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Notes on J.M. Coetzee

One of South Africa's most renowned writers, J.M. Coetzee is known for his portrayal of his native country both during and after apartheid. His postcolonial orientation draws upon myth and allegory as freely as it does realism. Coetzee is further distinguished by his acute awareness of marginalization, his affinity for rural settings, and his unique take on ethno-linguistic identity.

John Maxwell Coetzee was born on Feb. 9Th 1940 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".
His parents were Zacharias and Vera Wehmeyer Coetzee. Although Zacharias grew up on a farm in Worchester, a rural Afrikaans community in Cape Town, he took advantage of the educational resources available to him and became a lawyer for the city government while Vera worked as a teacher. The installment of the Nationalist Party in 1948 brought grave consequences for the Coetzee family. Because of his opposition to the legalization of apartheid, Zacharias was dismissed as a government lawyer. At this time, John Maxwell was eight and the family moved back to the Coetzee family farm in Worchester. There, Zacharias farmed sheep and kept books for the local fruit-canning factory. Although the young boy developed a fond affinity for the farm, it was during his time in Worchester that John came to understand what it was like to be marginalized.
Zacharias' family were Afrikaners, people of Dutch South African descent. For the most part, Afrikaners were Protestants belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church and spoke Afrikaans, a Dutch South African dialect. Because of the political dissent between the English and the Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans, the school systems for whites were segregated along linguistic lines. John, however, did not fit neatly into Afrikaans culture. He attended English-medium classes and claimed to be Catholic. He loved reading English literature and never fully identified with rural Afrikaans children, who he found to be rough, coarse, and poor. Although Afrikaans nationalism was at its height, the people were in the midst of an agricultural depression.
"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 semi-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).
The family moved back to Cape Town in 1951 and Zacharias opened up a law firm, which failed because of Zacharias' inability to manage money. The family became more and more dependent on Vera's humble earnings as a teacher. As a young child, John Maxwell was very close to his mother, but had trouble understanding the nuanced racism of South Africa. Coetzee says in his autobiography Boyhood, which is written in third person:
[John Maxwell] is always trying to make sense of his mother. Jews are exploiters, she says; yet she prefers Jewish doctors because they know what they are doing. Colored people are the salt of the earth, she says, yet she and her sisters are always gossiping about pretend-whites with secret Colored backgrounds. He cannot understand how she can hold so many contradictory beliefs at the same time.
Young Coetzee struggled to make sense of his world. On the farm, Coetzee had been told that the Colored laborers belonged on the land their ancestors had inhabited, yet he did not understand their unchanging subservient position. In Cape Town, Coetzee observed how the laws increasingly restricted these people to these low-paying jobs.
For high school, Coetzee attended St. Joseph's and continued to the University of Cape Town (1957-1960), where he received a B.A. in English in 1960 and a B.A. in Mathematics in 1961.
Coetzee left South Africa and moved to London, England in 1962, where he worked as a computer programmer for IMB until 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). In England he completed a thesis on the novelist Ford Maddox Ford and earned his master's degree from the University of Cape Town in 1965.
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. Coetzee met and married his wife, Philippa Jubber, in 1963. While in America, they had a son in 1966 and a daughter in 1968. He and his wife divorced in 1980.
Coetzee has said "all autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography", and has published three volumes of fictionalised memoir
An intensely private man, who has twice declined to collect a Booker prize in person, Coetzee was persuaded to collaborate on the biography by the late professor of Afrikaans and Dutch at Stellenbosch University. Kannemeyer, who died on 25 December 2011, was the first researcher to be given complete access to Coetzee's private documents, including the manuscripts of his 16 novels. He also spoke at length to the author, and was put in touch by Coetzee with the author's family, friends and colleagues. That's how JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing was written. It wasn't published until 2014, 3 years after its author had died.

This autobiography corrects common misperceptions. One such is the myth that Coetzee’s son Nicolas, who died in 1989 at the age of 22, was killed in a car crash. In fact, he fell from the balcony of his 11th-floor Johannesburg flat, leaving finger-marks as evidence of his frantic attempts to save himself, apparently scotching the theory of suicide.
Coetzee had a difficult relationship with his son, and they were not reconciled; yet he was consoled, pitifully, tragically, by the simple fact that Nicolas had a postcard from him in his possession when he died: evidence that he could still reach his son. Future readers of The Master of Petersburg will find the poignancy of the grieving Dostoevsky intensified where he is presented with the last letter he wrote to his dead stepson, who has fallen to his death from a tall building.
Coetzee’s marriage to and relationship with Philippa Jubber, entirely absent from his autobiographical works. Kannemeyer has an uphill task to write Philippa back into the story, and he records some affecting episodes, especially concerning her death. But there is no sense of what drew them together, or what drove them apart.
Gisele suffered years of health issues, including a worsening epilepsy condition that would come to compromise virtually every aspect of her life. 
Kannemeyer seems embarrassed to pry into Coetzee's private life, and supplies only minimal insights into his marriage to Philippa Jubber in 1963: what drew them together; why did they marry so quickly after his return to South Africa from England, where Coetzee had ''slept with a succession of women, but gained at most physical relief, routine without passion''; what drove them apart? After 17 years of marriage, divorce followed: Coetzee blamed himself, but Kannemeyer does not attempt an explanation other than to hint that Coetzee considered himself partly autistic, and that he accused himself of ''stinginess at various levels''.
Coetzee's private life has been deeply touched with tragedy: ranging from Philippa's terrible death of cancer, to their son Nicolas' fall from a high-rise balcony, which may have been accident, to the epilepsy and depression of Coetzee's daughter Gisela. But Kannemeyer deals with such matters in the sparsest language and as unemotionally as is possible.
In 1965 Coetzee moved to America in pursuit of a Ph.D.; he enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Texas at Austin (Fullbright exchange programme) where in 1969 he completed a doctoral thesis on Samuel Beckett's English fiction and earned his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages. During his studies, Coetzee came across a 1760 account of explorations into South Africa written by one of his remote ancestors, Jacobus Coetzee. The account latter became a seed for his first published work of fiction. In 1968, Coetzee moved to the State University in New York at Buffalo to pursue a job in academia; the campus, meanwhile, was consumed by the Vietnam anti-war movement. Coetzee also reports in his Nobel biography that he "began writing fiction in 1969. 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" Coetzee returned to the University of Cape Town as a professor of literature in 1972 after being refused permanent residence in the United States.
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.
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.
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"
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.
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'"
"Coetzee has also been active as a translator of Dutch and Afrikaans literature", as well as of French and German literature. By 2000, Coetzee was Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of Capetown. We get a sense of the hunger for knowledge and gift for linguistics that would see him master not only his native tongues of English and Afrikaans but also French, German, and Dutch as well as gaining a level of proficiency at the very least in languages like Spanish and Russian.
'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'"
It is commonly believed that Coetzee's decision to leave South Africa for good in 2002 and settle in Australia was in direct reaction to the African National Congress's negative comments about Disgrace, which won the Booker Prize in 1999. Although this could have tipped the balance, it would be an oversimplification to ascribe his departure exclusively to that.
When, in February 2004, Coetzee symbolically received the keys of the city from a cheering multitude of its citizens, he described Adelaide as a paradise on earth. For the 2004 Adelaide Writers Week, thousands of people gathered on the lawns in the centre of the city to listen to their favourite writers from Australia and elsewhere. An unusual guest that year was a writer straddling the divide: the South African John Coetzee, who had settled in South Australia.
On March 6, 2006, on the opening day of the Adelaide Writers Week, Coetzee officially received Australian citizenship at a special ceremony in a tent. Festivalgoers watched the new citizen take his oath of allegiance to Australia and heard him address the crowd:
"In becoming a citizen one undertakes certain duties and responsibilities. One of the more intangible of those duties and responsibilities is, no matter what one's birth and background, to accept the historical past of the new country as one's own."
Coetzee, however, kept his South African nationality and he reiterated the sentiment he had repeatedly expressed before:
"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."
Australia changed him into a happier and more relaxed man, whose Australian novels reveal his work is still rapidly developing. This important biography, though marred by occasional clunky writing and an inadequate index, sheds more light on a great writer than anything that has appeared previously.
J. M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; named Life Fellow, University of Cape Town; and Puterbaugh Fellow, University of Oklahoma.
2003 Nobel Prize in Literature citation to Prof. J. M. Coetzee:
"who in innumerable guises portrays
the surprising involvement of the outsider."
Coetzee's work runs like a high-tension cable across an inhospitable South African landscape. . . . 
"In the dystopian novel 
Disgrace, David Lurie does not achieve creativity and freedom until, stripped of all dignity, he is afflicted by his own shame and history's disgrace. In this work, Coetzee summarises his themes: race and gender, ownership and violence, and the moral and political complicity of everyone in that borderland where the languages of liberation and reconciliation carry no meaning.”
"Dear John Coetzee . . . You are a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on your own, starting with the basic words for our deepest concerns. Unsettling and surprising us, you have dug deeply into the ground of the human condition with its cruelty and loneliness. You have given a voice to those outside the hierarchies of the mighty. With intellectual honesty and density of feeling, in a prose of icy precision, you have unveiled the masks of our civilization and uncovered the topography of evil.”

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. He lives with his partner Dorothy Driver, another scholar. 

with Dorothy Driver

The above text s a compilation of following sources: