Biography of J. M. Coetzee (b. 1940 - )
|February 9, 1940: John Maxwell [né
Michael] Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, "the
elder of two children. His mother was a primary school teacher. His father
was trained as an attorney, but practiced as such only intermittently"
(Coetzee). "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" (Marais). "Though Coetzee's parents
were not of British descent, the language spoken at home was English" (Coetzee),
and English was the primary language of instruction at primary schools
Coetzee attended in Cape Town and nearby Worcester, and at the Catholic
boys' school, run by Marist Brothers in Cape Town, where he received his
secondary education. "He spent most of his
childhood in Cape Town and Worcester--a period of his life that he recalls
in his autobiography, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life
(1997). It is noteworthy that 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" (Marais). This
region is a main setting in his novel Life & Times of Michael K
(1983). His "bilingual upbringing has enabled Coetzee to depict
English- and Afrikaans-speaking characters in his fiction with equal
facility . . ." (Marais).
1957-1961: Coetzee studied English and mathematics at the University of Cape Town, earning successive honours degrees in both subjects (1960, 1961). Hatred of Apartheid, fear of conscription into Nationalist military police, a desire to pursue his writing career as a poet and live life fully in less provincial and constricted surroundings are among the reasons, developed in Boyhood and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002), Coetzee left South Africa and moved to London, England in 1962.
1962-1965: In England, Coetzee worked as a computer programmer, first for IBM (1962-63) in London, a lonely provincial colonial outsider who haunted the bookshops and the British Library's Reading Room, began "doing research for a thesis on the English novelist Ford Madox Ford" (Coetzee). According to Youth, Coetzee found his poetry writing running dry, no exciting young woman coming into his life, and himself seemingly good only at being thoroughly and drably miserable. He quit his soul-killing job at IBM, though he had little money saved. Marais reports that Coetzee completed his master's thesis on Ford Madox Ford and earned his M.A. in English from the University of Cape Town in 1963. Determined not to go back to South Africa and required to maintain a job to stay in the U.K., Coetzee next worked as a computer systems programmer job with International Computers (1964-65), relocating to Bracknell, Berkshire, which involved him both with brilliant Cambridge University mathematicians (which he enjoyed) and with secret British military weapons development (which he deplored). These years in England are the subject of Youth, the second installment of his memoirs, retracing stimulating literary opinions of the authors he reads, excitement about Samuel Beckett, experiments in computer-generated poetry, tentative interest in writing prose fiction, rather than poetry, but ending with a bleak assessment of his present state: "cold, frozen," "not a poet, not a writer, not an artist" (Youth 168). Notably absent in Youth is any mention of his marriage, in 1963, to Phillippa Jubber. In the brief biography he provided to the Nobel Foundation in 2004, Coetzee describes Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002) as "fictionalized memoirs," and reports: "In 1963 he married Philippa Jubber (1939-1991). They had two children, Nicolas (1966-1989) and Gisela (b.1968)." (Coetzee).
1965-1971: A Fulbright exchange program enabled Coetzee to leave England in 1965, and enter graduate school at the University of Texas-Austin. In 1969, he completed a doctoral dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett and earned his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages (Marais; Coetzee).
Coetzee, J. M. "How I
Learned about America - and Africa - in Texas." J. M. Coetzee Special
Section. World Literature Today 78.1 (Jan.-April 2004): 6-7 (2pp).
Academic Search Premier (11810868). EBSCOhost. Central Oregon
Community College Library, Bend, OR. 6 Sep. 2004.
"For three years (1968-71) Coetzee was assistant professor of English at the State University of New York in Buffalo," and Coetzee also reports in his Nobel biography that he "began writing fiction in 1969." 'The time Coetzee spent at the University of Texas crucially influenced his development as a novelist," according to Marais. Coetzee's "use of minimalist scenarios and a limited number of characters" suggests the influence of Beckett's fiction; and Coetzee's study of "reports and accounts of the Khoi people, written by early European explorers, travelers, and missionaries in South Africa," probably "provided the germ for his first work, Dusklands , specifically for "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" (Marais). Marais also points out that Coetzee was "deeply" affected by the U.S. Vietnam War, arrested for participating in an antiwar demonstration, and led to "comparison of U.S. colonialism with South African colonialism" evidenced in "The Vietnam Project," the second novella that comprises Dusklands (Marais). "After an application for permanent residence in the United States was denied, [Coetzee] returned to South Africa" (Coetzee).
1972-1984: At the University of Capetown, Coetzee took the position of lecturer in English from 1972-1982. Two years after his return, he published his first novel Dusklands (1974) in South Africa. In 1975, Coetzee delivered an unpublished address to a student group, "The Writer and the University: Notes on the Economics of Writing," in which "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 the South African Customs" (cited in Marais). Nevertheless, Coetzee's second novel In the Heart of the Country (1977) "won South Africa's then principal literary award, the CNA prize, and was published in Britain and the USA" (Coetzee). Prof. Coetzee understandably prefers to keep his private life private, but he could not prevent others from knowing that he and his wife Phillippa had separated, then were divorced in 1980, the same year that he published his next novel. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) earned international as well as national accolades, including a second CNA award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Geoffrey Faber Award. But, as Coetzee tersely acknowledges in his Nobel biography, "[h]is reputation was confirmed by Life & Times of Michael K (1983), which won Britain's Booker Prize," one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world, as well as the Prix Femina Etranger in France, and yet another CNA Literary Award in South Africa. In 1983, Coetzee was advanced to the position of Professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town.
1984-2002: While remaining on the faculty of the University of Cape Town until 2000, Coetzee accepted several offers made by some of the most prestigious universities in the United States between 1984 to 2003. Coetzee served as Butler Professor of English at State University of New York at Buffalo in 1984 and 1986, as Hinkley Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University in 1986 and 1989, as visiting Professor of English at Harvard University in 1991. He also taught at "Stanford University, and the University of Chicago, where for six years he was a member of the Committee on Social Thought" (Coetzee). Some insight into Coetzee's desire to escape his native South African is provided by his 1987 acceptance speech upon award of the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society for The 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 stuntedness and deformity.' He then commented that South African literature 'is a literature of bondage. . . . a less than fully human literature'" (cited in Marais). 1989 brought personal tragedy: his son, Nicolas, "was killed in an accident at the age of 23" (Price).
Coetzee's literary accomplishments during this period of transnational migration were extraordinary. He wrote and published Foe (1986), a woman's retelling of Daniel Defoe's classic Robinson Crusoe which continues to stimulate lively literary critical debate; Age of Iron (1990), "a novel that focuses on the deforming impact of apartheid structures on life and art in South Africa" (Marais); The Master of Petersburg (1994), reimagining the life of Dostoevsky in late 19th-century Russia, written while South Africa's apartheid government finally collapsed in the late 20th century; and Disgrace (1999), a novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, which won the Booker Prize and earned Coetzee the distinction of being the only author ever to win this prestigious international prize twice. Coetzee originally read The Lives of Animals (1999) as a Tanner Lecture in the Humanities at Princeton University: the central text is itself a fictionalized lecture on animal rights, delivered by a fictional character, elderly novelist Elizabeth Costello, with interpolations by academics representing various disciplines responding to the lecture (Marais). Lives of Animals was later integrated into the novel Elizabeth Costello (2003).
Yet Coetzee's accomplishments do not stop there. Coetzee is that "'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'" (cited in “J(ohn) M(axwell) Coetzee, 1940"). Coetzee's periodical publications of literary criticism and reviews are numerous, and his major book collections include White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1987); Doubling the Point (1992), essays and interviews with David Attwell; Giving Offense (1996), a study of literary censorship; and Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986-1999 (2001). Furthermore, "Coetzee has also been active as a translator of Dutch and Afrikaans literature" (Coetzee), as well as of French and German literature (“J(ohn) M(axwell) Coetzee, 1940-"). By 2000, Coetzee was Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of Capetown (Coetzee).
As Coetzee's literary stature and international fame have increased, so has his reputation as a reclusive private man. Coetzee declined to appear in London to receive both his first and second Booker Prizes, and is reluctant to give interviews. "Coetzee told [Allister] Sparks [Washington Post] 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'" (“J(ohn) M(axwell) Coetzee, 1940- ”). As Jennifer Szalai, Harper's Magazine senior editor, summarized in 2004: "The urge to confess, to explain oneself to others, seems to hold little temptation for the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, whose lean prose is matched by a resolute unwillingness to talk about it. Recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize for literature, author of more than fifteen volumes of fiction and criticism, the sixty-four-year-old Coetzee rarely grants interviews, and when he does, questions about the meaning of his work are politely rebuffed" (Szalai 85).
Even so, this private man has begun publishing his remarkable memoirs: to date the first two installments, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002), have appeared.
2002: Coetzee "emigrated to to Australia," where, as of April 2004, "[h]e lives with his partner Dorothy Driver in Adelaide, South Australia, . . . [and] holds an honorary position at the University of Adelaide" (Coetzee).
2003: J. M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; named Life Fellow, University of Cape Town; and Puterbaugh Fellow, University of Oklahoma.
2004: Coetzee is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide, Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and Honorary Fellow of the Modern Language Association.
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Works Cited (in Biography section above)
Coetzee, J. M. "J. M.
Coetzee - Biography."
Nobel e-Museum. Nobel Foundation, Swedish
“J(ohn) M(axwell) Coetzee, 1940- .” 2 Oct. 2003. Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2003. Gale Literature Resource Center [Online Subscription Database]. The Gale Group, 2004. Central Oregon Community College Library, Bend, OR. 17 August 2004.
NOTE: Gale Literature Resource Center subscription database articles are available online to COCC students.
“J. M. Coetzee, February 9, 1940- .” Dictionary of Literary Biography,
Price, Jonathan. "J. M. Coetzee." Fall
2000. Post Colonial Studies at Emory. Ed. Deepika
Wästberg, Per. “The
Nobel Prize in Literature 2003.” Presentation Speech, Stockholm
Special Section on J. M. Coetzee was
World Literature Today 78.1
Clark, David Draper. Editor's Note: J. M. Coetzee Special Section. World Literature Today 78.1 (Jan.-April 2004): 3-5 (3pp). Academic Search Premier (11810867). EBSCOhost. Central Oregon Community College Library, Bend, OR. 6 Sep. 2004.
EBSCO Academic Search Premier subscription database articles are available online to COCC students.
Under Construction: J. M. Coetzee: Major Works & Bibliography | Disgrace (1999) Reading Guide
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