Late Essays by JM Coetzee review – dos and don’ts of classic novel writing

Many ‘prestige’ introductions to great works of fiction are disappointing, but these pieces are different. The Nobel laureate is a wonderful critic

A writer of JM Coetzee’s stature needs no preamble, and Late Essays does not offer one, plunging the reader directly into the literary criticism that the novelist has accumulated over the past 11 years. Some are expanded versions of his articles for the New York Review of Books; others are published introductions to works of great literature, from Daniel Defoe’s Roxana to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Introductions to classic novels comprise an interesting genre of criticism, with its own formal mechanisms. I don’t mean critical pieces prepared by scholars, but “prestige” essays, written by famous writers with a fondness for the book at hand. Yet is there any form of writing more ripe for reinvention? While they are revealing about the culture in general, such ...

Essayism by Brian Dillon review – pure creativity on the page

Full of appreciation for such essayists as William Gass, Elizabeth Hardwick and Georges Perec, Dillon has written a vital exploration of a genreIt is a critical commonplace to begin an essay about essays with etymology. Essay: noun, from the French essayer, verb, to try. Next is the requisite hat-tip to Michel de Montaigne, Renaissance philosopher and one-time mayor of Bordeaux, who is considered to have been the first great essayist; his Essais, published in 1580, includes disquisitions on, among other things, idleness, liars, imagination, pedantry, the custom of wearing clothes, sleep, names, drunkenness and smells. “I know too well how that particular essay on essays gets written,” Brian Dillon writes in his new book, Essayism, refusing to rehearse these familiar ideas, even as he mentions them. Over the course of this meditation on that most elegant and slippery of forms, he identifies some “combination of ...

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet review – who killed Roland Barthes?

Semiotics meets the whodunnit in a satiric romp through Parisian intellectual life from the author of HHhHAll this must be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel,” the literary critic and theorist wrote in his 1975 autobiography, Roland Barthes. “Life is not a novel,” Laurent Binet counters in the opening line of his new novel, one that asks who might have killed Barthes, and why. But Barthes wasn’t murdered, you might protest; he was knocked over by a laundry truck while crossing the Rue des Ecoles, and died a month later. Instead of a novel in the form of an autobiography, The 7th Function of Language is a whodunnit without a crime, in which one of the characters investigating the death strongly (and rightly) begins to suspect he is a character in a novel. Continue reading...

The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell review – Churchill by the pool

The wartime PM joins other celebrities in the story of a French chateau that became a playground for the rich and famousThe Riviera Set follows the lives, loves, and larks of the American actor Maxine Elliott, who infiltrated the British upper classes and from there the creme de la Eurotrash. She built the Château de l’Horizon on the French Riviera, where such people as Winston Churchill, Noël Coward and the former Edward VIII hung out. Following Elliott’s death in 1940, the focus of Lovell’s story shifts to the next owner of the house, Aly Khan, the playboy son of the Aga Khan, whose womanising and partying led his father to disinherit him by leaving his title to Aly’s son Karim. (Khan did inherit his father’s wealth.) The house itself, a pile of art deco sugar cubes that manages to be at once Romanesque and Moorish, was ...