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Maverick Life

Review: JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing

Review: JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing

The first authorised biography of South African writer JM Coetzee, by the late Afrikaans literary critic JC Kannemeyer, who died shortly after completing the book last year, has just been published. Coetzee’s reputation for reclusiveness means the work is certain to attract a great deal of interest. REBECCA DAVIS found the biography revealing.

John Maxwell Coetzee, the great South African man of letters, is a paradoxical figure. On the one hand he is known to guard his privacy intensely. On the other hand, he has published three volumes of “fictionalised memoirs” already: Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009). Exactly to what degree these three works adhered to the historical facts of his life has always been unclear: Coetzee consistently refuses to elaborate on interpretations of his work once published. “All writing is autobiography,” he has said more than once. The question of how accurate the autobiographical trilogy is will perhaps provide one titillating motivation for readers to pick up this new biography. The short answer is – Boyhood and Youth are largely true to the record; Summertime strays far more into the fictional domain.

Coetzee’s choice to cooperate with biographer John Kannemeyer is an interesting one. Many others must surely have come knocking, but the closest Coetzee has come previously to backing such a project was David Atwell’s Doubling the Point (1992), a collection of essays and interviews. Kannemeyer was hailed as one of the foremost authorities on Afrikaans literature – the obvious dissonance being that Coetzee, despite his surname, is not an Afrikaans writer. (The biography does relate how, after Coetzee won the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, Afrikaans historian Hermann Giliomee emailed Coetzee to say that the Afrikaans press were calling him an Afrikaner. Giliomee wanted to know if it was true. Coetzee replied: “If they want me, they can have me.”)

Kannemeyer suggests himself that perhaps “the fact that the request was coming from outside the sphere of English literature may have appealed to Coetzee, with his contrarian take on things”. Whatever the reason, Kannemeyer got the go-ahead, and was given access to a rich stock of letters and documents and permitted to interview Coetzee in his home in Adelaide, Australia, for two weeks. Kannemeyer stresses that Coetzee’s cooperation was given “unstintingly and even enthusiastically”. Even when quizzed on the most sensitive of family matters, Coetzee gave full and meticulous answers. Typically, the only subject on which he would not be drawn was that of the analysis of his works.

Turning down the offer of a documentary on his life in 2005, Coetzee said: “My life has been completely uneventful.” It becomes clear as the biography unfolds that Coetzee is prone to this kind of dry self-deprecation in order to deflect invitations – he also routinely claims to have no gift for lecturing, when such a request is raised, even though past students tell a different story. On the matter of his life’s narrative, though, Coetzee is partly right – barring the tragedy around his two children, which shouldn’t be diminished, this biography would suggest that Coetzee has indeed led a sedate, cautious life, largely unmarked by rollicking drama. His books didn’t even get banned during Apartheid, though he later said this would have been a kind of “badge of honour”.

But this doesn’t mean that there is no material for Kannemeyer to work with. Ably translated by Michiel Heyns from the Afrikaans original, the biography stretches to an impressive 707 pages and sustains interest throughout. Partly, it must be admitted, this is due to the frisson that accompanies the glimpse into a guarded life: for some years now it has appeared that Coetzee sought to inherit the mantle of literary recluse donned by figures like JD Salinger. The case of Salinger is instructive, however, because after his death in 2010, it emerged that Salinger wasn’t really very much of a hermit, contrary to perceptions. In fact, he was a fairly active member of the community of Cornish, New Hampshire, where “Jerry”, as he was known, would attend town meetings at the Cornish Elementary School, lunch daily at the Windsor Diner and allow children to sled down his hill. It appears Salinger just didn’t like having his privacy infringed upon by readers, and he never granted an interview in the last 30 years of his life. 

Compared to Salinger, Coetzee comes across as a veritable socialite in the new biography.  It is true that as time goes by interviews become increasingly rare and he maintains his privacy. But the biography makes clear that the image of the writer as reclusive and secretive is simply not accurate. Ever since the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, Coetzee has been deluged with invitations to lecture, teach and read publically from his works. He has declined the majority; at 72 he resents long-distance travel. But even the relatively small amount that he has assented to has resulted in what sounds like a fairly hectic schedule of public appearances over the past decade. 

To what, then, do we owe this conception of Coetzee as a hermit? In large part perhaps to Rian Malan’s famous account of his interview with Coetzee in 1990, where Malan writes that Coetzee put him through something approaching psychological torture. In answer to a question Malan put to him regarding an aspect of Foe, his 1986 postmodern re-write of Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee replies simply: “I would not wish to deny you your reading.” In reply to the question of what music he enjoyed, Coetzee gives the cryptic response: “Music I have never heard before”. Malan characterises Coetzee as the “prince of darkness”, claiming: “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.”

This has become the dominant imagining of JM Coetzee, bolstered by his frequent refusals to attend awards ceremonies or other celebratory occasions. Kannemeyer prints a letter Coetzee sent to his agent explaining why he would not travel to Spain in 2000 for the launch of Spanish translations of Boyhood and Youth, his fictionalised memoirs: “There is absolutely nothing in it for me in paying such a visit,” a clearly irascible Coetzee wrote. “Two days are knocked out of my life travelling there and back, and the pound of flesh my hosts will require will be that I sit down with one journalist after another answering questions I have heard scores of times before. Then the Embassy will mount a reception and I will have to shake hands with strangers and answer questions like ‘How long will you be in Madrid?’”

But Kannemeyer trots out an extensive cast of players in the biography to testify to Coetzee’s character as a loyal friend, witty dinner companion and generous mentor to young writers. Kannemeyer attributes his behaviour with Malan partly to his characteristic interview impatience and partly to a spirit of mischief which nobody seems to suspect in him. As a young man, Coetzee was apparently quite the prankster, fond of antics like jumping out at people from behind trees. There is one particularly bizarre account of a Coetzee prank-gone-wrong, carried out when Coetzee was a 20 year-old house-sitting in Gardens, in Cape Town.

Coetzee’s friend Daniel Hutchinson recalls: “Once (Coetzee) and a current date (a memorable Lysistrata) threw a candlelit party for some engineers, who were lured, one by one, into dark rooms and wardrobes, doors slamming and locking behind them. Emerging flushed and mad for revenge they removed, unnoticed, all the carpet pins from the staircase. The carpet gave way when (the house’s owner) returned, who fell heavily, broke his ankle and needed a crutch from then on.” What high jinks!

Coetzee, we learn, loves cricket and rugby and is an excellent cook. In his 20s he would make a soufflé omelette of such magnificence that a friend was able to recall it in detail four decades later. These days he specialises in gnocchi and curries. He is a cycling enthusiast, completing the Argus Cycle Tour 15 times, with a personal best of 3 hours 14. He is a fairly militant vegetarian and animal rights supporter – just this month The New York Times was citing him as having appealed to a Manila zoo to free an elephant held captive for 30 years – but perhaps not always so. A friend claims to remember that Coetzee was prone to shoot at cats with a shotgun to keep them away from his garden. His former wife, Philippa Jubber, also alleged to a friend that he deliberately engineered the death of a pet dog by allowing it to run on to the road. 

Kannemeyer is of the old school, and there is a sense that the intimate details of Coetzee’s life are perhaps included as a kind of unwelcome obligation. Certainly their discussion is rendered in prose almost as dry and sparse as Coetzee’s own. In England, Kannemeyer writes, Coetzee “slept with a succession of women, but gained at most physical relief, routine without passion”. Upon returning to South Africa, Coetzee “renewed his acquaintance with his friend from his student days, Mauna Philippa Jubber, who as teaching at La Rochelle Girls’ High School in Paarl. They got married on 11 July 1963.” Some acquaintance, indeed.

The title of the book is accurate: this is a “life in writing”, and the biography is structured and focused around Coetzee’s novels. We learn of Coetzee’s dedicated craftsman’s routine, but also that like many writers he finds the act of writing difficult: “It’s bad if I do write and worse if I don’t.” He is known to write his books over and over again, by hand in UCT exam books, until he is satisfied: photos of his manuscripts reveal a small, neat script with amendments in red ink. He wrote 25 versions of Slow Man, his 2005 novel. The biography also illustrates Coetzee’s “jealous guardianship of all aspects of his work”, from the dust-jacket to the author’s blurb.

One interesting aspect of the biography is the printing of extracts from contemporaneous reviews of Coetzee’s novels, especially now that his oeuvre is considered to be sacredly canonical. We learn, for instance, that Barry Ronge dismissed his second novel, In the Heart of the Country, as a mere “romantic cliché”, written in a “highly artificial style”, in a 1978 review for Die Transvaaler. Ouch. Kannemeyer holds no truck with negative reviewers of Coetzee, however, and this is the one aspect of the biography that verges on hagiographic.

In response to mixed reviews of The Master of Petersburg (1994), which fictionalises events around the life of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Kannemeyer writes, like a wronged mother after an Eisteddfod: “It is a pity that some critics who commented on Coetzee’s novel in their reviews were apparently totally unfamiliar with his statements on the relation between history and fiction.…If they still had objections, they could have formulated their criticisms in a more nuanced fashion.” Of Slow Man’s release, Kannemeyer writes, “The often negative reception in the newspapers was balanced by more thoughtful essays.” Though Coetzee himself is not beyond reproach, it appears that his work is.

The biography is particularly useful on casting light around the motivation for Coetzee’s emigration to Australia in 2002. Many people believed that Coetzee’s decision in this regard was partly due to the accusations of racism levelled by the ANC against Disgrace, Coetzee’s 1999 novel, in a submission to the Human Rights Commission hearings on racism in the media in 2000. Taken in its totality, what the biography makes clear is that Coetzee’s move to Australia was both unsurprising and consistent. As a child, Kannemeyer writes, Coetzee was already resolute that he “would not get stuck in a small corner of provincial South Africa, but that he would enter the greater world of the metropolis”.

As a young man he hoped to settle in America forever, and was unable to do so only due to visa problems and a stain on his record caused by a night spent in jail as part of a protest against a police presence on a Buffalo campus in 1970. As a writer in South Africa, Coetzee continually chafed against classification as a South African writer. In 1980, after receiving the CNA Prize, Coetzee asked in his acceptance speech whether there could be any justification for referring to “national” literatures at all. Even after international success, Coetzee was set against being turned into the “representative” South African literary voice. He felt that this same fate had been visited (albeit willingly) on Alan Paton and had stultified his output.

It is certainly this ambivalence towards a South African identity that has played a role in contributing towards his often muted reception in the country of his birth, despite his adulatory international audience. South African poet Christopher Hope once wrote in this regard that Coetzee “is a seditious, cerebral novelist, obsessed by questions of loneliness, liberty and guilt. And that is politically worrying and un-South African.”

Since emigrating, Coetzee has stressed several times that he did not leave South Africa; he merely came to Australia. We should claim him for as long as we can, however unwilling he might be to carry the weight of our national pride. As Kannemeyer’s important biography affirms, Coetzee is in a league of his own. DM     


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