Thursday, February 14, 2013
J M Coetzee: A Life in Writing - Reviewed by Gordon McLauchlan
J M Coetzee: A Life in Writing by J C Kannemeyer (Scribe, Melbourne)
With two Booker Prizes and the Nobel Prize for Literature, doctorates from Oxford and many other universities, innumerable literary prizes (although this biographer boringly tries to count them), J. M. Coetzee is the most acclaimed novelist and literary scholar of his time.
He is renowned for the spare and chiselled language and the bleakness of the characters and settings in his South African novels. One reviewer referred to him as a “prose surgeon”.
This biography was written in Afrikaans by J C Kannemeyer, and translated into English. It was authorised by its subject who co-operated willingly. It is replete with facts and voluminous quotes from comments by and about Coetzee as person, scholar and writer; yet the man himself escapes from these 250,000 words; remains aloof, apart, at least to those outside his circle of friends.
He is a vegetarian teetotaller, deeply offended by the meat industry, a calculating secretive introvert, free of the pull of impulse, an obsessive cyclist, formidably clever, a teacher admired by literary academics in North America and Britain for his critical erudition, a man whose earliest academic success was as a mathematician.
A South African journalist wrote that a colleague who had worked with Coetzee said “he had seen him laugh just once”, that an acquaintance had attended several dinner parties where Coetzee had “uttered not a single word.”
To which Coetzee replied, with typical taciturnity, when asked about this years later: “He does not know me and is not qualified to talk about my character.”
On the rare occasions he has agreed to answer journalists’ questions, his answers , impatient and patronising, have generally been as brief as the questions. He has turned down almost every invitation to advance his popular image, including a documentary on his life. But I must say I delighted in one answer in a session with an Arabian journalist.
Q. You don’t enjoy fame; why?
A. Fame is for the future to decide. All that the present can offer is celebrity.
But ascetics are hard to like, impossible to love. In Coetzee’s case there is so much push-back from the interest and pleasure of meeting and mixing with a diversity of people that he seems a dedicated spoilsport. Once, when rejecting a commission to write a political/sociological article for a magazine, he made this astonishing claim for a novelist: “Anyhow, I’m far too bookish, far too ignorant about real people, to set myself up as an interpreter, much less a judge, of the lives they live.”
Kannemeyer quotes some people expressing dislike: a female former MA student at the University of Cape Town referred to him as “the king of the comma, the gaunt genius of spare and stern.”
What suggests, though, that he is an aloof and difficult man is the frequency with which the biographer drops in a “however” and quotes a close friend or colleague on how nice, how charming he is in their company.
Coetzee comes from the Voortrekkers, from the early Dutch settlers in South Africa, but mainly through the influence of his mother he grew up in an English tradition with English as his first language. He fled South Africa for London as a young man, and after some time in the United States tried to stay but was refused permanent residence there.
Once back in his homeland he seemed reconciled to being a South African, began teaching at the University of Cape Town and stayed there for 30 years, interrupted by regular visiting teacher roles at universities in many countries.
Among Coetzee’s heroes are Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound, Franz Kafka and T S Eliot and they certainly echo in his work. I remember when reading his The Life and Times of Michael K, playing hunt-the-adjective. And it was Pound who wrote: “The only adjective worth using is the one essential to the sense of the passage, not the decorative frill adjective.”
It was hard to think of a frill of any sort raising its pretty head in a Coetzee novel, at least until Diary of a Bad Year.
His relationship with Apartheid was curious. The National government offended him but he refused to write novels that bore directly on contemporary politics, setting them either in the past or, allegorically, somewhere unidentifiable; although in any story by a South African a black and white in the same room is political.
Kannemeyer set out to illuminate Coetzee as a person and writer but his subject eludes him, perhaps inevitably. But in the end the books are what matter. I will remember The Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians for the impact they had at the time; and the beautifully written Disgrace left me sobered, sapped. It was the story that won him his second Booker Prize, was instrumental in his winning the Nobel, and stepped up his need to emigrate to Australia. Salman Rushdie disliked its “bone-hard language” and “cold detachment”, qualities that gave it enormous emotional heft for me.
I stopped reading him after the disappointments of Elizabeth Costello and Foe and put Summertime down after discovering a character was “The late author, J M Coetzee”. Coetzee once said all fiction is autobiography and then mocked autobiography with fiction, smugly I thought. It all seemed just clever.
It is a long trek through this book but for the fiction aficionado it is worth the ride. And along the way I learnt a great deal about the troubled hinterland of South African life and politics.
Gordon McLauchlan (left) is an Auckland-based writer & commentator and a regular reviewer on this blog.