Philip Roth and JM Coetzee are very different writers with a lot in common: their hard visions of life, their interest in sexual transgression and their tendency to put themselves in their novels. Moreover, with age, their visions are getting closerby William Skidelsky / November 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
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Novelists, Martin Amis once wrote, are at their best in middle age. “They come good at 30, they peak at 50… at 70, novelists are ready to be kicked upstairs.” But the creative arc is less predictable than this. Some novelists—Amis is an example—produce their best work before the bloom of youth has quite faded; others retain their powers until late in life. Two novelists who have been ageing well recently are Philip Roth (born 1933) and JM Coetzee (born 1940), both of whom have new books out this autumn. Aside from similarly well-stuffed prize cabinets, the two aren’t often seen as having much in common. Partly, this is a matter of geography. When Roth gets compared with other writers, it is with his American contemporaries: Bellow, DeLillo, Mailer, Updike. When Coetzee gets compared with anyone (other than Beckett and Kafka), it tends to be with Nadine Gordimer, and the comparison isn’t always favourable: she is seen as the white South African novelist who confronted apartheid, he as the one who avoided it. But Roth and Coetzee have more in common than is often realised. They are equally stubborn and intolerant of fools. Both have hard visions of life and, though liberal in outlook, are sceptical about the possibility of social or political progress. Moreover, the paths of their fiction seem to be converging. Their latest novels, certainly, are strikingly alike.
We should start, though, with the differences. The most obvious is style. To put it crudely: Roth writes in very long sentences, and Coetzee writes in very short ones. Words pour out of Roth. Reading him, one senses that he has almost too much to say. The frantic, frenzied quality of his prose results, in part, from the feeling that sentences are inadequate to the task of accommodating all that is in his head. And so, in much of his writing, he stretches them to their limit by layering closely related thought upon closely related thought, sub-clause upon sub-clause. The unusual thing about Roth’s writing—perhaps its defining feature—is that while his sentences are extremely long, they are also extremely taut. As James Wood once put it, his prose is “fibrous.” Not a word gets wasted.
Coetzee doesn’t waste words either, but the feeling that his prose inspires is very different. Whereas with Roth one senses an almost limitless fecundity being…