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John Maxwell Coetzee, Nobel Prize in Literature, 2003

Current Location:: Adelaide, SA, Australia
Birthdate: (74)
Birthplace: Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa
Immediate Family:

Son of Zacharias Coetzee and Vera Coetzee
Ex-husband of <private> Coetzee (Jubber)
Partner of <private> Driver
Father of Nicolas Coetzee and <private> Coetzee
Brother of David Keith Coetzee

Occupation: Author and academic from South Africa
Managed by: Sharon Doubell
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About J.M. Coetzee

John Maxwell Coetzee (born 9 February 1940) is an author and academic from South Africa. He is now an Australian citizen and lives in Adelaide, South Australia. A novelist and literary critic as well as a translator, Coetzee has won the Booker Prize twice and was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, "who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider".

Early life and education

Coetzee was born in Cape Town, Cape Province, Union of South Africa, on 9 February 1940 to parents of Afrikaner descent. His father was an occasional lawyer, government employee and sheep farmer, and his mother a schoolteacher. The family spoke English at home, but Coetzee spoke Afrikaans with other relatives. The family were descended from early Dutch immigrants dating to the 17th century, although his maternal grand-grandfather - Baltazar Dubiel - was Polish.

Coetzee spent most of his early life in Cape Town and in Worcester in Cape Province (modern-day Western Cape) as recounted in his fictionalized memoir, Boyhood (1997). The family moved to Worcester when Coetzee was eight after his father lost his government job due to disagreements over the state's apartheid policy. Coetzee attended St. Joseph's College, a Catholic school in the Cape Town suburb of Rondebosch, and later studied mathematics and English at the University of Cape Town, receiving his Bachelor of Arts with Honours in English in 1960 and his Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Mathematics in 1961.

Coetzee married Philippa Jubber in 1963 and divorced in 1980. He had a daughter, Gisela (born 1968), and a son, Nicolas (born 1966), from the marriage. Nicolas died in 1989 at the age of 23 in an accident.

Academic and literary career

Coetzee relocated to the United Kingdom in 1962, where he worked as a computer programmer, staying until 1965. He worked for IBM in London. In 1963, while working in the UK, he was awarded a Master of Arts degree from the University of Cape Town for a dissertation on the novels of Ford Madox Ford. His experiences in England were later recounted in Youth (2002), his second volume of fictionalized memoirs.

Coetzee went to the University of Texas at Austin, in the United States, on the Fulbright Program in 1965. He received a PhD in linguistics there in 1969. His PhD thesis was on computer stylistic analysis of the works of Samuel Beckett. 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 started his first novel, Dusklands. In 1971, Coetzee sought permanent residence in the United States, but it was denied due to his involvement in anti-Vietnam-War protests. In March 1970, Coetzee had been one of 45 faculty members who occupied the university's Hayes Hall and were subsequently arrested for criminal trespass. He then returned to South Africa to teach English literature at the University of Cape Town. He was promoted to Professor of General Literature in 1983 and was Distinguished Professor of Literature between 1999 and 2001. Upon retiring in 2002, Coetzee relocated to Adelaide, Australia, where 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. He served as professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago until 2003. In addition to his novels, he has published critical works and translations from Dutch and Afrikaans.

On 6 March 2006, Coetzee became an Australian citizen.

In June 2011 he gave a reading from his new book at the University of York, UK, though no title or release date has been made available.

Personality and reputation

Coetzee is known as reclusive and eschews publicity to such an extent that he did not collect either of his two Booker Prizes in person. Author 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, a series of limited edition signed works by literary greats to raise money for the child victims and orphans of the African HIV/AIDS crisis.

Achievements and awards

Coetzee has gained many awards throughout his career, although he has a reputation for avoiding award ceremonies. His novel Waiting for the Barbarians was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and he is three-times winner of the CNA 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 Étranger, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and the 1987 Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society.

He was the first author to be awarded the Booker Prize twice: first for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and again for Disgrace in 1999. Only one author has matched this since – Peter Carey, an Australian. Coetzee was named on the longlist for the 2009 prize for Summertime and was an early favourite to win. Coetzee subsequently made the shortlist, but lost out to bookmakers' favourite and eventual winner Hilary Mantel. Coetzee was also longlisted in 2003 for Elizabeth Costello and in 2005 for Slow Man.

On 2 October 2003 it was announced that he was to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the fifth 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. 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 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 and the University of Technology, Sydney.

Politics

Political orientation

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 said:

   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.

Views on South Africa

Along with André 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. Scholar Isidore Diala states that J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and André 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 has 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".

Criticism of anti-terrorism laws

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 [South Africa's] 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.

Animal rights

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, an Australian non-profit animal protection organization. Coetzee's fiction has similarly engaged with the problems of animal cruelty and animal welfare, in particular his books Disgrace, The Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello. He is vegetarian.

See also: "J. M. Coetzee - Photo Gallery". Nobelprize.org.

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J.M. Coetzee's Timeline

1940
February 9, 1940
Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa
1963
1963
Age 22
South Africa
1966
1966
Age 25
South Africa
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