2002 J. Roger Kurtz

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but the majority are very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Stranger Shores contains several outstanding essays. Taken as a whole, however, it is a disappointment. Little has been done to make the book reader-friendly. There is no foreword, no index, and no organisation of the contents. Several of the pieces are redundant. Reviews of novels by Salman Rushdie and A.S. Byatt, for example, offer little more than plot summaries. Others have aged badly. (...) The collection also suffers from Mr Coetzee's preferred critical tone, which is dry tending to arid." - The Economist

  • "JM Coetzee (...) approaches works of literature in rather the same spirit that a government nutritional scientist might approach a plate of roast beef and root vegetables. What exactly is the calorific value of these items ? And the fat content ? How much flour was added to the gravy ?" - D.J.Taylor, New Statesman

  • "Coetzee is that rare breed, an academic who is also a world-class writer, and this latest collection is informed as much by the novelist's keen eye as it is by the theorist's obsessions. These are not puff pieces. (...) Coetzee wields a sharp scalpel, carefully exposing the stylistic flaws, theoretical shortcuts and, on occasion, bad faith of writers he otherwise admires. It's a dazzling if at times coldly clinical performance." - James Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review

  • " Stranger Shores, by South African writer J. M. Coetzee, the only two-time winner of the Booker Prize, is an immensely pleasurable read because Coetzee submits a global array of authors to the responsible scrutiny of his skeptical gaze." - E. Kim Stone, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(H)owever strict their critical intelligence, these essays have been written without malice. They are instead dispassionate, learned and often technical, especially in discussing a translator's choices in moving from Dutch or German to English. They are descriptive before they turn evaluative, precise and lucid in their presentation of often unfamiliar material. (...) And taken together, these essays project a strong if characteristically indirect light on his own fictional practice." - Michael Gorra, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Like his fiction, these pieces are smart, intense, and stylistically sophisticated. (...) One of the great values of Coetzee's essays is that they demonstrate the methods and raise the questions that students of comparative literature need to pursue and ask. There is the attempt to balance historicity with esthetics, and there is also a strong emphasis on issues of translation." - J. Roger Kurtz, World Literature Today

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:

       After an opening lecture on "What is a classic ?" Stranger Shores consists mainly of book introductions and reviews (most of the latter originally published in The New York Review of Books).
       It is a very international selection: the only American author discussed is William Gass, and that piece -- a review of Reading Rilke -- focusses more Rilke and translation than Gass. There are the obvious areas Coetzee gravitates to -- Dutch literature (Emants, Mulisch, and Nooteboom) and South African literature -- but he also reaches considerably beyond these. Other contemporary authors he discusses range from Josef Skvorecky and Salman Rushdie to Aharon Appelfeld, Amoz Oz, and Naguib Mahfouz. Classic authors he introduces and discusses include Turgenev, Defoe, and Samuel Richardson.
       Translation is a major issue in many of these pieces, and it is noteworthy that several of the reviews consider newly re-translated works. "Translating Kafka" takes the publication of a new translation of The Castle to re-examine the original Kafka translators, the Muirs, and the influence their work had on Kafka-reception. Coetzee also reviews Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions, the first complete version of his fiction by a single translator (Andrew Hurley). And, of course, Gass' Reading Rilke is itself a book comparing translations. In each Coetzee compares previous versions with the new, and makes some observations; some of it might seem like nit-picking, but it gives a general sense of what Coetzee believes to be the translations' strengths and weaknesses (and presumably helps in at least reminding readers of the compromises made when literature is read in translation).
       Elsewhere, too, Coetzee does not ignore questions of translation. Comfortable reading both Dutch and German, his reviews of authors who wrote in these languages also touch upon the quality of the translations, while even with authors such as Mahfouz he at least reminds readers that there are translation issues to consider.
       The reviews tend to be very expansive, including detailed summaries. In some cases Coetzee's retelling of the story takes up too much of the allotted space (in his discussion of The Discovery of Heaven, for example), but generally he manages to helpfully expound while summarising. Still, Coetzee's reviews are very much what one might expect from a professor of literature: more lecture-like than review-like. It is often difficult to even get a sense of whether Coetzee actually enjoyed a book.
       Coetzee's forte here is his ability to introduce an author in the span of a few pages. He focusses on the authors as much as the works, introducing them as one might in a class where the students will not read the book in question but are expected to have some familiarity with the author and the work. From Robert Musil to Doris Lessing, he offers good (though often not neutral) snapshots of their lives, and given how few of these authors are widely read this is fairly useful
       Many of the authors discussed either suffered or witnessed oppression, and clashes of cultures (and nationalities or similar groups) also define them. A.S.Byatt is the practically the most insular of the lot -- but tellingly the book Coetzee reviews, Babel Tower, is the one in which she is most concerned with the clash of culture (admittedly in a slightly different way than most of these other authors).
       Stranger Shores is an interesting collection of pieces, devoted almost entirely to significant authors and worthy works. Several discussions -- the ones on translation, in particular -- are excellent, and for the most part Coetzee does really open a door to these authors and works, tempting the reader to consider them more closely. But it is also only a collection of hardly connected pieces, and while the cover maintains these are Literary Essays they are only, in part quite uncomfortably, something between essays and book reviews.

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Stranger Shores: Reviews: J.M.Coetzee: Other books by J.M.Coetzee under review: Books reviewed and discussed by J.M.Coetzee in Stranger Shores 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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