Coetzee, J. M.
J. M. Coetzee
Born John Maxwell Coetzee, February 9, 1940, in Cape Town, South Africa; married, 1963 (divorced, 1980); children: Nicholas, Gisela. Education: University of Cape Town, B.A., 1960, M.A., 1963; University of Texas, Austin, Ph.D., 1969.
Agent—Peter Lampack, 551 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10017. Home—Australia.
Applications programmer, International Business Machines (IBM), London, England, 1962–63; systems programmer, International Computers, Bracknell, Berkshire, England, 1964–65; State University of New York at Buffalo, NY, assistant professor, 1968–71, Butler Professor of English, 1984, 1986; University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa, lecturer in English, 1972–82, professor of general literature, 1983–2001; Hinkley Professor of English, Johns Hopkins University, 1986, 1989; visiting professor of English, Harvard University, 1991.
International Comparative Literature Association, Modern Language Association of America.
CNA literary award for In the Heart of the Country, 1977; CNA literary award for Waiting for the Barbarians, 1980; James Tait Black memorial prize for Waiting for the Barbarians, 1980; Geoffrey Faber Award for Waiting for the Barbarians, 1980; CNA literary award for The Life and Times of Michael K, 1984; Booker–McConnell Prize for The Life and Times ofMichael K, 1984; Prix Femina Etranger for The Life and Times of Michael K, 1984; D. Litt., University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1985; Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, 1987; Sunday Express book of the year prize for Age of Iron, 1990; Premio Modello for The Master of Petersburg, 1994; Irish Times international fiction prize for The Master of Petersburg, 1995; Booker prize for Disgrace, 1999; National Book League and Commonwealth Writer's prize for best novel for Disgrace, 1999; Life Fellow, University of Cape Town; Nobel Prize for literature, 2003.
J. M. Coetzee explores the implications of oppressive societies on the lives of their inhabitants, often using his native South Africa as a backdrop. As a South African, however, Coetzee is "too intelligent a novelist to cater for moralistic voyeurs," Peter Lewis declared in the Times Literary Supplement. "This does not mean that he avoids the social and political crises edging his country towards catastrophe. But he chooses not to handle such themes in the direct, realistic way that writers of older generations, such as Alan Paton, preferred to employ. Instead, Coetzee has developed a symbolic and even allegorical mode of fiction—not to escape the living nightmare of South Africa but to define the psychopathological underlying the sociological, and in doing so to locate the archetypal in the particular."
Though many of his stories are set in South Africa, Coetzee's lessons are relevant to all countries, as Books Abroad's Ursula A. Barnett wrote of 1974's Dusklands, which contains the novellas The Vietnam Project and The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee. "By publishing the two stories side by side," Barnett remarked, "Coetzee has deliberately given a wider horizon to his South African subject. Left on its own, The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee would immediately have suggested yet another tale of African black–white confrontation to the reader." Although each is a complete story, "their nature and design are such that the book can and should be read as a single work," Roger Owen commented in the Times Literary Supplement. Dusklands "is a kind of diptych, carefully hinged and aligned, and of a texture so glassy and mirror–like that each story throws light on the other." Together the tales present two very different outcomes in confrontations between the individual and society.
Coetzee's second novel, 1977's From the Heart of the Country, also explores racial conflict and mental deterioration. A spinster daughter, Magda, tells the story in diary form, recalling the consequences of her father's seduction of his African workman's wife. Both jealous of and repulsed by the relationship, Magda murders her father, then begins her own affair with the workman. The integrity of Magda's story eventually proves questionable. "The reader soon realizes that these are the untrustworthy ravings of a hysterical, demented individual consumed by loneliness and her love/hate relationship with her patriarchal father," Barend J. Toerien reported in World Literature Today.
Coetzee followed From the Heart of the Country with 1980's Waiting for the Barbarians, in which he, "with laconic brilliance, articulates one of the basic problems of our time—how to understand [the] mentality behind the brutality and injustice," Anthony Burgess wrote in New York. In the novel, a magistrate attempting to protect the peaceful nomadic people of his district is imprisoned and tortured by the army that arrives at the frontier town to destroy the "barbarians" on behalf of the Empire. The horror of what he has seen and experienced affects the magistrate in inalterable ways, bringing changes in his personality that he cannot understand.
Coetzee's fourth novel, The Life and Times of Michael K, was published in 1983. According to CNN.com, it was "the story of a young gardener abandoned after his mother's death in a South Africa whose administration is collapsing after years of civil strife." The book won the Booker Prize in 1984.
In 1987's Foe, a retelling of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee tells the story of the mute Friday, whose tongue was cut out by slavers, and Susan Barton, the castaway who struggles to communicate with him. Daniel Foe, the author who endeavors to tell Barton's story, is also affected by Friday's speechlessness. Both Barton and Foe recognize their duty to provide a means by which Friday can relate the story of his escape from the fate of his fellow slaves who drowned, still shackled, when their ship sank; but both also question their right to speak for him. "The author, whether Foe or Coetzee, wonders if he has any right to speak for the one person whose story most needs to be told," West Coast Review's Maureen Nicholson noted. "Friday is the tongueless voice of millions."
In 1990's Age of Iron Coetzee addresses the crisis of South Africa in direct, rather than allegorical, form. The story of Mrs. Curren, a retired professor dying of cancer and attempting to deal with the realities of apartheid in Cape Town, Age of Iron is "an unrelenting yet gorgeously written parable of modern South Africa, a story filled with foreboding and violence about a land where even the ability of children to love is too great a luxury," Michael Dorris wrote in Tribune Books.
In Coetzee's next novel, 1994's The Master of Petersburg, the central character is the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, but the plot is only loosely based on his real life. In Coetzee's story, the novelist goes to St. Petersburg upon the death of his stepson, Pavel. He is devastated by grief for the young man, and begins an inquiry into his death. He discovers that Pavel was involved with a group of nihilists and was probably murdered either by their leader or by the police. During the course of his anguished investigation, Dostoevsky's creative processes are exposed; Coetzee shows him beginning work on his novel The Possessed.
Coetzee's nonfiction works include 1988's White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, 1992's Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, and 1996's Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. In White Writing, the author "collects his critical reflections on the mixed fortunes of 'white writing' in South Africa, 'a body of writing [not] different in nature from black writing,' but 'generated by the concerns of people no longer European, yet not African,'" Shaun Irlam observed in MLN. The seven essays included in the book discuss writings from the late seventeenth century to the present, through which Coetzee examines the foundations of modern South African writers' attitudes. In Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, a collection of critical essays on Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Nadine Gordimer, and others, Coetzee presents a "literary autobiography," according to Ann Irvine in a Library Journal review. Discussions of issues including censorship and popular culture; interviews with the author preceding each section round out the collection.
Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship was Coetzee's first collection of essays in nearly ten years, since White Writing appeared. The essays collected in Giving Offense were written over a period of about six years. Coetzee discusses three tyrannical regimes: Nazism, Communism, and apartheid; and, drawing upon his training as an academic scholar as well as his experiences as a fiction writer, argues that the censor and the writer have often been "brother–enemies, mirror images one of the other" in their struggle to claim the truth of their position.
In 1997's Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, Coetzee experiments with autobiography, a surprising turn for a writer, as Caryl Phillips noted in the New Republic, "whose literary output has successfully resisted an autobiographical reading." Boyhood, written in the third person, "reads more like a novella than a true autobiography. Coetzee develops his character, a young boy on the verge of adolescence, through a richly detailed interior monolog," wrote Denise S. Sticha in Library Journal. He recounts his life growing up in Worcester, South Africa, where he moved with his family from Cape Town after his father's latest business failure. There, he observes the contradictions of apartheid and the subtle distinctions of class and ethnicity with a precociously writerly eye. Coetzee, an Afrikaaner whose parents chose to speak English, finds himself between worlds, neither properly Afrikaaner nor English. Throughout his boyhood, he encounters the stupid brutalities inflicted by arbitrary divisions between white and black, Afrikaaner and English.
The Lives of Animals, published in 1999, is a unique effort by Coetzee, incorporating his own lectures on animal rights with the fictional story of Elizabeth Costello, a novelist obsessed by the horrors of human cruelty to animals. In this "wonderfully inventive and inconclusive book," as Stephen H. Webb described it in Christian Century, Coetzee poses questions about the morality of vegetarianism and the guilt of those who use animal products. But his arguments are not simplistic: he wonders, for example, if vegetarians are really trying to save animals, or only trying to put themselves in a morally superior position to other humans. Following the novella, there are responses to Costello's arguments from four scholars who have written about animals: Barbara Smuts, Peter Singer, Marjorie Garber, and Wendy Doniger. The sum of the book, wrote Marlene Chamberlain in Booklist, is valuable "for Coetzee fans and others interested in the links between philosophy, reason, and the rights of nonhumans."
Coetzee's next novel, 1999's Disgrace, is a strong statement on the political climate in post–apartheid South Africa. The main character, David Lurie, is an English professor at the University of Cape Town. He sees himself as an aging, but still handsome, Lothario. He has seduced many young women in his day, but an affair with one of his students finally proves his undoing. Charged with sexual harassment, he leaves his post in disgrace, seeking refuge at the small farm owned by his daughter, Lucy. While David's world is refined and highly intellectualized, Lucy works at hard physical labor in simple surroundings. David's notions of orderliness are overturned when three men come to the farm, set him afire, and rape Lucy. Father and daughter survive the ordeal, only to learn that Lucy has become pregnant. Eventually, in order to protect herself and her simple way of life, she consents to become the third wife in her neighbor's polygamous family, even though he may have arranged the attack on her in order to gain control of her property. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1999; Coetzee made history by becoming the the first author to win the award twice.
Antioch Review contributor John Kennedy noted, "In its honest and relentless probing of character and motive … this novel secures Coetzee's place among today's major novelists.… The impulses and crimes of passion, the inadequacies of justice, and the rare possibilities for redemption are played out on many levels in this brilliantly crafted book." The author's deft handling of the ambiguities of his story was also praised by Rebecca Saunders, who in Review of Contemporary Fiction warned that Disgrace is "not for the ethically faint of heart." Saunders felt Coetzee has "strewn nettles in the bed of the comfortable social conscience," and his book is written in the style "we have come to expect" from him, "at once taciturn and blurting out the unspeakable."
On December 10, 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He dedicated the award to his mother. In 2004, Coetzee edited and translated Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands. The novelist introduced and translated one poem each by five 20th centruy Dutch poets and three by a sixth. In April of that year, Coetzee was nominated for the Christine Stead Prize for fiction, one of the New South Wales Literary Awards, which are one of Australia's top literary events. The event marked the first time that a Nobel laureate had been nominated for one of the awards. He also was on the shortlist for Australia's Miles Franklin Literary Award for his 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello. That same month, five of Coetzee's novels were released in China for the first time. The books included Waiting for the Barbarians, Youth, and Disgrace.
In addition to his writing, Coetzee has produced translations of works in Dutch, German, French, and Afrikaans, served as editor for others' work, and taught at the University of Cape Town. "He's a rare phenomenon, a writer–scholar," Ian Glenn, a colleague of Coetzee's, told the Washington Post's Allister Sparks. "Even if he hadn't had a career as a novelist he would have had a very considerable one as an academic." Coetzee told Sparks that he finds writing burdensome. "I don't like writing so I have to push myself," he said. "It's bad if I write but it's worse if I don't." Coetzee hesitates to discuss his works in progress, and views his opinion of his published works as no more important than that of anyone else. "The writer is simply another reader when it is a matter of discussing the books he has already written," he told Sparks. "They don't belong to him anymore and he has nothing privileged to say about them—while the book he is engaged in writing is far too private and important a matter to be talked about."
Dusklands (contains two novellas, The Vietnam Project and The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee), Ravan Press (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1974; Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1985.
From the Heart of the Country, Harper (New York, NY), 1977; published in England as In the Heart of the Country, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1977.
Waiting for the Barbarians, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1980; Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1982.
The Life and Times of Michael K., Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1983; Viking (New York, NY), 1984.
Foe, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
Age of Iron, Random House (New York, NY), 1990.
The Master of Petersburg, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
(With others) The Lives of Animals, edited with an introduction by Amy Gutmann, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1999.
Disgrace, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.
Youth, Viking (New York, NY), 2002.
Elizabeth Costello, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 2003.
(Translator) Marcellus Emants, A Posthumous Confession, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1976.
(Translator) Wilma Stockenstroem, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, Faber (London, England), 1983.
(Editor, with Andre Brink) A Land Apart: A Contemporary South African Reader, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, edited by David Attwell, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
(With Graham Swift, John Lanchester, and Ian Jack) Food: The Vital Stuff, Penguin (New York, NY), 1995.
Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Bill Reichblum) What Is Realism?, Bennington College (Bennington, VT), 1997.
(With Dan Cameron and Carolyn Christov–Bakargiev) William Kentridge, Phaidon (London, England), 1999.
Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986–1999, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
The Humanities in Africa/Die Geisteswissenschaften in Afrika, Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung (Munich, Germany), 2001.
Contributor of introduction, The Confusions of Young Törless, by Robert Musil, Penguin (New York, NY), 2001.
(Translator and author of introduction) Landscape With Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands, Princeton University Press, 2004.
Contributor of reviews to periodicals, including New York Review of Books.
An adaptation of In the Heart of the Country was filmed as Dust, by ICA (England), 1986.
Attwell, David, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1993.
Coetzee, J. M., Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.
Gallagher, Susan V., A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.
Goddard, Kevin, J. M. Coetzee: A Bibliography, National English Literary Museum, 1990.
Head, Dominic, J. M. Coetzee, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1998.
Huggan, Graham, and Stephen Watson, editors, Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee, introduction by Nadine Gordimer, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Kossew, Sue, editor, Critical Essays on J. M. Coetzee, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1998.
Kossew, Sue, Pen and Power: A Post–Colonial Reading of J. M. Coetzee and Andre Brink, Rodopi (Atlanta, GA), 1996.
Moses, Michael Valdez, editor, The Writings of J. M. Coetzee, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1994.
Penner, Dick, Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee, Greenwood Press (New York, NY), 1989.
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Coetzee, J. M.
J. M. Coetzee
NATIONALITY: South African
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
In the Heart of the Country (1977)
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
Life and Times of Michael K (1983)
Widely regarded as one of South Africa's most accomplished contemporary novelists, Coetzee examines the effects of racism, oppression, and fear. While addressing the brutalities and contradictions associated with the South African policy of apartheid, Coetzee writes from an apolitical viewpoint that extends beyond geographic and social boundaries to achieve universal significance. This effect is enhanced through his use of such literary devices as allegory, unreliable narrators, and symbolic settings.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Cape Town John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 9, 1940, to an attorney father and a schoolteacher 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 and Times of Michael K (1983).
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. Afrikaners are the descendants of Dutch colonists who settled in South Africa in the seventeenth century, and fought for territory and power against indigenous Africans as well as rival British colonists until their 1940s political victory. When they took power, the Afrikaner-based National Party began implementing the policy of apartheid, which legally separated people by color.
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 BA in 1960 and MA in 1963. This bilingual upbringing has enabled Coetzee to depict English-and Afrikaans-speaking characters in his fiction with equal skill—an uncommon occurrence in South African literature, which, as part of the legacy of a divided society, usually is riddled with ethnic stereotypes.
Life Abroad Having found his studies tedious at the University of Cape Town, particularly in English, 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. Coetzee completed his master's thesis in 1963 and married Philippa Jubber the same year; the couple had two children, Nicolas, born in 1966, and Gisela, born in 1968. Evidently, computer programming did not prove rewarding, and he left after fours years. Under a Fulbright exchange program, Coetzee went to 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, 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, the novellas of Dusklands (1974). 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 make a comparison of U.S. imperialism and South African colonialism.
International Success 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, where he took up a lecturing position in English at the University of Cape Town in 1972 before becoming a full professor in 1982. Apartheid continued to be a powerful force in South Africa, though there was some effort, even among Afrikaners, to do away with the policy. By the mid-1970s, black nationalist groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) and other rebel movements sometimes resorted to violence to protest apartheid.
In the Heart of the Country (1977) was the first of Coetzee's novels to be published in both South Africa and the United States. Coetzee's strong international reputation was established with In the Heart of the Country and solidified with his next novel, Waiting for the
Barbarians (1980). Life and Times of Michael K corresponds thematically to Coetzee's earlier works but includes a new dimension in its focus on the oppression of a single character. Michael K is a slow-witted outcast who searches with his mother for a home during a turbulent period of an unnamed country's civil war. Although Coetzee has denied the similarities, critics frequently compare Michael K and the character K in Franz Kafka's novel The Trial. Like Kafka's K, Michael K is victimized by social forces he can neither control nor understand.
End of Apartheid In his collection of essays, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988), Coetzee continues to investigate the power of language by analyzing the works of white South African writers. Attempting to expose the relationship between language and cultural identity, Coetzee focuses on how European values and conventions are reflected in South African policies and attitudes concerning property and government. The novel Age of Iron (1990) traces the experiences of Elizabeth Curren, a white South African woman suffering from cancer who writes long letters to her daughter in the United States. While representing Coetzee's abiding concerns with human suffering and the dissolution of oppressive and racist regimes, Age of Iron also reflects recent positive changes in South Africa. Some legal aspects of apartheid were abandoned by the South African government in the mid-1980s, and violent political protest continued until more reforms were put in place in the late 1980s. Apartheid essentially ended in the early 1990s, and South Africa became a democracy in the mid-1990s.
Coetzee's publications in the 1990s and early 2000s often reflected these changes. The essays in Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1996) looks at how censorship affects writers under three regimes, including apartheid. Coetzee became more personal in two volumes of autobiography, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life and its follow-up, Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002). In the first book, he recounts his childhood while commenting on the contradictions of apartheid and subtle distinctions of class and ethnicity. Postapartheid South Africa is fictionally examined in the critically praised Disgrace (1999). Because of Coetzee's constant and sensitive attention to the issues of his time and place led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. He continues to teach English at the University of Cape Town and to produce new works.
Works in Literary Context
The South African environment in which Coetzee was raised and spent much of his life profoundly shaped his work and moral compass. In both his fiction and non-fiction, he often explores apartheid, its effect on all South Africans, and the fallout after its demise. While addressing the brutalities and contradictions associated with both colonial oppression and apartheid, Coetzee often writes from an apolitical viewpoint that extends beyond the geographic and social boundaries to achieve universal significance.
Apartheid Often using his native South Africa as a backdrop, Coetzee explores the implications of oppressive societies on the lives of their inhabitants. Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country, explores racial conflict and mental deterioration. A spinster daughter, Magda, tells the story in diary form, recalling the consequences of her father's seduction of his African workman's wife. In Age of Iron Coetzee addresses the crisis of South Africa in direct rather than allegorical form. It's the story of Mrs. Curren, a retired professor dying of cancer and attempting to deal with the realities of apartheid in Cape Town. As her disease and the chaos of her homeland progress, Mrs. Curren feels the effects her society has had on its black members. The book takes the form of a letter from Mrs. Curren to her daughter, who lives in the United States because she cannot tolerate apartheid.
Muteness and Speech Foe, a retelling of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, marked a transitional stage for Coetzee. Central to this story are the mute Friday, whose tongue was cut out by slavers, and Susan Barton, the castaway who struggles to communicate with him. Daniel Foe, the author who endeavors to tell Barton's story, is also affected by Friday's speechlessness. Both recognize their duty to provide a means by which Friday can relate the story of his escape from the fate of his fellow slaves who drowned, still shackled, when their ship sank, but also question their right to speak for him.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Coetzee's famous contemporaries include:
Alan Paton (1903–1988): South African writer and activist most famous for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country.
Nelson Mandela (1918–): Former president of South Africa and antiapartheid activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Stephen Biko (1946–1977): South African antiapartheid activist who died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.
Barbara Kingsolver (1955–): American novelist whose Poisonwood Bible (1998) won the National Book Prize of South Africa.
Works in Critical Context
Often using his native South Africa as a backdrop, Coetzee explores the implications of oppressive societies for the lives of their inhabitants. As a South African, however,
Coetzee is “too intelligent a novelist to cater for moralistic voyeurs,” Peter Lewis declared in the Times Literary Supplement. “This does not mean that he avoids the social and political crises edging his country towards catastrophe. But he chooses not to handle such themes in the direct, realistic way that writers of older generations, such as Alan Paton, preferred to employ. Instead, Coetzee has developed a symbolic and even allegorical mode of fiction—not to escape the living nightmare of South Africa but to define the psychopathological underlying the sociological, and in doing so to locate the archetypal in the particular.”
Waiting for the Barbarians In Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee, “with laconic brilliance, articulates one of the basic problems of our time—how to understand … the mentality behind the brutality and injustice,” Anthony Burgess wrote in New York magazine. In the story, a magistrate who attempts to protect the peaceful nomadic people of his district is imprisoned and tortured by the army that arrives at the frontier town to destroy the “barbarians” on behalf of the empire. The horror of what he has seen and experienced affects the magistrate in inalterable ways, bringing changes in his personality that he cannot understand. Doris Grumbach, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, found the novel a book with “universal reference.” “The intelligence Coetzee brings us in Waiting for the Barbarians comes straight from Scripture and Dostoevsky.”
Responses to Literature
- Ask a few classmates to read Robinson Crusoe along with Foe. In your reading group, discuss why Coetzee might have chosen to alter Robinson Crusoe in the way that he did. Which book is a more entertaining read? Why?
- Ask a classmate who is also reading Waiting for the Barbarians to join you in listening to Philip Glass's operatic version of Waiting for the Barbarians. Discuss whether you think it captures the emotions of the book.
- Read Franz Kafka's The Trial. Coetzee has denied that his Michael K is influenced by Kafka's Josef K Write a short essay explaining whether you think there is a connection.
- Many of Coetzee's novels take the form of diary entries or letters. In a letter to your teacher, explain why you think he chooses this form rather than just tell the story outright.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Coetzee's Foe retells the classic saga of the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe by borrowing a character from the older novel. Here are a few other works that “borrow' characters.
Grendel (1971), a novel by John Gardner. It retells the classic tale of Beowulf— but from the monster's point of view.
Young Frankenstein (1974), a film directed by Mel Brooks. It spoofs Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by having the title character, also a scientist, embarrassed to be Dr. Frankenstein's grandson.
Gallagher, Susan V. A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Goddard, Kevin. J. M. Coetzee: A Bibliography. Grahamstown, South Africa: National English Literary Museum, 1990.
Head, Dominic. J. M. Coetzee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Kossew, Sue, ed. Critical Essays on J. M. Coetzee. New York: G K Hall, 1998.
Moses, Michael Valdez, ed. The Writings of J. M. Coetzee. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Penner, Dick. Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.
J. M. Coetzee
J. M. Coetzee
J. M. Coetzee (born 1940) was a white South African novelist whose writings reflected strong anti-imperialist sentiments.
John M. Coetzee, the son of a sheep farmer, was born in Cape Town in 1940 and was educated in both South Africa and the United States. He earned his B.A. at the University of Cape Town, and his Ph.D. from The University of Texas. After the Sharpeville crisis in South Africa in 1960 he spent ten years outside the country as a student, a lecturer, and an employee in a multi-national corporation. Returning to teach English at the University of Cape Town in 1971, he had a highly cosmopolitan outlook which tended to set him apart from most white South African writers. Indeed, he felt that his writing fit into no recognizably South African literary tradition and was more influenced by the vogue of postmodernist writing in Europe and America of the 1960s, which was also fired by a strongly anti-imperialist commitment, prompted by opposition to the Vietnam War. Thus, though he listed his interests as crowd sports, "apes and humanoid machines," and images such as photographs "and their power over the human heart," he remained a rather isolated figure in Cape Town, separated from his wife and tending to shun human company. In 1984 he did not travel to London to receive in person the Booker Prize for his novel The Life and Times of Michael K.
Coetzee's cosmopolitan outlook helped shape his first novel, Dusklands (1974), which consists of two separate stories which skillfully interweave fact and fiction. Exploring the theme of the western imperial imagination, the novel contrasts the experiences of Eugene Dawn, an American government official put in charge of the New Life project to transform Vietnamese society, who eventually goes insane, and the account of the travels of Jacobus Coetzee into the interior of the Cape in the 18th century. The novel embraces, however, a binding thread in the mental dualism between mind and body prompted by imperial expansion and conquest and, through the ancestor figure of Jacobus Coetzee, the author's search for his own roots in South African society and history.
The publication of Dusklands caused a considerable stir in South African literary circles, as the novel broke with many of the traditions of the colonial novel. Some radical critics, however, charged Coetzee with only partially undermining the colonial conventions of literary realism and taking the western vogue of exploration of the individual self to its extremes.
The publication of Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country, in 1976, however, confirmed his proficiency as a writer and developed especially the theme of the violence and alienation at the roots of western white colonialism. The novel is the first person account of a lonely white spinster, Magda, and of her solitude and incestuous relationship with her father on an isolated Cape farm, sometime in the 19th century. There are many allegorical features to this story, which strips away the thin western veneer behind colonial society to reveal its culturally rootless quality. After being raped by the colored servant, who also kills her father, Magda is left alone on the farm and invents her own metaphysical skygods to worship in the absence of any other meaningful cultural symbols. The author's rejection of the traditional mode of linear and teleological mode of writing was reflected in the numbering of individual paragraphs, and there was no obvious progress through time, but rather a state of mental and emotional timelessness. The novel was received with considerable enthusiasm in both South Africa and Western Europe and North America. It established Coetzee as a writer of international repute.
In 1980 Coetzee published his third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, which continued his allegorical examination of the imperial theme through the eyes of a benevolent liberal imperial official on the frontier of an empire on the verge of collapse. An amateur collector of historical records, the official is concerned to retain a memory of the empire's history before it disappears at the hands of nameless and faceless barbarians who progressively intrude over the empire's borders. Though he tries unsuccessfully to form a relationship with a blind woman barbarian taken prisoner, the official fails in this endeavor and, after returning her to her society, is tortured by new militaristic imperial rulers who are trying to shore up the empire before its final collapse. The novel clearly embraces many themes at the heart of the South African condition, as well as universalizing the dilemma at the heart of imperial conquest generally.
Coetzee was received as a writer who had, in some measure, stepped outside the tight limits of his own society, and his fourth novel, The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), was eagerly awaited.
Life and Times marked in some respects a new departure for Coetzee, for the story had far more naturalistic qualities than his previous novels. The setting in Cape Town, in a near future of riots and breakdown of law and order, had a strongly realistic quality and was undoubtedly shaped by the unrest in South Africa. Michael K, the central character, is a typically Coetzee character: lonely, isolated, and stigmatized with a harelip. Interspersing Michael K's own thoughts within the narrative, the novel follows the progress of its character away from Cape Town, back into the rural terrain, as Michael K flees with his ill mother (who dies on the way) and tries to survive in a situation of social breakdown. The novel was significant for refusing to recognize any racial identities and was concerned with the suffering and redemption of humanity as a whole. Michael K, though, cannot escape the clutches of the disintegrating society and is captured on an abandoned farm and accused of aiding guerrillas. Returning to Cape Town, Michael is left alone, though finds solace in some human company and in the idea that he is a gardener and has in some manner returned to the roots of his society. Concerned to the end with revealing the essential truth about existence, the novel manifested a more puritanical commitment to humanity in the abstract than any particular contemporary political creed or ideology.
In 1987 Coetzee released his next novel, Foe, a clever reinterpretation of Daniel Defoe's classic, Robinson Crusoe.Critics were divided in their assessment of this somewhat unusual work from Coetzee. Some contended that the material seemed a stylistic departure from his previous works, while others held that the new novel was on a continuum with material such as Michael K. In Southern Humanities Review, Ashton Nichols wrote, "Like all of Coetzee's earlier works, Foe retains a strong sense of its specifically South African origins, a sociopolitical subtext that runs along just below the surface of the narrative."
Whereas Foe dealt with South African political issues symbolically, Age of Iron was Coetzee's first novel to address the South African political situation directly. It is the story of Mrs. Curren, a retired teacher, dying of cancer, who for the first time faces the reality of apartheid in her home country. At the end of her life, she's forced for the first time to confront a system that she has never before questioned. Sean French wrote in New Statesman and Society, "Dying is traditionally a process of withdrawal from the world. … Coetzee tellingly reverses this."
Coetzee also delivered an impressive body of nonfiction, with works such as White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988) and Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992). In 1996 he published Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship to favorable reviews.
Coetzee lectured at numerous universities, including the University of Cape Town and Johns Hopkins University. He was distinguished by being a truly multilingual writer, translating work into Dutch, German, French, and Afrikaans. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Booker-McConnell Prize, CNA Literary Award, and the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society.
Further information can be found in Stephen Watson, "Speaking: J. M. Coetzee" in Speak (May-June 1978); Peter Knox-Shaw, "Dusklands: A Metaphysics of Violence" in Contrast (September 1982); Paul Rich, "Tradition and Revolt in South African Fiction" in Journal of Southern African Studies (October 1982), and "Apartheid and the Decline of the Civilization Idea: An Essay on July's People and Waiting for the Barbarians" in Research in African Literature (Fall 1984); and Landeg White and Tim Couzens, Literature and Society in South Africa (London, 1984). □