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by Bamber Gascoigne

J.M. Coetzee (b. 1940)


South-African novelist, critic, and translator, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. The violent history and politics of his native country, especially apartheid, has provided Coetzee much raw material for his work, but none of his books have been censored by the authorities. Often he has examined the effects of oppression within frameworks derived from postmodernist thought. Coetzee's reflective, unaffected and precise style cannot be characterized as experimental, but in his novels he has methodically broken the conventions of narration.

"He continues to teach because it provides him with a livelihood; also because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn learn nothing." (from Disgrace, 1999)

John Maxwell Coetzee, a descendant from 17th-century Dutch settlers, was born in Cape Town. His father was a lawyer and his mother a schoolteacher. In his memoir, Boyhood (1997), Coetzee portrayed himself as a sickly, bookish boys, who adored his freedom-loving mother: "I will not be a prisoner in this house, she says. I will be free." At home Cotzee spoke English and with other relatives Afrikaans – his parents wanted to be English. Coetzee studied both mathematics and literature at the University of Cape Town. After graduating, he moved to England, where he worked as an applications programmer (1962-63) in London. His evening Coetzee spent in the British Museum, "reading Ford Madox Ford, and the rest of the time tramping the cold streets of London seeking the meaning of life," as he later said. From London he moved to Bracknell, Berkshire, where he worked as a systems programmer for a computer company.

In 1969 Coetzee received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas with aa dissertation on Beckett. From 1968 to 1971 he taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo. While in Buffalo, Coetzee started to Write his first book, Dusklands (1974), which consists of two closely related novellas, one about America and Vietnam, the other, 'The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee', set in the 1760s. In 1972 he became a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, at that time an institution for whites, and was later appointed professor of literature. Since 2002 Coetzee has lived in Australia with his partner, Professor Dorothy Driver. In an interview he said, that "leaving a country is, in some respects, like the break-up of a marriage. It is an intimate matter." From 2014, Coetzee has been visiting professor at the Universidad de Nacional General San Martín.

Coetzee's works cannot be classified as belonging to any specific postmodernist intellectual current. His essays reveal interest in linguistics, generative grammar, stylistics, structuralism, semiotics, and deconstruction. The dilemmas of his novels are based on South African reality, but often presented in a timeless, metafictional form and carrying a plurality of meanings. In the Heart of the Country (1977), in which the central character is a rebellious, sexually deprived daughter of a sheepfarmer, Coetzee examined the conventions of the South African plaasroman, or farm novel. The calmly written torture scenes of Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) questioned the voyeuristic nature of fiction. The title of the novel referred to a poem by Constantin Cavafy: "and now, what will become of us without / barbarians? / These people were a kind of solution."

Life and Times of Michael K (1983) won the Booker Prize, but Coetzee did not attend the ceremonies. (In some sources, Coetzee's second name is Michael, or Marie.) The protagonist of the story, set in a future Cape Town and Karoo, is a descendant of Franz Kafka's characters, who never find out the meaning of their suffering, like the victim of the execution machine in the short story 'In der Strafkolonie' (1919). Michael K eventually ends up in a concentration camp. Cynthia Ozick wrote of the book: "Mr. Coetzee's subdued yet urgent lament is for the sadness of South Africa that has made dependents and parasites and prisoners of its own children, black and white."

Foe (1986) played with Daniel Defoe's classic novel Robinson Crusoe. In the story a woman, Susan Barton, shares the island with Robinson Cruso and Friday. "I am cast away. I am all alone," she says without getting any sympathy from Cruso, the cruel tyrant of his small empire. After they are rescued, Susan meets Daniel Foe and becomes his muse, whom he forgets. Friday remains mute, his tongue is cut, and he is never allowed to tell his own tale. In The Master of Petersburg (1994) the protagonist is the famous Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who tries to understand the death of his stepson, Pavel Alexandrovich Isaev. In his sorrow he takes the role of Orpheus: "He thinks of Orpheus walking backwards step by step, whispering the dead woman's name, coaxing her out of the entrails of hell; of the wife in graveclothes with he blind, dead eyes following him, holding out limp hands before her like a sleepwalker. No flute, no lyre, just the word, the one word, over and over." Coetzee himself has lost his son. He died in a mysterious fall from a high balcony.

Before producing Age of Iron (1990) Coetzee also suffered from a personal tragedy - his ex-wife died of cancer. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) started Coetzee's semi-autobiographical series, which continued in Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002). Both works are written in the third person. "Boyhood and Youth, after all, aren't an objective record of Coetzee's young life," William Deresiewicz wrote in The New York Times (July 7, 2002), "they are the 50-something Coetzee's reconstruction, seven or eight novels later, of that life." The third volume of the autobiography, Summertime (2009), introduces a fictional character, Vincent, who serves as a biographer of the author – already dead. Basically, the novel is a continuation of Coetzee's existentialist narrative practices, which manifest in his creative process as masks, impersonality, and the complex play between what is hidden and what is revealed. "Are all autobiographies, all life-narratives, not fictions," asks Coetzee in The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy (2016), "at least in the sense that they are constructions. . . ." 

The Childhood of Jesus (2013), set in an unnamed Hispanic country, is an allegorical novel dealing with the construction of memory and identity but also touching upon topical issues, such as the plight of immigrant workers. When the five-year-old David arrives in the new land with Simón, who is taking care of him, he asks, what are we here for. Simón's answer is: "We have been given a chance to live and we have accepted that chance. It is a great thing, to live. It is the greatest thing of all." There are many references to the philosophy of reincarnation; Simón is the earlier name of St. Peter the Apostle. He tells Davis that death is a great adventure, "to start anew, to be washed clean." Originally Coetzee had hoped that the novel would appear with a blank cover and a blank title page. David's story continued in  The Schooldays of Jesus (2016). In The Death of Jesus (2019), which completed the trilogy, it is still hidden from David, why he is here – why he is where he is.

In Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (2003) Coetzee invented his female alter ego, a famous writer, who travels all over the world and gives speeches and academic lectures. In the United States she discusses and analyzes Kafka's monkey story 'A Report to the Academy' (lesson 1), in England at the fictional Appleton College she drew a parallel between gas chambers and the breeding of animals for slaughter (lesson 3), and in Amsterdam her subject is the problem of evil (lesson 6). As a material Coetzee used his own academic lectures, but at the same time he strips bare Costello's intellectual lifestyle – although her arguments are always fresh and seductive, the result of all her theoretizing is that she starts resemble more and more the copy of Kafka's primate, whose basic predicletions and moral ideas are contrary to the real world. Costello resurfaced in Slow Man (2005), about a misanthropic photographer, who has lost his leg in an accident and who falls in love with a married Croat woman. In this story the protagonist is perhaps a figure imagined by Costello.

For further reading: Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J.M. Coetzee by A.R. Penner (1989); A Story of South Africa: J.M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context by Susan V. Gallagher (1991); Doubling the Point: J.M. Coetzee, Essays and Interviews, ed. by D. Atwell (1992); J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing by David Attwell (1993); The Writings of J.M. Coetzee, ed by Michael Valdez Moses (1994); Critical Perspectives on J.M. Coetzee, ed. by Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson, introduction by Nadine Gordimer (1996); Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African Writing: Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J.M. Coetzee by Rosemary Jane Jolly (1996); Pen And Power.A Post-Colonial Reading of J.M. Coetzee and Andre Brink by Sue Kossew (1996); J. M. Coetzee by Dominic Head (1998); Critical Essays on J.M. Coetzee, ed. by Sue Kossew (1998); Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning: J.M. Coetzee, Wilson Harris, and Toni Morrison by Sam Durrant (2003); J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with Time by David Attwell (2016); J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus: The Ethics of Ideas and Things, edited by Jennifer Rutherford and Anthony Uhlmann (2017); The Intellectual Landscape in the Works of J.M. Coetzee, edited by Tim Mehigan ans Christian Moser (2018); Reading Coetzee's Women, edited by Sue Kossew and Melinda Harvey (2019); J.M. Coetzee: Truth, Meaning, Fiction by Anthony Uhlmann (2020); Metaphysical Exile: on J.M. Coetzee's Jesus Fictions by Robert B. Pippin (2021); J.M. Coetzee and Neoliberal Culture by Andrew Gibson (2022)

Selected works:

  • Dusklands, 1974
    - Hämärän maat (suom. Seppo Loponen, 2007)
  • In the Heart of the Country, 1977 (US title: From the Heart of the Country)
    - Maan sydämessä (suom. Kimmo Rentola, 1986)
    - film 1985, prod. Daska Films, dir. by Marion Hänsel, starring Jane Birkin, Trevor Howard, John Matshikiza, Nadine Uwampa, Lourdes Christina Sayo
  • Waiting for the Barbarians, 1980
    - Barbaarit tulevat (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1983)
  • Life and Times of Michael K, 1983
    - Michael K:n elämä (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1984)
  • Foe, 1986
    - Foe (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1987)
  • A Land Apart: A Contemporary South African Reader, 1987 (with André Brink)
  • White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, 1988
  • Age of Iron, 1990
    - Rautakausi (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1990)
  • Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, 1992
  • The Master of Petersburg, 1994
    - Pietarin mestari (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1994)
  • Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, 1996
  • Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, 1997
    - Poikavuodet: kohtauksia syrjäisestä elämästä (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1999)
  • What is Realism?, 1997
  • Disgrace, 1999
    - Häpeäpaalu (suom. Seppo Loponen, 2000)
    - film 2008, dir. by Steve Jacobs, screenplay byAnna Maria Monticelli, starring John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney, Antoinette Engel, Paula Arundell
  • The Lives of Animals, 1999 (with Amy Gutmann)
  • The Humanities in Africa / Die Geisteswissenschaften in Afrika, 2001
  • Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986–1999, 2001
  • Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, 2002
    - Nuoruus: kohtauksia syrjäisestä elämästä II (suom. Seppo Loponen, 2003)
  • Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, 2003
    - Elizabeth Costello: Kahdeksan oppituntia (suom. Seppo Loponen, 2005)
  • The Slow Man, 2005
    - Hidas mies (suom. Seppo Loponen, 2006)
  • Diary of a Bad Year, 2007
    - Huonon vuoden päiväkirja (suom. 2010)
  • Summertime, 2009
  • Scenes from Provincial Life: Boyhood, Youth, Summertime, 2012
  • Here and Now: Letters (2008-2011), 2012 (with Paul Auster)
    - Tässä ja nyt: kirjeitä ystävyydestä (suomentaneet Erkki Jukarainen ja Seppo Loponen, 2013)
  • The Childhood of Jesus, 2013
    - Jeesuksen lapsuus (suomentanut Markku Päkkilä, 2014)
  • The Lives of Animals, 2016 (edited and introduced by Amy Gutmann)
  • The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, 2016 (with Arabella Kurtz)
  • The Schooldays of Jesus, 2016
  • The Death of Jesus, 2019
  • The Pole: A Novel, 2023

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