A couple of weeks ago, a reader wrote asking me where JM Coetzee took the quote "little enough, less than little" from in his novel Disgrace. It sounded like a corruption of Beckett to me, but I didn't know. Well, I'm informed today that the Coetzee line is taken from (inspired by) 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature-winner Wislawa Szymborska's The End and the Beginning. Her lines read:

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

As for Wislawa Szymborska, I'm afraid I got nothing! Shamefully, I'd never heard of her until my correspondent suggested to me that she was probably the source of Coetzee's quote. Faber have a Poems - New and Collected, 1957-97, Norton have Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska, so one of these will no doubt be my next stop. If anyone reading can tell me more, shoot.

UPDATE: Dave Lull (thanks Dave!) has just brought my attention to a blog Patrick wrote over at Anecdotal Evidence, back in August, about Szymborska's selection of prose pieces Nonrequired Reading:

Nonrequired Reading is unlike conventional collections of reviews in that the books she chooses, with few exceptions, are unabashedly unliterary. For decades Szymborska has written about books for newspapers in her native Poland, but she chooses her subjects from the sad stacks of rejects that accumulate in a book editor’s office – popular science and how-to books, celebrity biographies and volumes with titles such as The Encyclopedia of Assassinations, Wallpapering Your Home and The Private Lives of Three Tenors. Szymborska says she tried writing conventional reviews: “…that is, in each case I’d describe the nature of the book at hand, place it in some larger context, then give the reader to understand that it was better than some and worse than others.” Then, happy woman, she realized she had little interest in or gift for such writing.

Readers Comments

  1. Pretty decent essay in Parnassus, Vol 28 Nos. 1&2 "My Poet's Junk", Szymborska in Retrospect. As they say in Marketing "If you like Herbert and Holub, you're going to just love Szymborska!" You will not spend a better afternoon, than sitting down with her selected poems. The Faber edition is one of the few books that I buy over and over and gift to people.

  2. I'm always struck by the chance aspect of how successful a novelist is or isn't. I thought Waiting for the Barbarians was one of the best novels of the end of the milennium. But somehow, since then Disgrace and the rest haven't hit the same mark. This seems true for Charlotte Bronte as well, whereas Dickens was unstoppable. Like him or not, with the exception of Hard TImes he never fails to deliver. What do other people think? And will Zadie Smith ever improve upon White Teeth?????

  3. What does "hitting the mark" mean and "never fails to deliver" mean? Coetzee's extraordinary "Elizabeth Costello" exposes the complacent sentimentality at the heart of such cliches. But I suppose you might think these are what the novel should do if you think Bronte, Dickens and "White Teeth" represent anything but romantic confections.

  4. One more huge vote for Symborska here. Many, many poems of hers I love, and most are subtle beyond words. "A Contribution to Statistics" is one of those deceptively simple poems I've thought about a thousand times since I've read it:
    "Nonrequired Reading" is delightful in every way.

    David and Stephen remind me that some writers, like Coetzee, have a "project" that deepens and transforms itself over time, while others, like Dickens, have a "product" which extends its reach but doesn't change fundamentally. I may (and do) prefer projects to products, but I don't think questions of quality necessarily enter into it. My two cents. ;-)

  5. Stephen Mitchelmore, I agree with you. How anyone can dismiss "Elizabeth Costello" and "Disgrace"...well, actually, I can see it. It's all too common, for all the common reasons.

    Szymborska is an undending delight. As clear-eyed as Coetzee, but much less grim. Penelope Fitzgerald's like that too. Is it a woman thing, to be able to look frankly into the abyss and make a comedy from it.

    --Teju Cole

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