Tuesday, September 13, 2011

J. M. Coetzee on Les Murray

J. M. Coetzee, himself now largely accepted as an Australian novelist, writes about the Australian poet Les Murray in the new issue of The New York Review of Books.

Coetzee notably commends the poetry editor of Antipodes, Paul Kane, for producing "the best study we have of poetry in Australia" and I and no doubt many others would certainly agree with that sentiment. The book is available here (reasonably if you buy the paperback) and I would highly recommend it.  I agree with other of Coetzee's judgment too, for instance in the 'uneasy' place that Fredy Neptune occupies in Murray's oeuvre. Coetzee also says his work has fallen off since 1992. I share his view that Murray's best poems date from the 80s, though when I met Murray in 1999 he dissented from that view. But I do think the recent work continues to be strong, recognizable, and, for me, instantly catalyzing. Coetzee does (following Kane's skillful and authoritative analysis) make clear that he views Murray as primarily a religious poet.

What does this piece do for Murray's Nobel chances? Or at least how foes it reflect them? That Coetzee, a previous Nobelist (2003), writes, largely positively, about Murray says a lot--it indicates there is a meaningful critical conversation about Murray at the highest levels, and it is hard to get the Nobel without having such a conversation, at least in your own language. on the other hand, the downside of Murray Coetzee observes is what everybody says "I love Murray, but if only he weren't so cranky and so critical of the Left." Although Murray may mellow with age, I doubt if he will change his spots. This is what makes Murray Murray. It is like asking D. H. lawrence to stop having such a big ego and thinking about sex all the time. Great writers are as defined by their quirks as their masteries.