Coetzee and the Classic

At Three Lives not long ago, I picked up a copy of J.M. Coetzee’s Stranger Shores: Literary Essays.

It’s my first exposure to his criticism — unless you count his Nobel Lecture or Elizabeth Costello, which you might well do — and the use of autobiographical details in the initial essay, “What Is A Classic,” surprised and captivated me. Here’s an excerpt:

One Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1955, when I was fifteen years old, I was mooning around our back garden in the suburbs of Cape Town, wondering what to do, boredom being the main problem of existence in those days, when from the house next door I heard muic. As long as the music lasted, I was frozen, I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to by the music as music had never spoken to me before.

What I was listening to was a recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, played on the harpsichord. I learned this title only some time later, when I had become more familiar with what, at the age of fifteen, I knew only — in a somewhat suspicious and even hostile teenage manner — as “classical music.” The house next door had a transient student population; the student who was playing the Bach record must have moved out soon afterward, or lost his/her taste for Bach, for I heard no more, though I listened intently.

I do not come from a musical family. There was no musical instruction offered at the schools I went to, nor would I have taken it if it had been offered: in the colonies classical music was sissy. I could identify Khachaturian’s “Saber Dance,” the overture to Rossini’s William Tell, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble-Bee” — that was the level of my knowledge. At home we had no musical instrument, no record player. There was plenty of the blander American popular music on the radio (George Melachrino and his Silver Strings), but it made no great impact on me.

What I am describing is middle-class musical culture of the Age of Eisenhower, as it was to be found in the ex-British colonies, colonies that were rapidly becoming cultural provinces of the United States. The so-called classical component of that musical culture may have been European in origin, but it was Europe mediated and in a sense orchestrated by the Boston Pops.

And then the afternoon in the garden, and the music of Bach, after which everything changed. A moment of revelation which I will not call Eliotic — that would insult the moments of revelation celebrated in Eliot’s poetry — but of the greatest significance in my life nonetheless: for the first time I was undergoing the impact of the classic.

In Bach nothing is obscure, no single step is so miraculous as to surpass imitation. Yet when the chain of sounds is realized in time, the building process ceases at a certain moment to be the mere linking of units; the units cohere as a higher-order object in a way that I can only describe by analogy as the incarnation of ideas of exposition, complication, and resolution that are more general than music. Bach thinks in music. Music thinks itself in Bach.

More Coetzee: Ready Steady Book posts the first chapter of Derek Attridge’s J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event.


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