John Maxwell Coetzee (, kuut-SEE , Afrikaans: , kuut-SEE-() ; born 9 February 1940) is a South African novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. He relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide. He became an Australian citizen in 2006.
In 2013, Richard Poplak of the Daily Maverick described Coetzee as “inarguably the most celebrated and decorated living English-language author”. Before receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, Coetzee was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, CNA Prize (thrice), the Prix Femina tranger, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize (twice), among other accolades.
Early life and academia
He was born in Cape Town, Cape Province, Union of South Africa, on 9 February 1940 to Afrikaner parents. His father, Zacharias Coetzee (1912-1988), was an occasional attorney and government employee, and his mother, Vera Coetzee (born Wehmeyer; 1904-1986), a schoolteacher. The family mainly spoke English at home, but John spoke Afrikaans with other relatives.
Coetzee spent most of his early life in Cape Town and in Worcester in Cape Province (modern-day Western Cape), as recounted in his fictionalised memoir, Boyhood (1997). The family moved to Worcester when he was eight, after his father had lost his government job. He attended St. Joseph’s College, a Catholic school in the Cape Town suburb of Rondebosch, later studying mathematics and English at the University of Cape Town and receiving his Bachelor of Arts with Honours in English in 1960 and his Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Mathematics in 1961.
He then relocated to the United Kingdom, in 1962, worked as a computer programmer for IBM in London, and ICT (International Computers and Tabulators) in Bracknell staying until 1965. In 1963, while still in the UK, Coetzee was awarded a Master of Arts degree from the University of Cape Town for a thesis on the novels of Ford Madox Ford entitled “The Works of Ford Madox Ford with Particular Reference to the Novels” (1963). His experiences in England were later recounted in Youth (2002), his second volume of fictionalised memoirs.
Coetzee went to the University of Texas at Austin, in the United States, on the Fulbright Program in 1965, receiving his doctorate in 1969. His PhD dissertation was on computer stylistic analysis of the works of Samuel Beckett and was entitled “The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay in Stylistic Analysis” (1968). In 1968, he began teaching English literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo where he stayed until 1971. It was at Buffalo that he began his first novel, Dusklands.
From as early as 1968 he sought permanent residence in the United States, a process that was finally unsuccessful, in part due to his involvement in protests against the war in Vietnam. In March 1970, he had been one of 45 faculty members who occupied the university’s Hayes Hall and were subsequently arrested for criminal trespass. The charges against the 45 were dropped in 1971. He then returned to South Africa to teach English literature at the University of Cape Town, where he was promoted Professor of General Literature in 1983 and was Distinguished Professor of Literature between 1999 and 2001.
Upon retiring in 2002 and relocating to Adelaide, Australia, he was made an honorary research fellow at the English Department of the University of Adelaide, where his partner, Dorothy Driver, is a fellow academic and served as professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago until 2003.
Awards and recognition
Booker Prizes, 1983 and 1999
He was the first writer to be awarded the Booker Prize twice: first for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and again for Disgrace in 1999. Two other authors have since managed this – Peter Carey (in 1988 and 2001) and Hilary Mantel (in 2009 and 2012).
Summertime, named on the 2009 longlist, was an early favourite to win an unprecedented third Booker Prize for Coetzee. It subsequently made the shortlist, but lost out to bookmakers’ favourite and eventual winner Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Coetzee was also longlisted in 2003 for Elizabeth Costello and in 2005 for Slow Man.
Nobel Prize in Literature, 2003
On 2 October 2003, Horace Engdahl, head of the Swedish Academy, announced that Coetzee had been chosen as that year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the fourth African writer to be so honoured and the second South African after Nadine Gordimer. When awarding the prize, the Swedish Academy stated that Coetzee “in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider”. The press release for the award also cited his “well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance”, while focusing on the moral nature of his work. The prize ceremony was held in Stockholm on 10 December 2003.
Other awards and recognition
A three-time winner of the CNA Prize,Waiting for the Barbarians received both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize,Age of Iron was awarded the Sunday Express Book of the Year award, and The Master of Petersburg was awarded The Irish Times International Fiction Prize in 1995. He has also won the French Prix Femina tranger, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and the 1987 Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society.
Coetzee was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe (gold class) by the South African government on 27 September 2005 for his “exceptional contribution in the field of literature and for putting South Africa on the world stage.” He holds honorary doctorates from The American University of Paris, the University of Adelaide,La Trobe University, the University of Natal, the University of Oxford,Rhodes University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Strathclyde, the University of Technology, Sydney, the Adam Mickiewicz University in Pozna and the Universidad Iberoamericana.
In November 2014, Coetzee was honoured with a three-day academic conference entitled “JM Coetzee in the World”, held in his adopted city of Adelaide. It was described as “the culmination of an enormous collaborative effort and the first event of its kind in Australia” and “a reflection of the deep esteem in which John Coetzee is held by Australian academia”.
Coetzee is known to be reclusive and avoids publicity to such an extent that he did not collect either of his two Booker Prizes in person. The South African writer Rian Malan has said that:
Coetzee is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke, or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.
As a result of his reclusive nature, signed copies of Coetzee’s fiction are highly sought after. Recognising this, he was a key figure in the establishment of Oak Tree Press‘s First Chapter Series, limited edition signed works by literary greats to raise money for the child victims and orphans of the African HIV/AIDS crisis.
Along with Andr Brink and Breyten Breytenbach, Coetzee was, according to Fred Pfeil, at “the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement within Afrikaner literature and letters”. On accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1987, Coetzee spoke of the limitations of art in South African society, whose structures had resulted in “deformed and stunted relations between human beings” and “a deformed and stunted inner life”. He went on to say that “South African literature is a literature in bondage. It is a less than fully human literature. It is exactly the kind of literature you would expect people to write from prison”. He called on the South African government to abandon its apartheid policy. The scholar Isidore Diala states that J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and Andr Brink are “three of South Africa’s most distinguished white writers, all with definite anti-apartheid commitment”.
It has been argued that Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace allegorises South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Asked about his views on the TRC, Coetzee stated, “In a state with no official religion, the TRC was somewhat anomalous: a court of a certain kind based to a large degree on Christian teaching and on a strand of Christian teaching accepted in their hearts by only a tiny proportion of the citizenry. Only the future will tell what the TRC managed to achieve”.
Following his Australian citizenship ceremony, Coetzee said that “I did not so much leave South Africa, a country with which I retain strong emotional ties, but come to Australia. I came because from the time of my first visit in 1991, I was attracted by the free and generous spirit of the people, by the beauty of the land itself and – when I first saw Adelaide – by the grace of the city that I now have the honour of calling my home.” When he initially moved to Australia, he had cited the South African government’s lax attitude to crime in that country as a reason for the move, leading to a spat with Thabo Mbeki, who, speaking of Coetzee’s novel Disgrace stated that “South Africa is not only a place of rape”. In 1999, the African National Congress submission to an investigation into racism in the media by the South African Human Rights Commission named Disgrace as a novel exploiting racist stereotypes. However, when Coetzee won his Nobel Prize, Mbeki congratulated him “on behalf of the South African nation and indeed the continent of Africa”.
Coetzee has never specified any political orientation, though has alluded to politics in his work. Writing about his past in the third person, Coetzee states in Doubling the Point that:
Politically, the raznochinets can go either way. But during his student years he, this person, this subject, my subject, steers clear of the right. As a child in Worcester he has seen enough of the Afrikaner right, enough of its rant, to last him a lifetime. In fact, even before Worcester he has perhaps seen more of cruelty and violence than should have been allowed to a child. So as a student he moves on the fringes of the left without being part of the left. Sympathetic to the human concerns of the left, he is alienated, when the crunch comes, by its language – by all political language, in fact.
Asked about the latter part of this quote in an interview, Coetzee answered, “There is no longer a left worth speaking of, and a language of the left. The language of politics, with its new economistic bent, is even more repellent than it was fifteen years ago”.
In February 2016, Coetzee was one of 61 signatories to a letter to Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and immigration minister Peter Dutton, condemning their government’s policy of offshore detention of asylum seekers.
In 2005, Coetzee criticised contemporary anti-terrorism laws as resembling those employed by the apartheid regime in South Africa: “I used to think that the people who created laws that effectively suspended the rule of law were moral barbarians. Now I know they were just pioneers ahead of their time”. The main character in Coetzee’s 2007 Diary of a Bad Year, which has been described as blending “memoir with fiction, academic criticism with novelistic narration” and refusing “to recognize the border that has traditionally separated political theory from fictional narrative”, shares similar concerns about the policies of John Howard and George W. Bush.
In recent years, Coetzee has become a vocal critic of animal cruelty and advocate for the animal rights movement. In a speech given on his behalf by Hugo Weaving in Sydney on 22 February 2007, Coetzee railed against the modern animal husbandry industry.
The speech was for Voiceless, the animal protection institute, an Australian non-profit animal protection organization, of which he became a patron in 2004. Coetzee’s fiction has similarly engaged with the problems of animal cruelty and animal welfare, in particular his books The Lives of Animals, Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello, and The Old Woman and the Cats. He is a vegetarian.
Coetzee wanted to be a candidate in the 2014 European Parliament election for the Dutch Party for the Animals. His candidature was however rejected by the Dutch election board, which argued that candidates had to prove legal residence in the European Union to be allowed.
For the period 2015-2018, Coetzee has been a director of a seminar on the Literatures of the South at the Universidad Nacional de San Martn. This has involved writers and literary figures from South Africa, Australia, and Argentina. The aim of the seminars, one observer has remarked, is “to develop comparative perspectives on the literatures of the three countries, to establish new intellectual networks, and to build a corpus of translated works from across the South through collaborative publishing ventures.” At the same time he has been involved in a research project in Australia, Other Worlds: Forms of World Literature, for which he is leading a theme on “Everyday Pleasures” that also is focused on the literatures of the South.