John Maxwell Coetzee

Names: Coetzee, John Maxwell

Born: 9 February 1940, Cape Town, South Africa

In summary: "I am not a herald of community or anything else. I am someone who has intimations of freedom (as every chained prisoner has) and constructs representations of people slipping their chains and turning their faces to the light."

J. M. Coetzee was born to German and English parents in Cape Town on 9 February 1940. Coetzee spent his childhood in there, as well as in Worcester, a picturesque Western Cape town northeast of the famous South African harbour city. Supporters of the liberal South African party of General Jan Smuts, his parents opposed the conservative Afrikaner nationalists who ultimately came to power in South Africa in 1948, beginning a racist and oppressive apartheid regime.

Coetzee’s formative experience was bilingual, enabling him to depict his Afrikaans and English characters sensitively: "an uncommon occurrence in South African literature which, as part of the legacy of a divided society, is riddled with ethnic stereotypes" believes Michael Marais, PhD, who studied Coetzee. He also advocates that Coetzee's childhood fascination with the semi-desert Karoo landscape, where he spent school holidays on his uncle's farm, was crucial in the choice of later novel settings.

Coetzee married South African Phillipa Jubber in 1963, and was divorced in the 1980s. He had two children, a daughter Gisela, born in 1968, and a son, Nicholas, who died in an accident when 23. Coetzee now lives permanently in Adelaide, Australia.

In the early 1960s he graduated from the University of Cape Town, with degrees in mathematics and English. In 1965 he enrolled at the University of Texas, in Austin, where he completed a doctorate in English Literature and Linguistics in 1972.

In the early 1960s, after graduation, he moved to England, working as a computer programmer. Subsequently, Coetzee taught literature at the University of New York at Buffalo for 3 years, and has enjoyed a successful academic career. Events during his stay in New York may have been pivotal in his life. Arrested for participation in anti-Vietnam War campus demonstrations, Coetzee had to forfeit US permanent residency hopes, and returned to South Africa. He has lectured at many prestigious Universities across the globe, and retired as English professor from Cape Town University in January 2002, a post he held since 1984.

Coetzee is the only author ever to win the Booker prize twice, but the publicity-shy author avoided attending both ceremonies.

Long mentioned as a contender, he was named the 2003 Nobel laureate for Literature. According to permanent secretary of the Swedish Nobel Academy, Horace Endgahl, it was an easy decision to honour Coetzee: "We were very much convinced of the lasting value of his contribution to literature. … I think he is a writer that will continue to be discussed and analyzed and we think should belong to our literary heritage". He further observed that Coetzee's novels are characterized by their well-crafted composition and analytical brilliance, containing stories which often criticize the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilization. The Nobel Academy praised Coetzee for his intellectual honesty and for capturing man's divine spark in moments of defeat and weakness. The only other South African to receive this award was Nadine Gordimer, in 1991.

As a politically engaged author, Coetzee's style has been compared with that of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. The painful and offensive reality of South African apartheid and the conflicts embodied in it appear again and again in Coetzee’s work. He is on record as having said that apartheid values and behaviour could arise anywhere. The landscape in Coetzee’s writing often imaginatively and metaphorically reflects the political tensions he lived through. As one critic put it: “South Africa becomes a nightmarish out-of-time dystopia, yet retains its social reality”.

Although his memoir, Boyhood, received criticism as too emotionally disengaged, he remains critically revered. Two Booker-winners foreground themselves: Life and Times of Michael K, is a story which, through the experience of a mentally disabled black man, traces the tensions of a ravaged country, and Disgrace, a searingly frank appraisal of the post-apartheid social order, which uses a sparser, simpler style. Here Coetzee explores a pervasive question in his work: Is it possible to evade history? To do so he employs the character of a discredited white university teacher, wrestling to defend his own and his daughter's honour in the radically new circumstances of post-apartheid South Africa.

While his autobiographical Boyhood considers his father's humiliation and a resultant psychological rift Coetzee identifies in himself, it also recalls the South African countryside of times past to explore the perpetual Boer-English, white-black conflicts. Its sequel, Youth, has the writer clinically observe himself as a young man, with a precision that is both disturbing in its exposure and engaging in its honesty.

As he is no formulaic writer, there is a richness of variety in Coetzee's works. Extensive reading reveals a recurring pattern, the helplessly degrading ‘journeys’ he holds necessary for the transformation of his characters. One writer explains this: “His protagonists are overwhelmed by the urge to sink but paradoxically derive strength from being stripped of all external dignity”.

References

  • African National Congress (n.d.).Alfred Bitini Xuma ANC President (1940-1949). African National Congress. [accessed 4 March 2004]
  • Joyce, P. (1999). A concise dictionary of South African biography, Cape Town: Francolin Publishers
  • Saunders, C. & Southey, N. (1998). A dictionary of South African history, Cape Town: David Philip