9 minute read

J(ohn) M(ichael) Coetzee Biography

Nationality: South African. Born: Cape Town, 1940. Education: The University of Cape Town, B.A. 1960, M.A. 1963; University of Texas, Austin, Ph.D. 1969. Career: Applications programmer, IBM, London, 1962-63; systems programmer, International Computers, Bracknell, Berkshire, 1964-65; Assistant Professor, 1968-71, and Butler Professor of English, 1984, State University of New York, Buffalo. Lecturer, 1972-83, and since 1984 Professor of General Literature, University of Cape Town. Hinkley Professor of English, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1986, 1989. Awards: CNA award 1978, 1980, 1983; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1980; Faber Memorial award, 1980; Booker prize, 1983; Fémina prize (France), 1985; Jerusalem prize, 1987; Sunday Express Book of the Year award, 1990; Mondello prize (Italy), 1994; Irish Times International Fiction prize, 1995; Booker prize, 1999; Commonwealth prize for best book, 2000. D. Litt.: University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1985; State University of New York, 1989. Life Fellow, University of Cape Town; Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1988; Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association (U.S.A.), 1989. Agent: Murray Pollinger, 222 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 0BZ, England.



Dusklands (two novellas). Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1974; London, Secker and Warburg, 1982; New York, Viking, 1985.

In the Heart of the Country. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1977; as From the Heart of the Country, New York, Harper, 1977.

Waiting for the Barbarians. London, Secker and Warburg, 1980;New York, Penguin, 1982.

Life and Times of Michael K. London, Secker and Warburg, 1983;New York, Viking, 1984.

Foe. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1986; New York, Viking, 1987.

Age of Iron. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, RandomHouse, 1990.

The Master of Petersburg. London, Secker and Warburg, and NewYork, Viking, 1994.

Disgrace. New York, Viking, 2000.


White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1988.

Doubling the Point. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1992.

Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. New York, Viking, 1997.

Contributor, Politics, Leadership, and Justice.. Chicago, Great BooksFoundation, 1998.

Editor, with André Brink, A Land Apart: A South African Reader. London, Faber, 1986; New York, Viking, 1987.

Translator, A Posthumous Confession, by Marcellus Emants. Boston, Twayne, 1976; London, Quartet, 1986.

Translator, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, by Wilma Stockenström. Johannesburg, Ball, 1983; London, Faber, 1984.


Critical Studies:

The Novels of J.M. Coetzee by Teresa Dovey, Johannesburg, Donker, 1988; Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J.M. Coetzee by Dick Penner, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1989; Critical Perspectives on J.M. Coetzee, edited by Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson, preface by Nadine Gordimer. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996; Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African Writing: Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J. M. Coetzee by Rosemary Jane Jolly. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1996; J.M. Coetzee by Dominic Head. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1997; Critical Essays on J.M. Coetzee, edited by Sue Kossew. New York, G. K. Hall, 1998.

* * *

J. M. Coetzee is one of the most significant white South African novelists to emerge in the latter half of the twentieth century. His work engages powerfully, though not always directly, with apartheid and its aftermath; but he also brings into the South African novel a concern with the nature of narrative that is more often associated with European and North American postmodernism. It is this combination of textual and political preoccupations, allied to a spare prose style and an unsparingly bleak vision, that gives Coetzee's work its distinctive quality.

Coetzee's indirect approach to apartheid and his questioning of narrative modes is evident in his first novel, Dusklands (1974). This combines and challenges two kinds of imperialist discourse. The first section traces the descent into madness of Eugene Dawn, who is analyzing psychological warfare in Vietnam for the U.S. Defense Department; the second, "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," is supposedly a piece of travel writing by an early explorer of the African Cape. The founding moment of Afrikaner identity, and U.S. imperialism in Vietnam, are thus linked together and ironically subverted. Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country (1977), addressed the South African situation more directly. Its narrator, Magda, a white South African spinster who lives with her father on an isolated farm, provides an account made up of 266 numbered sections in which she gives versions of events that are often contradictory—for example, she twice describes killing her father, once with an axe and once with a gun. She also describes an unsuccessful attempt, after her father's burial, to form a new relationship with the black servants, Hendrik and Anna; her rape by Hendrik and her desertion by both servants; and her final revival of her father. The novel can be read as an allegory of the whole South African position in the 1970s, as white South Africans made increasingly desperate attempts to alter or escape from a situation that was growing more and more violent; it also raises the question of how to write about South Africa in this moment of transition. To an extent, the novel invokes and subverts the tradition of the plaasroman, the lyrical, idealized Afrikaner novel of country life; it also invokes and implicitly interrogates the European literary and philosophical heritage—that of Hegel and Beckett, for instance—that sometimes speaks through Magda.

Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) is narrated by the long-serving, liberal-minded magistrate in a frontier settlement in a vaguely specified "Empire" where the ruthless Colonel Joll is torturing supposed barbarians. The magistrate, observing Joll's activities, is forced to conduct an agonizing analysis of his own unavoidable complicity in oppression and to undergo torture himself after rescuing a "barbarian" girl. Finally, Joll's forces, and many inhabitants, abandon the settlement, leaving a remnant "waiting for the barbarians." The novel can certainly be interpreted as a powerful image of the painful position of the South African white liberal under a violent and paranoid apartheid regime; but it also takes on a more general significance, as a fictional dramatization of one of the ways in which imperial regimes—not only in South Africa—can end.

If Waiting for the Barbarians was, for some critics, too general in its significance, The Life and Times of Michael K (1983) was more specific, at least in its setting: modern South Africa in an era of armed struggle. Michael K is a non-white South African who apparently lives on the margins of politics and society. He leaves his post as a gardener in Cape Town to return his sick mother to the farm where she grew up. She dies on the way, but he continues the journey with her ashes. He finds what may be the farm of which his mother told him, now deserted by the white man, buries her ashes, and starts to cultivate the land. The grandson of the proprietor returns and drives K off, but, after a spell in hospital and in an internment camp, he escapes and goes back to the farm to grow pumpkins and melons. Arrested as a collaborator by South African soldiers who are pursuing guerrillas, K is interned in another camp, and the brief second section of the novel is supposedly by the camp doctor, who tries to understand K. But K escapes once more, and the last section of the novel rises to a powerfully lyrical close in which K imagines himself using a teaspoon on a long string to draw water from the shaft of a sabotaged pump. The Life and Times of Michael K is, characteristically for Coetzee, elusive in its explicit political stance. However, the novel's final affirmation of the possibility of survival and cultivation in the most difficult conditions can be seen as a symbol of a hope that will endure not only in the face of oppression but also beyond the immediate euphoria of liberation. Michael K won Coetzee the United Kingdom's most prestigious literary award, the Booker prize.

Foe (1986) is Coetzee's most sustained encounter with a founding text of imperialism and of the English novel, Daniel Defoe'sRobinson Crusoe (1719). The story is supposedly told by Susan Barton, who is marooned on an island with "Cruso" and a Friday whose tongue has been cut out; in contrast to Defoe's Crusoe and Friday, Coetzee's duo focus simply on survival and build sterile stone terraces. Rescued and returned to England—Cruso dies on the voyage back—Susan and Friday seek out Daniel Foe—Defoe's original surname—to tell their story; Susan and Foe, however, become embroiled in a fight for control of the narrative of Cruso. Questions of authorship are shown not as abstract literary concerns but as bound up with questions of power, control, and empire; the kind of story that is told will have political implications and consequences.

Age of Iron (1990) returns to the contemporary South African situation. It takes the form of a long letter by Mrs. Curren to her daughter in the United States. Mrs. Curren is dying of bone cancer, and her physical disintegration is matched by her abandonment of her identification with the old South Africa as she registers the contrast between the country that the media portray and the violent reality of the "age of iron" around her that is exemplified, above all, by the deaths of the fifteen-year old son of her maid and his friend, shot by police. The novel is a kind of confession of complicity in apartheid with no one present to offer absolution—only the drunken down-andout Vercueil, who does not even respond to Mrs. Curren's words. But this lack of response, Coetzee implies, may make her confession and renunciation less self-justifying, more complete.

The Master of Petersburg (1994) shifts to another site of political struggle, nineteenth-century Russia. In 1869 Coetzee's "Dostoevsky" returns from Europe to St. Petersburg to collect the papers of his dead stepson Pavel, who may have been murdered by the nihilist revolutionary Nechaev. Like Foe, The Master of Petersburg imagines the conflicts leading up to the emergence of a major novel—in this case, Dostoevsky's The Devils (1871-72; also translated as The Possessed and The Demons); and the issues of authorial control and responsibility are focused above all in the confrontation between Coetzee's "Dostoevsky" and Nechaev—and, as in Foe, there is a strong sense that such issues are not only literary but political.

Coetzee's memoir, Boyhood (1997), told in the third person and present tense, was followed by Disgrace, his seventh novel, and his first to be set in post-apartheid South Africa. Its protagonist is a fiftytwo year old Professor of "Communications" who falls into disgrace and loses his university post as a result of a brief affair with a female student. He goes to the Eastern Cape to stay with his lesbian daughter, who is raped by three Africans who attack their home. His daughter does not report the rape and, finding herself pregnant as a result, decides to go ahead and have the child, despite the disgrace involved. Disgrace is a complex, compact, immensely resonant novel about coming to terms with disgrace—transgression, guilt, and punishment in radically changing times. It alludes to the ways in which white South Africans have to come to terms with their guilt at their complicity in the apartheid regime; at the same time it raises the issue of how black South Africans, in the post-apartheid world, will deal with their own transgressions; and it also poses the more global question of male culpability for the oppression of women. Disgrace once again gained Coetzee the Booker prize, making him the first novelist to win it twice. It also demonstrated his capacity, in his late fifties, to produce a fiction that could engage powerfully with the complexities and contradictions, not only of post-apartheid South Africa, but also of the postcolonial and postfeminist world.

—Nicolas Tredell

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Ciara Biography - Wrote Out Goals to Elizabeth David (1913–1992) Biography