Coetzee, J. M. (9 February 1940 - )
J. M. Coetzee (9 February 1940 - )
Rand Afrikaans University
University of North Carolina at Asheville
This entry was expanded by Moseley from Marais’s Coetzee entry in DLB 225: South African Writers. See also the Coetzee entry in DLB 326: Booker Prize Novels, 1969-2005
BOOKS: Dusklands (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1974; London: Secker & Warburg, 1982; New York: Penguin, 1985);
In the Heart of the Country (London: Secker & Warburg, 1977; bilingual edition, Johannesburg: Ravan, 1978); republished as From the Heart of the Country (New York: Harper & Row, 1977);
Waiting for the Barbarians (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980; Johannesburg: Ravan, 1981; Harmondsworth, U.K. & New York: Penguin, 1982);
Life & Times of Michael K (London: Secker & Warburg, 1983; Johannesburg: Ravan, 1983; New York: Viking, 1984);
Foe (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986; Johannesburg: Ravan, 1986; New York: Viking, 1987);
Age of Iron (London: Secker & Warburg, 1990; New York: Random House, 1990);
Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, edited by David Attwell (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992);
The Master of Petersburg (London: Secker & Warburg, 1994; New York: Viking, 1994);
Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996);
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (London: Secker & Warburg, 1997; New York: Viking, 1997);
The Lives of Animals, by Coetzee and others, edited by Amy Gutmann (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999);
Disgrace (London: Secker & Warburg, 1999; New York: Viking, 1999);
The Novel in Africa, Doreen B. Townsend Center Occasional Papers, no. 17 (Berkeley, Cal.: Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, 1999);
The Humanities in Africa/Die Geisteswissenschaften in Afrika (Munich: Siemens Stiftung, 2001);
Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986-1999 (London: Secker & Warburg, 2001; New York: Viking, 2001);
Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (London: Secker & Warburg, 2002; New York: Viking, 2002);
Letter of Elizabeth, Lady Chandos, to Francis Bacon (Austin, Texas: Intermezzo, 2002);
Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (London: Secker & Warburg, 2003); published as Elizabeth Costello (New York: Viking, 2003);
His Man and He: Nobel Lecture, December 7, 2003 (London: Rees & O’Neill, 2004); published as Lecture and Speech of Acceptance, Upon the Award of the Nobel Prize, Delivered in Stockholm in December 2003 (New York: Penguin, 2004);
Slow Man (London: Secker & Warburg, 2005; New York: Viking, 2005).
OTHER: Marcellus Emants, A Posthumous Confession, translated by Coetzee, Library of Netherlandic Literature, volume 7 (Boston: Twayne, 1975; London: Quartet, 1986);
Wilma Stockenström, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, translated by Coetzee (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1983; London: Faber & Faber, 1983);
A Land Apart: A South African Reader, edited by Coetzee and André P. Brink (London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1986); republished as A Land Apart: A Contemporary South African Reader (New York: Viking, 1987);
Rutger Kopland, Memories of the Unknown, translated by James Brockway, introduction by Coetzee (London: Harvill, 2001);
Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless, translated by Shaun Whiteside, introduction by Coetzee (London k New York: Penguin, 2001);
Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands, translated and introduced by Coetzee (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003);
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock, introduction by Coetzee (London: Vintage, 2004; New York: Penguin, 2004).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS-UNCOLLECTED: “The Great South African Novel,” Leadership SA, 2 (1983): 74, 77, 79;
“The Novel Today,” Upstream: A Magazine of the Arts, 6 (1988): 2-5.
J. M. Coetzee published his first novel, Dusklands, in 1974. Since that time he has become one of South Africa’s leading writers; and increasingly, he has achieved a position at the forefront of contemporary writers in English. He was the first novelist to be twice awarded the London-based Booker Prize, given for the best novel of the year (for Life & Times of Michael K, 1983, and Disgrace, 1999). His international reputation was marked by the announcement in 2003 that he was that year’s Nobel Prize winner in Literature.
John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town on 9 February 1940 to an attorney father and a school-teacher mother. He spent most of his childhood in Cape Town and Worcester—a period of his life that he recalls in his autobiographical work Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997). A section of Boyhood is devoted to the holidays that Coetzee spent as a child on his uncle’s farm in the Karoo, the semidesert region of the Cape Province. In all probability his perennial fascination with the primeval aspect of the South African landscape stems from his boyhood visits to this region, which forms the main setting of his novel Life & Times of Michael K.
Coetzee’s parents were bloedsappe, Afrikaners who supported General Jan Smuts and dissociated themselves from the Afrikaner nationalist movement that eventually came to power in South Africa in 1948. Although Coetzee came from an Afrikaans-speaking background, he attended various English middle schools and, after graduating from a Roman Catholic boys’ school in 1956, went on to study English literature and mathematics at the University of Cape Town, receiving his B.A. in 1960 and M.A. in 1963. This bilingual upbringing has enabled Coetzee to depict English-and Afrikaans-speaking characters in his fiction with equal facility—an uncommon occurrence in South African literature, which, as part of the legacy of a divided society, usually is riddled with ethnic stereotypes.
Having found his studies at the University of Cape Town, particularly in English, tedious, Coetzee left South Africa for England in 1962 to pursue a career as a computer programmer, working for International Business Machines (IBM) for two years and then for International Computers from 1964 to 1965. In his 2002 memoir/novel Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, the main character, John, enacts this same history, though the move to London is motivated by revulsion from South Africa and by artistic aspirations, and the career in computer programming is chosen almost inadvertently. Coetzee completed his master’s thesis in 1963 and married Philippa Jubber the same year; the couple has two children, Nicolas, born in 1966, and Gisela, born in 1968. Evidently, computer programming did not prove rewarding; John, in Youth, explains to an uncomprehending human resources officer, “I don’t find working for IBM very satisfying at a human level. I don’t find it fulfilling.” Under a Fulbright exchange program, Coetzee, after only four years in England, left for the United States and commenced work on a doctoral thesis in English at the University of Texas at Austin.
The time Coetzee spent at the University of Texas crucially influenced his development as a novelist. His doctoral research on the fiction of Samuel Beckett, for example, made a definite impression on his subsequent novelistic practice, as is evident in his use of minimalist scenarios and a limited number of characters. Moreover, in Texas, Coetzee first encountered reports and accounts of the Khoi people, written by early European explorers, travelers, and missionaries in South Africa; these documents provided the germ for his first work, Dusklands, specifically for “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee.” Another important influence from this period on his writing was the Vietnam War, which reached its height during his stay in the United States. The war affected Coetzee deeply, and, besides prompting him to take part in an antiwar demonstration (for which he was arrested), it impelled him to a comparison of U.S. colonialism with South African colonialism. As David Attwell contends in his essay “The Problem of History in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee” (1990), Coetzee “could scarcely avoid associating the spectacle of the bombing of Vietnam with the legacy he was trying to shake off as a South African.” This association led directly to the creation of Dusklands.
Coetzee stayed in the United States while writing his dissertation, which he completed in 1969; as an assistant professor he taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1968 to 1971. Dusklands was published two years after Coetzee’s return to South Africa to take up a lecturing position in English at the University of Cape Town in 1972. Written partly in America and partly in South Africa, it consists of two novellas, “The Vietnam Project” and “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” set in America and South Africa, respectively. “The Vietnam Project” takes place during the Vietnam War and deals with the endeavors of Eugene Dawn, an expert in psychological warfare, to design a propaganda policy that will undermine the foundations of Vietnamese culture and render the North Vietnamese subservient to the United States. By contrast, the second novella is set in eighteenth-century South Africa and centers on the exploration of the South African interior and subsequent extermination of an aboriginal tribe by Jacobus Coetzee, an historically verifiable personage and distant forebear of the author himself.
Geographically separate and at a temporal remove of two centuries, these two novellas initially appear to be completely independent. The title of the combined text, however, by implication classifies both the United States and South Africa as “dusklands” and thus suggests that they have something in common—a shared history of colonialism. Coetzee, in a 1978 interview with Stephen Watson, describes the South African colonial condition as “only one manifestation of a wider historical situation to do with colonialism, late colonialism, neo-colonialism.” Moreover, apart from the commonality of theme and analogous historical situations hinted at by the title, the name “Coetzee” is used in both novellas in Dusklands; Eugene Dawn’s immediate superior is named Coetzee, and the second sentence of the novella is “Coetzee has asked me to revise my essay.” This further evidence of the links between them confirms the intimation that they operate contrapuntally in their exploration of the metaphysics of colonialism. In terms of its structure, however, the U.S. invasion of Vietnam in “The Vietnam Project” precedes the European invasion of southern Africa in “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee.” This inversion of the actual temporal sequence of these historical occurrences suggests that history, rather than manifesting a linear progression through time, statically repeats itself.
In its depiction of two self-doubting and egocentric protagonists who seek to affirm their reality by positing themselves in opposition to an “other,” Dusklands describes Western colonialism as an epiphenomenon of the divided consciousness of Western humanity. It is depicted as a symptom of a specific epistemological and ontological condition: in order to constitute itself, the self has to attempt to “know” the other. Being grounded in Western consciousness, this “mental aberration” is not confined to a particular period, place, or economic structure. As long as the struggle for recognition that it activates continues, history is bound to repeat itself. Furthermore, as the novel makes clear, this struggle manifests itself on both individual and national planes in the rampant desire to affirm a vestigial sense of identity.
International critical response to Dusklands was slow in coming but generally favorable. Reviewing the novel in Africa Today (1980), Peter LaSalle detected in the work “a fullness that is utterly real, without the extremes of one-dimensional, deadpan moralizing or equally one-dimensional, comic caricaturing that have marked, and marred, so much fiction about Africa by both blacks and whites.” Locally, Dusklands elicited immediate attention. Described as the advent of “the modern novel in English” in South Africa by Jonathan Crewe in Contrast (1974) and as a welcome departure from “South African liberal realism” by Watson in Research in African Literatures (1986), its appearance on what was perceived to be a literary scene in serious danger of stagnation was welcomed. Although admired by many critics for its aesthetic innovations, this work has been persistently criticized on political grounds for neglecting the material factors of oppression in its portrayal of colonialism. Peter Knox-Shaw, for example, concludes a perceptive reading of the text with the reservation that “It is regrettable that a writer of such considerable and varied talents should play down the political and economic aspects of history in favor of a psychopathology of Western life.” This criticism of the oblique relation to history of Dusklands has, in various permutations, become the basis of a growing local critique of all of Coetzee’s novels.
By the time of the publication of his second novel, In the Heart of the Country (1977), Coetzee had spent twelve years teaching and was well established in his academic post at the University of Cape Town. As an unpublished address he gave to the Aquarius Workshop, a student group, on 22 April 1975 shows, however, he had not fallen prey to the complacency and self-deception of what he termed the academic who “thinks of himself as a member of a critical intelligentsia that is in the political community but not of it.” On the contrary, he was acutely aware of the ideological implications of a career as a writer-academic. In this address, “The Writer and the University: Notes on the Economics of Writing,” he touches on the ambivalence inherent in being paid by the State but simultaneously “protected by the tradition of academic free speech,” a tradition he skeptically defines as “the union rule of academics that an academic may say what he wishes, under certain circumstances, provided that he does not go beyond the bounds of the liberal ideology.” Two years later these intimations of self-censorship in the liberal academic milieu were thrown into relief by the more concrete hazards of writing in a country where political repression extends tangibly to the cultural domain: before being cleared for general circulation, a consignment of the first edition of In the Heart of the Country was impounded for a brief period by South African customs officials.
In addition to having been embargoed, In the Heart of the Country had an interesting publication history. The original manuscript combined English text with Afrikaans dialogue. To facilitate acceptance by a British publisher for distribution on the international market, however, Coetzee translated the dialogue into English. Thus, the novel exists in two editions: a wholly English edition, first published in Great Britain by Secker and Warburg in 1977, and a South African edition that appeared under the Ravan Press imprint in 1978 and presents the text in its original bilingual form.
In the Heart of the Country is similar to Dusklands in that it is presented in epistolary form as the interior monologue of a deranged narrator. The protagonist of the later novel is Magda, a woman who lives with her father and their servants, Klein-Anna and Hendrik, on a remote and lonely sheep farm somewhere in South Africa, probably the Karoo. The exact geographical location of this setting is not stipulated, and neither is the historical period in which the action occurs—the first of many indeterminacies in this highly ambivalent novel. Such ambiguities are immediately apparent from the opening paragraph, in which Magda recalls watching her remarried father returning home: “Today my father brought home his new bride. They came clip-clop across the flats in a dog-cart drawn by a horse with an ostrich-plume waving on its forehead, dusty after the long haul. Or perhaps they were drawn by two plumed donkeys, that is also possible.” The final result of this obfuscatory technique is that the novel defies any coherent reconstruction of its plot. So, for example, it is not clear whether Magda, who is jealous of the sexual relationship that her father may or may not have contrived with Klein-Anna, does or does not murder him. In fact, the text undermines all certainty by providing the reader with two accounts of the putative murder; yet, after each account the father reappears later in the story. What follows the purported murder is equally ambivalent: Magda attempts to regain her position of mastery over Hendrik and Klein-Anna but, upon failing, tries to form an egalitarian relationship with them. Hendrik, however, seemingly rapes her and then, together with Klein-Anna, deserts the farm.
Among all this indeterminacy, however, there are several concerns in this novel that the reader familiar with Dusklands will readily be able to identify, such as the relationship of dominance and subservience that underpins the father-child and master-slave relations. Furthermore, Magda’s apparent murder of her father, which brings about a change in the relationships of dominance and subservience in In the Heart of the Country, is reminiscent of the transposable relationships in Dusklands—for instance, Jacobus Coetzee’s forfeiture of his position of mastery and selfhood in the course of his encounter with the Khoi. Moreover, the mythical archetype of patricide can be found in Eugene Dawn’s “New Life for Vietnam” report in “The Vietnam Project.” Part of Eugene Dawn’s study involves the formulation of a strategy to counter the Vietnamese myth of the demise of the father, a myth described as “a justification of the rebellion of sons against a father who uses them as hinds. The sons come of age, rebel, mutilate the father and divide the patrimony.”
The political significance of the patricidal myth, together with Magda’s depiction of her “masterful father” as an authoritarian, retributive patriarch, suggests a reading of In the Heart of the Country in which the hierarchy on the farm forms a microcosm of the South African political situation, with the farm representing South Africa itself; the father the Afrikaner baas, or the Afrikaner government; and Klein-Anna and Hendrik the oppressed black race. If the novel is read in this way, then the killing of the father could be construed as the end of the old apartheid order, which is premised upon the traditional roles of master and servant or dominance and subservience. Magda’s attempts to forge a new and equal relationship with Hendrik and Klein-Anna could be seen as an attempt, in the interregnum following the death of the old order, to establish a new order that is not premised on power relations. Such a reading, however, runs the serious risk of simplifying, to the point of absurdity, an extraordinarily complex text. It fails, for example, to account for the enigmatic ending of the novel and its exploration of the part played by language, as a political weapon, in reinforcing the hierarchical roles that maintain the established order. In this respect Lloyd Spencer rightly singles out language as the “new obsession” that distinguishes this novel from its predecessor.
The political role of language is directly referred to by Magda when she observes that she “was born in a language of hierarchy, of distance and perspective.” It is the “antique feudal language” that inscribes the division between subject and object, self and other, and master and servant that dictates Magda’s relationship with her servants. It is not the contravention of the color bar that annoys her about her father’s liaison with Klein-Anna but his “violation” of the old language of division: “I am a conserver rather than a destroyer, perhaps my rage at my father is simply rage at the violations of the old language, the correct language, that take place when he exchanges kisses and pronouns of intimacy with a girl who yesterday scrubbed the floors and today ought to be cleaning the windows.” The “pronouns of intimacy” referred to are, of course, the first-person-plural pronouns “we” and “us” that bridge the division between subject and object, “I” and “you,” which underpins the language of separation or apartheid. This underpinning emerges in another extraordinary linguistic description by Magda of her father’s relationship with Klein-Anna: “My father is exchanging forbidden words with Klein-Anna.... Ons[We], he is saying to her, ons twee [we two]; and the word reverberates in the air between them.... How can I speak to Hendrik as before when they corrupt my speech? How do I speak to them?” For the old order to conserve itself, language must function as a medium of separation rather than a means of intercourse. As such, social intercourse between self and other is more to be feared than sexual intercourse.
Following her father’s death, which symbolizes the collapse of the old order, Magda attempts to reassert the relationship of dominance and subservience on the farm. She fails, however, owing to the disintegration of what she calls the “father -tongue”: “The language that should pass between myself and these people has been subverted by my father and cannot be recovered.” She then attempts to realize her fantasy of an egalitarian new order. And, as her words to Klein-Anna indicate, she is acutely aware that the institution of anarchic relationships requires the creation of a new language of equality: “I have never learned the speech of men, ek wou slegs praat, ek het nooit geleer hoe ’n mens met ’n ander mens praat nie [I only wanted to talk, I never learned how a person talks to another person].... I have never known words of true exchange, wisselbare woorde [exchangeable words], Anna. Woorde wat ek aan jou kan gee kan jy nie teruggee nie [Words that I can give you, you cannot return]. Hulle is woorde sonder waarde [They are words without value]. Verstaan jy [Do you understand]? No value.” It is her desire to replace this language of division with a language of exchange that leads her to establish a sexual relationship with Hendrik. By means of this relationship she clearly wishes to replicate her father’s affair with Klein-Anna, one that she suspects was conducted through “forbidden words” and “pronouns of intimacy.” Rather than being equal, however, her relationship with Hendrik is characterized by the will to power and the language of alienation, as is made clear by Hen-drik’s rape of her: “He has forced his way into me. I toss from side to side and weep, but he is relentless.... Almal kry lekker [everyone enjoys it],’ he says harshly. Are those his words?” Thus she comes to realize that “There has been no transfiguration” of the roles of dominance and subservience, that they have simply been reversed, not changed.
The novel ends with Magda, now alone on the farm, pleading with “sky -creatures” whom she believes are sending her messages. Significantly, one of her main pleas is for a language that entrenches anarchic rather than power relations: “Why will no one speak to me in the true language of the heart? The medium, the median—that is what I wanted to be! Neither master nor slave, neither parent nor child, but the bridge between, so that in me the contraries should be reconciled!” And in her abortive attempt to converse with these creatures she devises a language that can only be described as a composite of the Indo-European group of languages. The suggestion seems to be that Magda’s failure to create a language of exchange is not to be seen as a personal failure but should instead be attributed to the fact that the languages that have formed her consciousness of self and other inscribe subject positions of dominance. In this regard, Michael Vaughan contends that “The whole of Western civilization is implicated in the drive towards subjugation and mastery.”
As with Dusklands, then, this novel ultimately emerges as an exploration of the cognitive structures that govern the West’s imperial will to power. And, once again, this concern with the epistemological dimension of power, rather than its material conditions, dissatisfied some South African critics, such as Vaughan, who believe that endeavors of this kind do not constitute effective political protest. Such criticism, of course, ignores the materiality of language and discourse. It fails to see that discourse and material situations are closely interrelated, that the former may generate the latter.
Detractors of the novel also contend that characters such as Magda, enthralled as they are by a Western colonial consciousness, represent the impotence of the individual, his/her inability to change the political status quo. Thus, Vaughan, for example, considers Coetzee’s novels to be a response to the “patent ineffectuality of liberal ideas and strategies” that are premised on “an ontology of individual freedom.” As far as Vaughan is concerned, then, protest, which presupposes a theory of individual agency, is simply “not available to Coetzee as a strategy.” Apart from this line of criticism, the novel has been praised for its artistry and intellectuality. Spencer, for example, regards it as the “most brilliant” and also the “most forbidding” of Coetzee’s novels, one that pushes “the novel of ideas to the borders of impenetrability.”
In South Africa In the Heart of the Country received both the Central News Agency (CNA) Prize, the country’s premier literary award, and the Mofolo-Plomer Literary Prize. A 1985 Franco-Belgian motion-picture adaptation of the novel, Dust, starred Jane Birkin as Magda and Trevor Howard as her father. Marion Hänsel, who directed and wrote the screenplay, won the Silver Lion for Best First Work at the Venice Film Festival.
With the publication of Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Coetzee’s third novel, it became evident that the politics of colonization constituted a recurrent theme in his fiction. Set in the frontier settlement of a state referred to simply as the Third Empire, the novel opens with the arrival from the capital of Colonel Joll to crush a rumored barbarian rebellion on the frontier. This opening sets the stage for another encounter between colonizer and colonized. Yet, by the end of the novel, Joll has failed to engage with the phantom barbarians, upon which he and his demoralized troops retreat to the capital, leaving the fortress town once more in the control of its magistrate, the unnamed protagonist of the novel. In the interview with Watson in 1978, a period during which he, in all probability, was writing Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee commented that “in a way it’s easier and more difficult being a writer in South Africa than in Western European countries; because there are such gigantic subjects of such unassailable importance facing a writer in South Africa.” For Coetzee, one of these “gigantic subjects” is obviously the colonial dialectic, a subject of such “unassailable importance” that writing about it is not so much a matter of choice as a matter of necessity. This compulsion constitutes a form of determinism that limits the writer’s freedom of choice, and this, in turn, is one of the difficulties that Coetzee perceives of being a writer in South Africa.
As with its geography, the historical period in which Waiting for the Barbarians is set is not specified. Leon Whiteson, among others, considers this lack of specificity a technical failing, arguing: “The geography is garbled: there is desert and snow, lizards and bears.” However, as Lance Olsen points out, this indeterminacy is calculated to “jam our notions of where and when.” The writer himself, in an interview with Dick Penner, makes the same point: “I just put together a variety of locales and left a lot of things vague with a very definite intention that it shouldn’t be pinned down to some specific place.” By refraining from establishing the setting and period, Coetzee signals his intention to explore the epistemology and ontology of colonialism. In other words, he refuses to posit history as an a priori fact and, instead, attempts to represent that which generates it. The emphasis is therefore again on the cognitive structures that create material realities.
The nebulous aspect of the setting of the novel-evident, for example, in its “jumbled” geography that is diffusely described at one point as a “haze of desert”— also emphasizes the unreality of Empire. Like the United States and South Africa in Coetzee’s first novel, the frontier here is a “duskland” whose inhabitants have to assert their reality by defining themselves in contradistinction to another cultural group. This group’s identity as “barbarians” is thus largely a creation of Empire, an ideological construct that validates Empire’s sense of its own significance by affirming its status as a superior, civilized culture. In the absence of this construct, Empire cannot exist. As the novel proceeds, however, it becomes increasingly evident that the native inhabitants of the area do not fit the role of “barbarian” and “foe” that Empire has created for them. In fact, the title of the novel, by alluding to Constantine Cavafy’s 1904 poem of the same title in which the barbarians never arrive, suggests that the “barbarians” will never attack the settlement. By not doing so, they fail to conform to Empire’s expectations with regard to the manner in which “barbarians” behave and thus fail to endorse the identity that has been thrust upon them. By consistently refusing to adopt an oppositional position in relation to Empire, the colonial other resists all imposed identities and consequently remains an absence in the colonial record.
During the first year of publication, Waiting for the Barbarians received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Award, and the CNA Literary Prize for 1980. It was, as Penner contended, “Coetzee’s most highly praised and probably his most widely read work” to that point. Despite this overwhelmingly favorable response, however, there has been critical discontent with Coetzee’s refusal to specify historical place and time. In addition to Whiteson’s critique, Irving Howe has complained that this lack of specificity leads to a loss of “urgency,” a lack of “bite and pain.” This criticism resurfaces in Paul Rich’s argument that Coetzee’s “vision of empire” lacks “any understanding of the historical forces that produce actual imperial systems at particular phases of history.” Vaughan takes issue with Coetzee for not providing any “material logic” for the oppression of the barbarians and for not offering a solution to the problems of colonialism.
Coetzee continued his demythologizing project in Life & Times of Michael K, a novel in which Michael K, a member of the oppressed majority in a futuristic South Africa embroiled in civil war, retreats from Cape Town to a farm in the Karoo, where he lives in a burrow and tends a vegetable patch. On the surface this novel, with its memoir-title reminiscent of the early novel of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its loose episodic structure, seems to be an eccentric reworking of the picaresque novel. Upon closer inspection, though, it becomes evident that this episodic design is informed by a recurring pattern of events in which Michael K is first colonized and then escapes. Starting with the opening scene of the novel, in which Anna K, with the assistance of a midwife, gives birth to her son, Michael K, each of these sequences is depicted as a birth of sorts. In each of these cases, however, Michael K’s otherness palimpsestically reasserts itself after the linguistic colonization of being named and possessed—as becomes evident, for example, in his literal escape from the concentration camps.
This pattern of linguistic appropriation followed by escape includes not only Michael K but also the South African landscape. In the course of the novel, for example, the reader finds that the homestead, a sign of settlement in the Prince Albert district, is erased by explosives and that the Karoo farm reverts to veld. In other words, the space that the colonial enterprise attempted to domesticate, by, in the words of Jacobus Coetzee, “turning it into orchard and farm,” reasserts its original identity. Moreover, the fact that this novel is set in a future South Africa engaged in a revolutionary war suggests that the European culture that was inscribed on the subcontinent of Africa during the colonial era is in the process of being erased. In both the case of Michael K and the South African landscape, then, “the thing possessed,” to cite Coetzee’s observation on the representation of the South African landscape in Sidney Clouts’s poetry, “begins to mutate and shed its old name almost as soon as it is taken over by language.”
The analogy, verging on identity, between Michael K and the South African landscape is one of the most noteworthy features of the novel. It provides movement to what is otherwise a remarkably static and deliberately reiterative rather than progressive text, a narrative in which the protagonist undergoes no discernible psychological development—despite the clear allusion in the title to the subgenre of the bildungsroman. Indeed, Michael K is described as a “hard little stone, barely aware of its surroundings, enveloped in itself and its interior life,” and remarks of himself: “I was mute and stupid in the beginning, I will be mute and stupid at the end.” In the course of the novel, however, Michael K does gravitate from a “botanical” to a “geological” perspective in terms of his attitude toward the South African landscape, a terrain that Coetzee describes elsewhere as being “of rock, not of foliage.” This development is brought about by his move from the exotic, Europeanized landscape of Cape Town—that is, an initially alien landscape that has been legitimized or rewritten with imperial labels—to the more indigenous landscape of the Karoo, a region that gains its name from the Khoi word meaning “dry.”
By the end of the novel Michael K is able to liken himself to an earthworm and a mole—comparisons that suggest his fusion with the earth and echo his decision, on the Karoo farm, to live in a burrow rather than in the homestead, that is, to settle for, in Coetzee’s words in a different context, “an unsettled habitation in the landscape.” The suggestion is that Michael K is now able to recognize and identify with the “true” South Africa underlying the European labels, the South Africa that continually escapes the “frenzied application of European metaphor.” Significantly, the reader is told that Michael K “could not imagine himself spending his life driving stakes into the ground, erecting fences, dividing up the land.”
Michael K’s fusion with the landscape also suggests the bridging of the Cartesian split between self and world, a split that has characterized the consciousness of all Coetzee’s protagonists thus far. The reason for the significant change in consciousness introduced by this novel is that it, unlike Coetzee’s previous texts, is told, for the most part, from the perspective of the colonized rather than the colonizer, a technical change that culminates in a shift in emphasis from the colonizing impulse itself to the escape from such attempts. Apart from the matter of Cartesian consciousness, some remarkable effects are achieved by this shift in point of view. For instance, it accounts for the fact that, in a novel set in a country that is obsessed with racial classification, Michael K’s racial identity is never mentioned. As Coetzee said in a 6 March 1984 interview from which Dick Penner quotes in his Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee (1989), “Other people in the book can think of him what they want. The important thing is that he doesn’t.” The significant silence about race in the novel can therefore be construed as an analogue of the ultimate failure of the colonizer to confine the other in racial categories.
The response elicited by Life & Times of Michael K does not differ significantly from the pattern established by the reception of Coetzee’s earlier novels. On the one hand, it was widely acclaimed and awarded the prestigious Booker-McConnell Prize in Britain, the CNA Literary Award in South Africa, and the Prix Femina Etranger in France; on the other hand, the advocates of a form of historical realism responded in what by then had become predictable terms. Thus, fellow South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, in her review of the novel for the New York Review of Books (2 February 1994), praised Coetzee’s artistry but criticized the passivity of his “hero” and what she saw as an attempt to depict the realization of “an idea of survival... outside a political doctrine.”
Although these prescriptive criticisms have been widely debated, the most intriguing response to them thus far has been from Coetzee himself. Over the years he has consistently refused to discuss his work in any but the most general terms, let alone react to formal criticism of it. It is therefore remarkable that in an interview with Attwell, published in the volume edited by Attwell, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992), Coetzee responded directly and in detail to this line of criticism with its implicit charge that he should have written a different book, one in which Michael K joins the band of guerrillas that visits the Karoo farm:
One writes the books one wants to write. One doesn’t write the books one doesn’t want to write. The emphasis falls not on one but on the word want in all its own resistance to being known. The book about going off with the guerillas, the book in the heroic tradition, is not a book I wanted-to-write, wanted enough to be able to bring off, however much I might have wanted to have written it—that is to say, wanted to be the person who had successfully brought off the writing of it.
Instead of responding to Gordimer’s criticism on its own terms, that is, by clarifying his position on the relation of Life & Times of Michael K to the public, political arena, Coetzee responded in terms of the assumed privacy of the experience of writing, an experience that, he stated earlier in the interview, places him in a realm that is governed by forces and prescriptions other than those prevalent in the public arena: “The novel becomes less a thing than a place where one goes every day for several hours a day for years on end. What happens in that place has less and less discernible relation to the daily life one lives or the lives people are living around one. Other forces, another dynamic, take [sic] over.”
In 1986 Coetzee taught at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, as Hinkley Professor of English, a one-semester appointment he received again in 1989. In his next novel, Foe (1986), Coetzee departed altogether from the South African geopolitical context. The first section of the novel is set on a deserted island and constitutes a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Susan Barton, the castaway narrator of Foe. It deals with her stay on the island and focuses primarily on the relationship of Cruso (Coetzee’s spelling) with Friday. In the second section the island is replaced by Defoe’s house in England, and the focus falls on Susan Barton’s relationship with Friday. Although on the surface the settings of this novel appear to constitute a departure from those encountered in Coetzee’s previous novels, they actually duplicate scenarios with which the reader is familiar from these works: typically, a man or woman in a deserted landscape or house. In all these cases, with the exception of Michael K, the protagonist adopts a position of mastery in relation to that which is beyond him or her. It could therefore be argued that Foe lays bare the fact that the minimalist scenarios sketched out in Coetzee’s various narratives are all, in Allan Gardiner’s phrase, “encounters of the Robinsonian kind.”
Given his fascination with the colonization process, it is not surprising that so many of Coetzee’s novels reenact the Robinson Crusoe paradigm with its classic encounter between colonizer and colonized and the dialectic of self and other that informs this relationship. After all, Robinson Crusoe, as a literary reflection of the expansive imperialist thrust of Europeans that started in the seventeenth century, has over the centuries gained the status of a folktale of white empire. One could even go as far as to say that this fable forms a paradigm of the conventional Western mode of thinking about the cultural other. This reason seems to be behind Coetzee’s decision to rework Defoe’s novel, for which he wrote the introduction to the 1999 Oxford World’s Classics edition.
Many of Coetzee’s changes to the story affect the racial dimension of the relationship of master to servant that pertains between Cruso and Friday and that forms the subject of part 1 of the novel. Rather than the “comely, handsome” European-looking Carib with skin that is “not quite black, but very tawny ... of a bright kind of dun olive colour that had in it something very agreeable” of Defoe’s story, Friday, in Coetzee’s hands, becomes an African whose features and complexion are described by Susan Barton as: “the small dull eyes, the broad nose, the thick lips, the skin not black but a dark grey, dry as if coated with dust.” Clearly this change is calculated to emphasize the racial aspect of the relationship between Cruso and Friday. Another significant change that Coetzee introduces to the Robinson Crusoe story is his reduction of Defoe’s highly loquacious Robinson Crusoe to a laconic hater of words. Furthermore, Friday, who in the original develops into a fairly adept user of pidgin English, in Coetzee’s text becomes a mute whose tongue has been cut out. The effect of this change is to highlight the strictly utilitarian use to which language is put on the island. Thus, Susan Barton ascertains that Friday’s vocabulary is limited to words of command—that while he, for example, understands the functional word firewood, which denotes a commodity that he fetches when ordered to do so, he does not understand the generic word wood. And, when she asks Cruso how many “words of English” Friday knows, he responds by saying: “As many as he needs.... This is not England, we have no need of a great stock of words.” Language on Coetzee’s island emerges as a tool of empire that is used to dominate the other. In fact, this emphasis on language as an instrument of power gains a metafictional dimension when Susan Barton refers to “the new Friday whom Cruso created.” Like the author of a character, Cruso through language creates an identity for his mute slave by naming him Friday.
Part 2 of the novel marks a shift from the silence of the island to the social world of England, referred to by Susan Barton as the “world of words.” On the surface this change of setting initially appears to juxtapose the malignant use of language as an instrument of domination with a more benign use of language as a means to freedom, that is, Susan Barton’s attempt through language to free Friday—to, in her words, “educate him out of darkness and silence” and “to build a bridge of words over which, when one day it is grown sturdy enough, he may cross to the time before Cruso.” As the novel progresses, however, it becomes increasingly evident that this well-intentioned attempt at voicing the other is, in fact, no different from attempts at silencing it. Thus, Susan Barton eventually comes to realize that, like Cruso, she, too, has through language become the author and determiner of Friday’s existence: “Friday has no command of words and therefore no defence against being re-shaped day by day in conformity with the desires of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal. … What he is to the world is what I make of him.” As Gayatri Spivak has suggested, ”Foe, in history, is the site where the line between friend and foe is undone.”
Like Michael K, however, Friday resists such attempts at linguistic appropriation. Although his silence initially appears to render him vulnerable to linguistic reification, it is in fact the means through which he resists the languages of imperialism. By virtue of his inaccessible silence, Friday preserves his difference, his status as other, and avoids assimilation by the West.
In South Africa Foe has been harshly dealt with by critics who insist that fiction writing should supplement history. Instead of engaging with a recognizable South African social and political context (or so their argument goes), this novel perversely escapes (or retreats) into postmodernist theorizing and games playing—a mode of writing and theoretical discourse that such readers consider inappropriate in the South African political context. Michael Chapman’s attack on Foe is the most extreme of the responses elicited by this novel in South Africa: “In our knowledge of the human suffering on our own doorstep of thousands of detainees who are denied recourse to the rule of law, Foe does not so much speak to Africa as provide a kind of masturbatory release, in this country, for the Europeanising dreams of an intellectual coterie.”
In what has been interpreted as a response to such negative critiques, Coetzee, in a talk given at the 1987 Weekly Mail Book Week in Johannesburg, outlined his views on the relation of his novels to history. After commenting on the tendency of South African critics “to subsume the novel under history, to read novels as …imaginative investigations of …real historical circumstances; and conversely, to treat novels that do not perform this investigation …as lacking in seriousness,” he argued for the legitimacy of a novelistic practice that, in the process of evolving “its own paradigms and myths,” demythologizes history. Equally telling, in this regard, is Coetzee’s response to a question in a 1987 interview with Tony Morphet on whether Foe could be seen as “a retreat from the South African situation”: “Foe is a retreat from the South African situation in a narrow temporal perspective. It is not a retreat from the subject of colonialism or from questions of power.”
In 1987 Coetzee was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society for Life & Times of Michael K. In his acceptance speech he remarked on the manner in which the South African state’s structures of power have created “deformed and stunted relations between human beings” and on the extent to which literary representations of life in this country “no matter how intense … suffer from the same stunted-ness and deformity.” He then commented that South African literature “is a literature of bondage.…a less than fully human literature.” A few years later he published Age of Iron (1990), a novel that focuses on the deforming impact of apartheid structures on life and art in South Africa.
Age of Iron differs from its predecessors in that it deals quite explicitly with contemporary political realities in South Africa. The setting is specified as Cape Town, and, although the date is not provided, various details situate the novel temporally in the winter of 1986, a period in South African history that, as the title of the novel suggests, was characterized by unmitigated violence, bloodshed, and political intransigence. It was a time of death not only for the country as a whole but also for Coetzee personally, who, during the writing of the novel, lost four relatives—his former wife (the couple had divorced in 1980), both parents, and his son, Nicolas. Not surprisingly, then, the novel is, as Malvern Van Wyk Smith claims, “a meditation on death, on many levels.”
Its protagonist, Mrs. Curren, is an elderly woman suffering from terminal cancer who, on the day she is informed of the incurability of her condition, encounters in her backyard a mysterious tramp named Vercueil. The latter, she thus infers, is an angel of death. The other relationships in the novel are also marked by death: Mrs. Curren’s domestic servant, Florence, harbors two teenage “comrades” (activists for the African National Congress [ANC]) in her quarters, one of whom is her son and both of whom die violently in the course of the novel. Even the settings are tainted by death: Mrs. Curren’s house is in an advanced state of decay, and so is the country as a whole. Moreover, Mrs. Curren’s visit to the township while assisting Florence in her search for her missing son is metaphorically depicted as a visit to Hades, and the township is physically described as a “zone of killing and degradation.” It comes as no surprise that this bleak novel ends with the implied death of Mrs. Curren herself—a conclusion that is conveyed in the form of a letter that itself is defunct since, as Van Wyk Smith points out, it is addressed to Mrs. Curren’s daughter in Canada “who is, to all intents and purposes, ‘dead.’”
In terms of its depiction of relationships of power, Age of Iron follows a similar pattern to Coetzee’s earlier novels. The by now familiar scenario in which one character attempts to re-create another is repeated in this novel in Mrs. Curren’s relationship with Vercueil. Although their interaction is realistically portrayed and set in a specified urban setting, a network of allusions and references to the Circe myth from Homer’s The Odyssey make it clear that this relationship constitutes yet another island encounter “of the Robinsonian kind.” Whereas Circe attempts to turn Odysseus into a pig, Mrs. Curren endeavors to turn Vercueil into a manservant and angel of death. Both, however, fail in these attempts at re-creation. Odysseus receives from Hermes the mythical herb moly, which renders him immune to Circe’s spells, while Vercueil’s silence and addiction to alcohol protect him from Mrs. Curren’s authorial endeavors.
Although Coetzee’s treatment of this relationship follows a clearly recognizable course, the same cannot be said of Mrs. Curren’s relationship to Florence and her children, which eventually forms the subject of a metafictional meditation on the status of art in South Africa. In developing this relationship, Coetzee sets up an opposition between white suburbia and black township life in South Africa, an opposition that is emphasized by Mrs. Curren’s visit to Guguletu township, during which she is confronted with a “looming world of rage and violence” where people are “revealed in their true names.” The indubitable reality of this “otherworld” questions the reality of her own white bourgeois environment, which occludes it in media representations of South Africa as “a land of smiling neighbours.” Thus, as Mrs. Curren comes to realize following her visit to the township, the very fabric of her society is baseless, a fiction manufactured by the social engineers of apartheid.
In protest, Mrs. Curren contemplates burning herself outside the House of Parliament, which she refers to as the “House of Lies.” She hopes, by immolating herself in this way, to “redeem” herself and “rise above my times.” But, as she eventually realizes, such an act would be “deeply false,” not the innocent self-effacing gesture of protest it purports to be, but a self-affirming “spectacle,” calculated both to rid her of the strong sense of unreality that plagues her following her visit to the township and to gain her recognition from the “otherworld.” Hence her obsession with Florence’s imagined reaction to the “spectacle,” were she to see it. Significantly, her speculations in this regard culminate with the dream in which “Florence does not stop to watch. Gaze fixed ahead, she passes as if through a congregation of wraiths.” Like the representations of the cultural other in Coetzee’s earlier novels, Florence refuses to acknowledge the doubting self’s existence and thereby enable it to affirm its reality.
There is a strong indication in these passages that Mrs. Curren’s “spectacle” should be seen as an analogue for white literature in South Africa. Not only is it compared to a literary work open to multiple interpretations, but Mrs. Curren likens herself to “a juggler, a clown, an entertainer,” that is, to an artist of sorts. The suggestion seems to be that, like Mrs. Curren’s “spectacle,” literature by white South African writers constitutes a trivial gesture whose function is narcissistic rather than interventionist, that is, calculated to allay an endemic sense of guilt and to affirm a precarious sense of self. Indeed, the novel implies that the white South African writer’s order of experience is so different from that of the black South African as to render it impossible for him/her to represent black life. The point is that even language—the very condition of possibility for the novel and for protest—has been contaminated by the politics of violence in South Africa. Thus, Age of Iron questions the possibility of effective literary protest from within the prison house of a deformed language.
Despite its trenchant criticism of white writing, however, this novel does not advocate silence as the only authentic avenue open to the white writer. After all, as a linguistic artifact, the novel itself is a product of white South African writing. Moreover, Mrs. Curren, significantly enough, keeps on writing until she dies. After echoing Hamlet with the words, “The rest should be silence,” she goes on to say: “But with this—whatever it is—this voice that is no voice, I go on. On and on.” And she does so in order to preserve that which “is condemned unheard,” which is “everything indefinite, everything that gives when you press it.” This category encompasses everything that has become obsolete in the age of iron in which “only blows are real, blows and bullets”: people such as Vercueil, concepts such as Mrs. Curren’s liberal humanist values, and words and “devious discourse” such as the novel form itself. The point behind the notion of the “unheard” seems to be that the function of literature in a society that has been dehumanized by an iniquitous political system should be to preserve the idea of humanity. This concept of the function of literature explains the constant allusions to the Circe myth in the novel. Just as the herb moly that Hermes gave Odysseus protected him from being transformed into a pig by Circe, so too art could protect South Africans from the dehumanizing influence of the cycle of violence in their society.
Age of Iron is ultimately a meditation on the role of literature in an “age of iron,” that is, in a political climate that is hostile not only to the idea of humanity but also to the literary form that, over the centuries, has served as a vehicle for this idea. As such it is also a response of sorts to attempts to dictate the form that the novel should follow in South Africa, attempts that inevitably relegate that which deviates from the prescribed pattern to the status of the “unheard.” Van Wyk Smith touches on this metafictional debate in Age of Iron when he argues that Mrs. Curren’s “intimate quest for a validating narrative, a story that attempts to write her back into a meaningful history even while recognising its own inability to do so, is precisely Coetzee’s response to those who demand an actualised text commensurate with sociopolitical events.”
Apart from Van Wyk Smith’s article, the response from the South African critical establishment to the provocative metafictional polemic of this novel was surprisingly sparse. The general responses to the novel, however, have been positive on the whole. Lionel Abrahams found that “the articulate passion with which the novel’s protagonist and its author respond to the historical horror. …is vastly different from the usual, more or less excited, gestures of solidarity or provocation, cheek or subscription that pass as protest.” Benita Parry saw it as an “elegy to liberal humanism,” and Riaan Malan described it similarly as “the death rattle of the white liberal tradition in South African writing, and perhaps in South African society, too.” Such responses hint at Coetzee’s concern with the deforming effect apartheid structures have had on South African life and art.
In 1991 Coetzee spent a semester as visiting professor of English at Harvard University. His next novel, The Master of Petersburg, was published in 1994 and was therefore written during the period in which the apartheid government finally collapsed. Far from dealing with this momentous transition, though, The Master of Petersburg is set in late-nineteenth-century Russia. So, while Age of Iron seemed to suggest a desire on Coetzee’s part to engage more directly with the overt politics of the day in South Africa, the later novel appears to indicate a return to the strategy of temporal and geographical displacement that characterizes his earlier work. Apart from this difference, these two novels are remarkably similar.
As in the earlier text, in The Master of Petersburg Coetzee deals with the deforming impact of societal structures of power and the role that literature plays in either reinforcing or resisting these structures. Set in St. Petersburg, this novel focuses on the murder of a young student, Ivanov, by a group of nihilists led by Sergei Nechaev. This incident is probably best remembered as the historical event that prompted Fyodor Dostoevsky to write The Devils (1871), a work in which he tried to link moral evil and political nihilism. Dostoevsky achieved this identification by means of the biblical story of the Gadarene swine, a tale in which unclean devils, having been exorcised from two possessed men by Jesus Christ, enter a herd of swine. This story generates in the novel a series of analogies that suggest Russia is a “sick man” possessed by devils and that the swine that the devils enter when exorcised are the revolutionaries.
In The Master of Petersburg Coetzee employs the same parallels—as becomes apparent when his own character, Dostoevsky, argues that it is futile to imprison revolutionaries such as Sergei Nechaev since nihilism is a “spirit” for which the individual is merely a “vehicle,” a “host.” This parallelism does not mean, however, that Coetzee shares the actual Dostoevsky’s conviction that the nihilists are possessed by the devil. It is significant in this regard that Coetzee applies the story of the Gadarene swine not only to Russia and the phenomenon of revolutionary nihilism but also to Dostoevsky himself and his literary response to this phenomenon. Thus, in The Master of Petersburg, Dostoevsky is depicted as a “sick man” possessed by devils. And, while engaging in sexual intercourse with him, Anna Sergeyevna, at the onset of climax, utters the word “devil.” Importantly, in this scene the sexual act is depicted as both an inspiration and an exorcism, with Anna Sergeyevna occupying the dual role of muse and exorcist. As the novel ends shortly afterward with Dostoevsky commencing work on “The Devils, the implication is, therefore, that this text is also to be equated with the exorcised spirits in the story of the Gadarene swine. The further inference is that the readers within whom copies of the novel can be said to take up residence correspond to the swine in the biblical story.
Coetzee’s reworking of the story of the Gadarene swine in The Master of Petersburg appears to be a comment on the implication of writer and literature in the power dynamics or “sickness” of the social context in which they are located. Through applying the story to the artist and the artistic process itself, Coetzee suggests that Dostoevsky and his work are not immune to the “sickness” of Russia. Both are a part of Russia and are therefore also “sick.”
The point Coetzee makes in this text is, therefore, similar to that which emerges from his previous novel: that the literature produced in an “age of iron,” that is, a society and a period that have been “defined” and thus debased by “unnatural structures of power,” is “a less than fully human literature.” In its inevitable preoccupation with “power and the torsions of power,” such literature is as “stunted” and “deformed” as the life that it seeks to represent. Accordingly, it colludes with the networks of power that have dehumanized the society. In this regard, it is significant that the imagery Coetzee uses in The Master of Petersburg to indicate the ability of literature to brutalize is similar to that which he uses in Age of Iron to suggest the dehumanizing impact of the state’s power relations.
In 1999 Coetzee published three books. The pamphlet The Novel in Africa is the text of a lecture delivered in Berkeley, California, on 11 November 1998. The Lives of Animals is also based on a lecture: Coetzee delivered the central text as a Tanner Lecture in the Humanities at Princeton University, but it is actually more of a postmodernist fiction. At the heart of the book is a story that Coetzee read at Princeton; the story purports to be a lecture on animal rights delivered by an elderly novelist, Elizabeth Costello, with interpolations by other characters, who are responding to the lecture. The rest of the book is composed of responses to Coetzee/Costello’s lecture by various real-world academics in disciplines such as anthropology and bioethics.
The third book published in 1999 was Coetzee’s eighth novel, Disgrace, which is set in South Africa in the late 1990s. The protagonist, David Lurie, is a fifty-two-year-old professor at the Technical University of Cape Town. The novel opens with a consideration of the fate of an aging scholar, a specialist in the Romantic poets who is reduced to teaching introductory courses in “communications,” which he despises, as the university has changed its emphasis from liberal arts to that of “technical education.” Lurie has a brief affair with Melanie, one of his female students, who is oddly passive and ambivalent about the relationship. When the affair comes to the attention of the university authorities—Lurie suspects that Melanie’s boyfriend has informed on him—Lurie is told by the school administration to apologize and enter into counseling if he wishes to save his career. Seeing himself as being scapegoated by the forces of political correctness, he pleads guilty to the charge of sexual harassment but refuses to apologize or be repentant.
Leaving the university in disgrace, Lurie goes to visit his lesbian daughter, Lucy, who lives alone on a smallholding in the Eastern Cape. She is eking out a meager existence managing dog kennels and raising flowers and vegetables for market in cooperation with her black neighbor, Petrus. For a time Lurie finds a sort of peace on the farm as he helps Lucy, though the two have had an uneasy relationship since he and Lucy’s mother divorced some years earlier. The fragile peace is shattered, however, when the farm is invaded by three men who at first pretend to need help and then attack Lurie and his daughter, setting him on fire and locking him in the bathroom while they sexually assault Lucy.
The remainder of the novel concerns Lurie’s and his daughter’s attempts to come to terms with what has happened to them. The three attackers were black, and Lucy comes to see the rape as a sort of retribution for historical racial injustice. She is pregnant as a result of the rape and is determined to keep the child. Lurie is horrified by her response, but he too sees the assault in terms of historical inevitability, as the result of a sort of inherited guilt.
Sales for Disgrace far exceeded those for Waiting for the Barbarians. In a review of Disgrace for The New York Times (11 November 1999), Christopher Lehmann-Haupt noted that the book reflects the uncertainty of postapartheid South Africa, where “all values are shifting”; he also noted that “The effect of the novel’s plot is deeply disturbing, in part because of what happens to David and Lucy, but equally because of the disintegrating context of their experiences.” Reviewing the book for the 27 July 1999 Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg), Jane Taylor called the novel “remarkable in its gauging of the contemporary dilemmas arising from our circumstances in a society obsessed by our own violent context.” Noting that central to the work is “the failure of the imagination,” she pointed out that in this aspect Disgrace is linked to The Lives of Animals:” these two works in conjunction explore the sealing off of imaginative identification that has been a necessary precondition for us to engage in the long-term and sustained business of slaughter.”
Writing in The New Republic (20 December 1999), James Wood argued that “a significant weakness” in the novel is the “formal parallel of disgrace”: as a result of what happened to Lucy, and her reaction to it, Lurie comes to accept the necessity of being penitent for his actions, but the “formal parallel” equates his disgrace with Lucy’s, and hers is, Wood argued, “not one that she earned or deserved.” Wood also noted that the “rather shocking notion of rape as historical reparation.... has earned Coetzee a certain amount of covert condemnation.” Disgrace was generally critically well received, however, and earned Coetzee a second Booker Prize—he thus became the first novelist in the thirty-one-year history of the award to win twice.
This singular distinction may have helped to draw an unusual amount of attention to Disgrace, which has attracted a large body of critical commentary, some of it focused on the apparently pessimistic picture of life, for at least some people, in a new majority-ruled South Africa. Moreover, because Lucy’s attackers are black, the novel led to a “bruising clash” with the ANC, the ruling party of South Africa. Denouncing the book as the work of a racist who believed blacks were “savage, violent and incapable of refinement through education,” the party referred Coetzee’s novel to the South African Human Rights Commission as a work promoting racial hatred.
Coetzee’s relationship with South Africa had always been complex, and the events depicted in Disgrace suggest that the choice of whites in the new society was, like Lucy, to accept harsh conditions or to leave. He has chosen to leave. In 2002 he moved to Australia with his companion, literary critic Dorothy Driver, where he accepted an honorary research fellowship at the University of Adelaide. Always reticent, he has refused to confirm the widespread interpretation that he was shaken by the reaction to Disgrace. Malan, by contrast, suggests that the book itself was “clearly a valedictory to South Africa” and if that is so, then the reaction by the ANC or anyone else would have nothing to do with his departure. However, his new residence in Australia (combined with his frequent temporary residencies elsewhere, including the University of Chicago, where he spent one semester per year from 1996 to 2003, and where he remains a member of the Committee on Social Thought), and the subject matter of his work since 2002 complicate one’s understanding of how Coetzee is still a South African novelist.
In Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986-1999 (2001) he reflects on South African life and letters (in a volume that demonstrates the breadth of his interests and knowledge by also commenting on English, Dutch, Russian, Egyptian, Indian, Israeli, Czech, and Argentine authors). Reviewing the work of Breyten Breytenbach, he reflects on the “gruesome reports... of attacks on whites in the countryside of the new South Africa”—the most sensational feature of Disgrace— and concludes that “the circulation of horror stories is the very mechanism that drives white paranoia about being chased off the land and ultimately into the sea.” In an essay on Gordimer, Coetzee reveals, if only by indirection, his own disagreements with Gordimer’s politically committed, sometimes polemical, writing:
she has been concerned to give her work a social justification, and thus to support her claim to a place inside history, a history which she herself has to some extent been successful in shaping, as, in her fictional oeuvre, she has written the struggle of Africa against Europe upon the consciousness of the West.
Coetzee is a different kind of writer, as his next book made clear.
Youth is in one way obviously a second volume of Coetzee’s memoirs, following on from Boyhood. Like that earlier book, it tells the story of a South African living in Cape Town and suffering from a range of miseries. The laconic narrator calls the main character “he,” though from the discourse of other characters he is identified as “John.” The story is told in the third person and present tense. Many details of John’s life accord with those of Coetzee’s: youth in Worcester, undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town, expatriation to London, work as a computer programmer at IBM and International Computers.
But in Britain at least, Youth was marketed as fiction. The proof copy distributed to reviewers called it Coetzee’s first novel since Disgrace. Eileen Battersby in the Lrish Times (6 April 2002) welcomed it as a “taut new novel,” and it is true that nothing in the book acknowledges that John is Coetzee. Nor, despite John’s longing to be an artist, is there anything in the book (which ends with its protagonist, age twenty-four, still at loose ends in London) to show that its main character possesses the seeds of future worldwide literary success. An interview with Coetzee (conducted by e-mail) referred to Youth as “your most recent novel in the form of a memoir,” and in his responses Coetzee consistently referred to John as “he.” John Updike refers to Youth as “the second installment of what seems to be an ongoing memoirist project.”
It is certainly the portrait of an artist as a young man, and like James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel about his alter ego Stephen Dedalus, it mixes bitter recollection with a generous dose of irony (though the irony is easy to miss because of the austere language, and has been missed by some reviewers). John is by no means an admirable or even likable protagonist; nor does he admire or like himself. He is indolent, usually nearly friendless, and self-absorbed; self-conscious about his outsider status, he knows his artistic ambitions set him apart from his fellows as do his unimpressive appearance, wrong clothes, and, in London, provincial accent. He is good at mathematics and, without particularly wanting it, achieves success as a computer programmer in early-1960s London. More surprisingly, he is a successful seducer of women. This achievement is tainted by the fact that he never seems to enjoy sex or bring joy to his sex partners, and he behaves badly toward women. Disapproving reviewers called John “a model of romantic gloom and willed turmoil…a monster of self-absorption” (Jason Cowley, The Observer, 21 April 2002), and Mark Shechner (Buffalo News, 15 September 2002), reading John autobiographically, summed up Coetzee as “a summa cum laude in stylish depression and the South African master of the blues.” But the picture is redeemed by the irony with which John is sometimes handled, as when the narrator reveals that “As for his own writing, he would hope to leave behind, were he to die tomorrow, a handful of poems that, edited by some selfless scholar and privately printed in a neat little duodecimo pamphlet, would make people shake their heads and murmur beneath their breath, ‘Such promise! Such a waste!’ That is his hope.”
John is a proxy for Coetzee if he is not Coetzee, and some of the things he thinks and the positions he takes shed light on Coetzee’s later career. When he writes his first story (he is mostly a poet at this point) he is disquieted that, though living in England, he is still writing about South Africa:
He would prefer to leave his South African self behind as he has left South Africa itself behind. South Africa was a bad start, a handicap. An undistinguished, rural family, bad schooling, the Afrikaans language: from each of these component handicaps he has, more or less, escaped. He is in the great world earning his own living and not doing too badly, or at least not failing, not obviously.
Those last modifications exemplify the careful tone and the ironic distance between narrator and John that characterize Youth. Near the end of the book comes the diagnosis: “If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry. But warmth is not in his nature.” The chill is emotional and finds its symbolic counterpart in the cold London to which the African John has exiled himself. John has flown past the nets—language, upbringing—and it is typical of the subdued representation of the artist in embryo that the book ends, not with some artistic advance, but with a rueful acknowledgment of deficiency and a readiness to die.
In the autumn of 2003 Coetzee published his next novel and, within weeks, received word that he was the 2003 Nobel laureate for Literature. The novel, Elizabeth Costello, like Youth, challenged genre expectations. The subtitle of the British edition is Eight Lessons, and the U.S. edition identifies the chapters as “lessons” in the table of contents. Moreover, the contents of the book have an unusual publishing history. Lessons 1 and 6, called “Realism” and “Eros,” were published in slightly different form in Salmagundi, a literary quarterly, in 1997 and 2003. The postscript, “Letter of Elizabeth, Lady Chandos, to Francis Bacon,” was published as a pamphlet by Intermezzo Press in 2002. Earlier versions of Lesson 2, “The Novel in Africa,” and Lesson 5, “The Humanities in Africa,” had also been separately published, in Berkeley, California, and in Munich. And the central portion of Elizabeth Costello, Lessons 3 and 4, which are titled “The Lives of Animals: The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Lives of Animals: The Poets and the Animals,” were the 1997-1998 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University published as The Lives of Animals.
The invitation to Coetzee to deliver the Tanner Lectures parallels the situation of his fictional Elizabeth Costello. A famous and aging Australian novelist, Elizabeth is invited to lecture at Appleton College in Massachusetts. Expected to speak about literature, she surprises her hosts by giving two powerful, intransigent lectures on the mistreatment of animals, giving offense by insisting on the equivalence between that treatment and the Holocaust. Similarly, Coetzee, invited to deliver the Tanner Lectures, read what amounted to two stories: the accounts of how Elizabeth delivered her animal-rights lectures at Appleton College, complete with the audience reaction, her son’s sad and her daughter-in-law’s furious responses, and Elizabeth’s own hesitancies. She is not a good lecturer; her son even remembers that, though a fiction writer, she read stories badly to her children. The second lecture ends with Elizabeth’s frustration: as her son is driving her to the airport, she speaks through tears. “Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?” John consoles her, after a fashion, with a reminder of her age and mortality: “There, there. It will soon be over.”
In one of the responses printed in The Lives of Animals, literary critic Marjorie Garber says that “the genre of these lectures, then, is metafiction, and together they constitute a version of the academic novel, though critically this one is suffused with pathos rather than comedy.” Invited lectures comprising, or approximating, an academic novel were thus followed by a novel consisting of lectures.
There is a further metafictional move when the two lectures of The Lives of Animals are incorporated into Elizabeth Costello, which begins with some metafictional placing gestures. The first sentence is “There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank.” Elizabeth is put before the reader (at yet another lecturing engagement at a college): “The blue costume, the greasy hair, are details, signs of a moderate realism. Supply the particulars, allow the significations to emerge of themselves. A procedure pioneered by Daniel Defoe.” The self-conscious commentary continues:
The presentation scene itself we skip. It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often, since storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state in which the time and space of the real world fade away, superseded by the time and space of the fiction. Breaking into the dream draws attention to the constructedness of the story, and plays havoc with the realist illusion. However, unless certain scenes are skipped over we will be here all afternoon. The skips are not part of the text, they are part of the performance.
Coetzee has carefully emphasized several of the features of Elizabeth Costello that led reviewers to deny that it is a novel. One is that, though it is quite “realistic” in one sense—it is much like a series of lectures and arguments about art and morality and belief, which is what it purports to be—in others it completely fails any “realistic” aim. It lacks particulars, of the Defoe sort; it never lulls the reader into a dream-like state. And this lack is related to the claim that it is dangerous to interrupt the narrative; a low proportion of Elizabeth Costello is narrative at all. There are narrative framings: each lesson places Elizabeth in a setting and provides her with a challenge for the exposition of her ideas. Besides American colleges, these include a conference in Amsterdam, an African university where her sister is receiving an honorary degree, an ocean liner where she is providing intellectual stimulation for the passengers, and a “place” that seems to be purgatory, while reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s “Vor dem Gesetz” (Before the Law) segment of Der Prozeβ (1925; translated as The Trial, 1937) as well as the camps of the Holocaust. But the heart of each lesson is Elizabeth’s expatiating. She is not always consistent, and presumably is not always speaking for the author (this claim is hard to be sure about); she is provided with able and intelligent people who disagree with her and challenge her beliefs.
Critical reaction to Elizabeth Costello varied widely. The genre question was common: Tony Free-mantle in the Houston Chronicle (23 November 2003) asked if it was “a pseudo-biographical, quasi-philosophical work of nonfiction masquerading as a novel? Or is it a novel simply not dressed up to look like one?” In the Guardian (30 August 2003) Hermione Lee called it a “fragmentary and inconclusive book, more like a collection of propositions about belief, writing and humanity than a novel.” She did identify a unifying thematic core, noting that “Costello (and presumably Coetzee) opposes ‘embodiment’—fullness, the sensation of being—against mechanical, abstract, rational cogitation.... Every episode in the novel acts out this opposition between ‘embodiment’ and ‘reason.’ Coetzee puts Costello in the almost untenable position of mounting a reasoned attack on reason.” And Andrew Marr of The Daily Telegraph (6 September 2003) concurred: “The evil that Costello identifies is based on the triumph of reason and the downgrading of imagination.” Many reviewers judged that the issue that had received the most attention—kindness to animals—functioned as one instance, but not the only one, of the human defect of failure of imagination. By contrast, Jonathan Yardley, writing for the Washington Post (16 November 2003), dismissed the book as “an exercise in the higher self-indulgence: a succession of almost unimaginably tiresome ruminations, cast in the form of formal academic addresses, about big-ticket issues in which Coetzee himself is interested, ranging from storytelling to cruelty to animals (this one gets two full chapters all to itself) to the mystery of artistic genius to evil pure and simple.”
In December 2003 Coetzee delivered his Nobel Prize lecture. His address, called “He and His Man,” is a speculation on Robinson Crusoe. He considers Crusoe as a writer, losing his fertility, and ends with some reflections on the relationship between Crusoe (who is writer, but is also written) and Defoe:
How are they to be figured, this man and he? As master and slave? As brothers, twin brothers? As comrades in arms? Or as enemies, foes? What shall he give this nameless fellow with whom he shares his evenings and sometimes his nights too, who is absent only in the daytime, when he, Robin, walks the quays inspecting the new arrivals and his man gallops about the kingdom making his inspections?
“He and His Man” was also published in Queen’s Quarterly (identified as a short story) and (as an essay) in World Literature Today.
When asked in an 8 December 2003 interview with Attwell about the significance of the Nobel Prize to him personally and in general terms, Coetzee replied:
In its conception the literature prize belongs to days when a writer could still be thought of as, by virtue of his or her occupation, a sage, someone with no institutional affiliations who could offer an authoritative word on our times as well as on our moral life.... The idea of writer as sage is pretty much dead today. I would certainly feel very uncomfortable in the role.
He also commented that he was already “being peppered with invitations to travel far and wide to give lectures,” which he considered “one of the stranger aspects of literary fame: you prove your competence as a writer and an inventor of stories, and then people clamour for you to make speeches and tell them what you think about the world.”
The awarding of the Nobel Prize has probably changed Coetzee less than would have been the case for another writer. His inwardness and resistance to the publicity dimension of being a writer in the twenty-first century ensure that. The prize may have raised the stakes in his critical reception: for example, Yardley’s negative review of Elizabeth Costello, published in the Chicago Sun-Times (14 December 2003), was headlined “An Overrated Nobelist?” Reviewing Coetzee’s next novel, Slow Man (2005), for The Independent (London) (2 September 2005), D. J. Taylor wrote, “As with many a writer of this degree of celebrity—a Nobel Prize back in 2003, two Booker garlands—the novel’s chief distinction is that it resembles other works by J M Coetzee only more so.” Rosemary Sorenson, writing for The Courier Mail (10 September 2005) in Coetzee’s adopted Australia, said the “Nobel prize-winner’s arrogant pursuit of his own writerly interest is part of his attraction. You like it or you lump it, and it’s so dashing it’s easy to like it for what it is.” Whether receiving the prize has changed what Coetzee writes, or just the mental map of those who read him, is unclear, but “Nobel -Prize-winning” has henceforth been enrolled among the modifiers—“challenging,” “uncompromising,” “brilliant,” perhaps even “exasperating”—that attach themselves to the name J. M. Coetzee.
Coetzee’s first post-Nobel novel, Slow Man, appeared in fall 2005. This book is set in Australia and focuses on retired photographer Paul Rayment, who is forced to reevaluate his life when his leg is amputated after a bicycle accident. His new situation becomes more difficult when he falls in love with his day nurse, a married Croatian woman named Marijana. Then Elizabeth Costello appears, visiting Paul to challenge and encourage him. Brad Hooper of Booklist called Elizabeth’s presence an “exasperating contrivance,” while the reviewer for Publishers Weekly, noting that “Some readers will object to this cleverness,” went on to say that “the story of how Paul will take charge of his life and love continues to engage, while Elizabeth Costello the device softens into a real character, one facing frailties of her own.”
In 1986, in his article “Into the Dark Chamber: The Writer and the South African State” (collected in Doubling the Point), Coetzee articulates the South African novelist’s desire for the freedom that true change would bring: “When the choice is no longer limited to either looking on in horrified fascination as the blow falls or turning one’s eyes away, then the novel can once again take as its province the whole of life, and even the torture chamber can be accorded a place in the design.” Elsewhere, he has argued that such freedom is a precondition for the writing of novels that are truly great. Coetzee has freed himself from the expectation that his works will intervene in history; from the “handicaps” of South African residency; from the “public” expectations of the famous writer; and from some of the superfluities of fiction. The announcement of his Nobel Prize praised not only the “wellcrafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance” of his novels but also the fact that Coetzee is “a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilisation.” The intellectual honesty and the scrupulous doubting recognized by the Swedish Academy are the real wellspring of Coetzee’s freedom.
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Claude Wauthier, “JeanMarie Coetzee contra la répression,” in J. M. Coetzee: Dossier for Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignment Supérieur—Colloque de Brest, 9-11 Mai 1985, p. 54;
Tony Morphet, “Two Interviews with J. M. Coetzee, 1983 and 1987,” TriQuarterly, 69 (Spring/Summer 1987): 454-464;
Richard Begam, “An Interview with J. M. Coetzee,” Contemporary Literature, 33 (Fall 1992): 419-431;
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David Attwell, “An Exclusive Interview with J. M Coetzee,” DN Kultur (8 December 2003) <http://www.dn.se/DNet/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=1058&a=212382>.
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David Attwell, “The Problem of History in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee,” in Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture of the 1970s and 1980s, edited by Martin Trump (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1990), pp. 94-133;
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Colin Bower, “J. M. Coetzee: Literary Con Artist and Poseur,” scrutiny2: issues in English studies in southern africa, 8 no. 2 (2003): 3-23;
André P. Brink, “Writing against Big Brother: Notes on Apocalyptic Fiction in South Africa,” World Literature Today, 58, no. 2 (1984): 189-194;
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Michael Chapman, “The Writing of Politics and the Politics of Writing: On Reading Dovey on Reading Lacan on Reading Coetzee on Reading... (?),” Journal of Literary Studies, 4, no. 3 (1988): 327-341;
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John Douthwaite, “Melanie: Voice and Its Suppression in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace,” Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, 13, no. 1 (2001): 130-162;
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Dovey, The Novels of J. M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories (Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1988);
Susan VanZanten Gallagher, A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee’s Fiction in Context (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991);
Allan Gardiner, “J. M. Coetzee’s Dusklands: Colonial Encounters of the Robinsonian Kind,” World Literature Written in English, 27, no. 2 (1987): 174-184;
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Rosemary Jane Jolly, Colonization, Violence and Narration in White South African Writing: André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach and J. M. Coetzee (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996);
Peter Knox-Shaw, “Dusklands: A Metaphysics of Violence,” Commonwealth Novel in English, 2, no. 1 (1983): 65-81;
Sue Kossew, “The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg (1994) and André Brink’s On the Contrary (1993),” English in Africa, 23, no. 1 (1986): 67-88;
Kossew, ed., Critical Essays on J. M. Coetzee (New York: G. K. Hall, 1998);
Margaret Lenta, “Autrebiography: J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood and Youth” English in Africa, 30, no. 1 (May 2003): 157-169;
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Marais, “Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in j. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 31, no. 1 (1996): 83-96;
Brian May, “J. M. Coetzee and the Question of the Body,” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, 47, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 391-420;
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Lance Olsen, “The Presence of Absence: Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians,” Ariel, 16, no. 2 (1985): 47-56;
Dick Penner, Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989);
Paul Rich, “Apartheid and the Decline of Civilization Idea: An Essay on Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People and J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians,” Research in African Literature, 15 (1984): 365-393;
Rich, “Tradition and Revolt in South African Fiction: The Novels of Andre Brink, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 9, no. 1 (1982): 54-73;
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Theory in the Margin: Coetzee’s Foe Reading Defoe’s Crusoe/Roxana,” English in Africa, 17, no. 2 (1990): 1-23;
Paola Splendora, ‘“No More Mothers and Fathers’: The Family Sub-Text inJ. M. Coetzee’s Novels,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 38, no. 3 (July 2003): 148-161;
Louis Tremaine, “The Embodied Soul: Animal Being in the Work of J. M. Coetzee,” Contemporary Literature, 44, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 587-612;
Malvern Van Wyk Smith, “Waiting for Silence; or, The Autobiography of Metafiction in Some Recent South African Novels,” Current Writing, 3, no. 1 (1991): 91-104;
Michael Vaughan, “Literature and Politics: Currents in South African Writing in the Seventies,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 9, no. 1 (1982): 118-138;
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