J. M. Coetzee
BORN: 1940, Cape Town, South Africa
NATIONALITY: South African
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
In the Heart of the Country (1977)
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
Life and Times of Michael K (1983)
J. M. Coetzee. Coetzee, J. M., photograph by Jerry Bauer. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.
Widely regarded as one of South Africa’s most accomplished contemporary novelists, Coetzee examines the effects of racism, oppression, and fear. While addressing the brutalities and contradictions associated with the South African policy of apartheid, Coetzee writes from an apolitical viewpoint that extends beyond geographic and social boundaries to achieve universal significance. This effect is enhanced through his use of such literary devices as allegory, unreliable narrators, and symbolic settings.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Cape Town. John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 9, 1940, to an attorney father and a schoolteacher mother. He spent most of his childhood in Cape Town and Worcester—a period of his life that he recalls in his autobiographical work Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997). 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. In all probability, his perennial fascination with the primeval aspect of the South African landscape stems from his boyhood visits to this region, which forms the main setting of his novel Life and Times of Michael K (1983).
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. Afrikaners are the descendants of Dutch colonists who settled in South Africa in the seventeenth century, and fought for territory and power against indigenous Africans as well as rival British colonists until their 1940s political victory. When they took power, the Afrikaner-based National Party began implementing the policy of apartheid, which legally separated people by color.
Although Coetzee came from an Afrikaans-speaking background, he attended various English middle schools and, after graduating from a Roman Catholic boys’ school in 1956, went on to study English literature and mathematics at the University of Cape Town, receiving his BA in 1960 and MA in 1963. This bilingual upbringing has enabled Coetzee to depict English- and Afrikaans-speaking characters in his fiction with equal skill— an uncommon occurrence in South African literature, which, as part of the legacy of a divided society, usually is riddled with ethnic stereotypes.
Life Abroad. Having found his studies tedious at the University of Cape Town, particularly in English, Coetzee left South Africa for England in 1962 to pursue a career as a computer programmer, working for International Business Machines (IBM) for two years and then for International Computers from 1964 to 1965. Coetzee completed his master’s thesis in 1963 and married Philippa Jubber the same year; the couple had two children, Nicolas, born in 1966, and Gisela, born in 1968. Evidently, computer programming did not prove rewarding, and he left after fours years. Under a Fulbright exchange program, Coetzee went to the United States and commenced work on a doctoral thesis in English at the University of Texas at Austin.
The time Coetzee spent at the University of Texas crucially influenced his development as a novelist. His doctoral research on the fiction of Samuel Beckett, for example, made a definite impression, as is evident in his use of minimalist scenarios and a limited number of characters. Moreover, in Texas, Coetzee first encountered reports and accounts of the Khoi people, written by early European explorers, travelers, and missionaries in South Africa. These documents provided the germ for his first work, the novellas of Dusklands (1974). Another important influence from this period on his writing was the Vietnam War, which reached its height during his stay in the United States. The war affected Coetzee deeply, and, besides prompting him to take part in an antiwar demonstration (for which he was arrested), it impelled him to make a comparison of U.S. imperialism and South African colonialism.
International Success. Coetzee stayed in the United States while writing his dissertation, which he completed in 1969. As an assistant professor, he taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1968 to 1971. Dusklands was published two years after Coetzee’s return to South Africa, where he took up a lecturing position in English at the University of Cape Town in 1972 before becoming a full professor in 1982. Apartheid continued to be a powerful force in South Africa, though there was some effort, even among Afrikaners, to do away with the policy. By the mid-1970s, black nationalist groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) and other rebel movements sometimes resorted to violence to protest apartheid.
In the Heart of the Country (1977) was the first of Coetzee’s novels to be published in both South Africa and the United States. Coetzee’s strong international reputation was established with In the Heart of the Country and solidified with his next novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). Life and Times of Michael K corresponds thematically to Coetzee’s earlier works but includes a new dimension in its focus on the oppression of a single character. Michael K is a slow-witted outcast who searches with his mother for a home during a turbulent period of an unnamed country’s civil war. Although Coetzee has denied the similarities, critics frequently compare Michael K and the character K in Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial. Like Kafka’s K, Michael K is victimized by social forces he can neither control nor understand.
End of Apartheid. In his collection of essays, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988), Coetzee continues to investigate the power of language by analyzing the works of white South African writers. Attempting to expose the relationship between language and cultural identity, Coetzee focuses on how European values and conventions are reflected in South African policies and attitudes concerning property and government. The novel Age of Iron (1990) traces the experiences of Elizabeth Curren, a white South African woman suffering from cancer who writes long letters to her daughter in the United States. While representing Coetzee’s abiding concerns with human suffering and the dissolution of oppressive and racist regimes, Age of Iron also reflects recent positive changes in South Africa. Some legal aspects of apartheid were abandoned by the South African government in the mid-1980s, and violent political protest continued until more reforms were put in place in the late 1980s. Apartheid essentially ended in the early 1990s, and South Africa became a democracy in the mid-1990s.
Coetzee’s publications in the 1990s and early 2000s often reflected these changes. The essays in Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1996) looks at how censorship affects writers under three regimes, including apartheid. Coetzee became more personal in two volumes of autobiography, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life and its follow-up, Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002). In the first book, he recounts his childhood while commenting on the contradictions of apartheid and subtle distinctions of class and ethnicity. Postapartheid South Africa is fictionally examined in the critically praised Disgrace (1999). Because of Coetzee’s constant and sensitive attention to the issues of his time and place led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. He continues to teach English at the University of Cape Town and to produce new works.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Coetzee's famous contemporaries include:
Alan Paton (1903-1988): South African writer and activist most famous for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country.
Nelson Mandela (1918- ): Former president of South Africa and antiapartheid activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Stephen Biko (1946-1977): South African antiapartheid activist who died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.
Barbara Kingsolver (1955- ): American novelist whose Poisonwood Bible (1998) won the National Book Prize of South Africa.
Works in Literary Context
The South African environment in which Coetzee was raised and spent much of his life profoundly shaped his work and moral compass. In both his fiction and nonfiction, he often explores apartheid, its effect on all South Africans, and the fallout after its demise. While addressing the brutalities and contradictions associated with both colonial oppression and apartheid, Coetzee often writes from an apolitical viewpoint that extends beyond the geographic and social boundaries to achieve universal significance.
Apartheid. Often using his native South Africa as a backdrop, Coetzee explores the implications of oppressive societies on the lives of their inhabitants. Coetzee’s second novel, In the Heart of the Country, explores racial conflict and mental deterioration. A spinster daughter, Magda, tells the story in diary form, recalling the consequences of her father’s seduction of his African workman’s wife. In Age of Iron Coetzee addresses the crisis of South Africa in direct rather than allegorical form. It’s the story of Mrs. Curren, a retired professor dying of cancer and attempting to deal with the realities of apartheid in Cape Town. As her disease and the chaos of her homeland progress, Mrs. Curren feels the effects her society has had on its black members. The book takes the form of a letter from Mrs. Curren to her daughter, who lives in the United States because she cannot tolerate apartheid.
Muteness and Speech. Foe, a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, marked a transitional stage for Coetzee. Central to this story are the mute Friday, whose tongue was cut out by slavers, and Susan Barton, the castaway who struggles to communicate with him. Daniel Foe, the author who endeavors to tell Barton’s story, is also affected by Friday’s speechlessness. Both recognize their duty to provide a means by which Friday can relate the story of his escape from the fate of his fellow slaves who drowned, still shackled, when their ship sank, but also question their right to speak for him.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Coetzee's Foe retells the classic saga of the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe by borrowing a character from the older novel. Here are a few other works that ''borrow' characters.
The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a novel by Jean Rhys. It tells the sad story of the first Mrs. Rochester, from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
Grendel (1971), a novel by John Gardner. It retells the classic tale of Beowulf—but from the monster's point of view.
Young Frankenstein (1974), a film directed by Mel Brooks. It spoofs Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by having the title character, also a scientist, embarrassed to be Dr. Frankenstein's grandson.
Works in Critical Context
Often using his native South Africa as a backdrop, Coetzee explores the implications of oppressive societies for the lives of their inhabitants. As a South African, however, Coetzee is “too intelligent a novelist to cater for moralistic voyeurs,’’ Peter Lewis declared in the Times Literary Supplement. ‘‘This does not mean that he avoids the social and political crises edging his country towards catastrophe. But he chooses not to handle such themes in the direct, realistic way that writers of older generations, such as Alan Paton, preferred to employ. Instead, Coetzee has developed a symbolic and even allegorical mode of fiction—not to escape the living nightmare of South Africa but to define the psychopathological underlying the sociological, and in doing so to locate the archetypal in the particular.’’
Waiting for the Barbarians. In Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee, ‘‘with laconic brilliance, articulates one of the basic problems of our time—how to understand ... the mentality behind the brutality and injustice,’’ Anthony Burgess wrote in New York magazine. In the story, a magistrate who attempts to protect the peaceful nomadic people of his district is imprisoned and tortured by the army that arrives at the frontier town to destroy the ‘‘barbarians’’ on behalf of the empire. The horror of what he has seen and experienced affects the magistrate in inalterable ways, bringing changes in his personality that he cannot understand. Doris Grumbach, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, found the novel a book with ‘‘universal reference.’’ ‘‘The intelligence Coetzee brings us in Waiting for the Barbarians comes straight from Scripture and Dostoevsky.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Ask a few classmates to read Robinson Crusoe along with Foe. In your reading group, discuss why Coetzee might have chosen to alter Robinson Crusoe in the way that he did. Which book is a more entertaining read? Why?
2. Ask a classmate who is also reading Waiting for the Barbarians to join you in listening to Philip Glass’s operatic version of Waiting for the Barbarians. Discuss whether you think it captures the emotions of the book.
3. Read Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Coetzee has denied that his Michael K is influenced by Kafka’s Josef K. Write a short essay explaining whether you think there is a connection.
4. Many of Coetzee’s novels take the form of diary entries or letters. In a letter to your teacher, explain why you think he chooses this form rather than just tell the story outright.
Attwell, David. J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.
Gallagher, Susan V. A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee’s Fiction in Context. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Goddard, Kevin. J. M. Coetzee: A Bibliography. Grahamstown, South Africa: National English Literary Museum, 1990.
Head, Dominic. J. M. Coetzee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Kossew, Sue, ed. Critical Essays on J. M. Coetzee. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.
Moses, Michael Valdez, ed. The Writings of J. M. Coetzee. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Penner, Dick. Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.