J. M. Coetzee

Portrait J. M. Coetzee
© Hartwig Klappert

John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940. He studied Mathematics and English at the University of Cape Town, and worked as an IT Developer in London, before writing his doctor’s thesis in Linguistics about Samuel Beckett at the University of Texas. He returned to South Africa in the early 1970s to teach at the University of Cape Town. In 2002 he emigrated to Australia. His debut »Dusklands« (1974) is a collection of narrations that reflects on the Vietnam war and the cruelties of colonialism in 18th century South Africa. The two novels that followed, »In the Heart of the Country« (1977) and »Waiting for the Barbarians« (1980) explore the disastrous individual impacts of colonial rule, whereas »Life & Times of Michael K« (1983), »Age of Iron« (1990), and »Disgrace« (1999) deal explicitly with the Apartheid regime. Coetzee’s prose is characterized by the narrator’s perspicacity, which draws ethical dilemmas and the fatal implications of allegedly benevolent intentions into focus. The profound knowledge of literary traditions of the author is his point of departure for formal experiments. His autobiographic trilogy – »Boyhood« (1997), »Youth« (2002), and »Summertime« (2009) – undermined the traditional form of the memoir by adopting the third person’s view of his own life, and in doing so underlines the fictional character of every life story. In the »didactic plays« named »Elizabeth Costello« (2003) after the heroine, who appears repeatedly, Coetzee, himself an active member of the Australian animal rights organization Voiceless, offers a literary contribution to the discourse about animals and ethics. His recent novel »The Childhood of Jesus« (2013) goes back to the allegoric dimension of his early works in an enigmatic and utopian scenario. Coetzee’s theoretical excursuses on politics, philosophy and the history of literature are always imbued with reflections on language. His correspondence with Paul Auster, collected in the volume »Here and Now« (2013), offers an insight into a vivid exchange of thoughts and includes autobiographic fragments. A game of chess on a boat journey to the USA, which prematurely ends in a draw, is, thus, an occasion to discuss the competitive mentality, sport, and literature.

Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize in 2003. He has also received the Booker Prize twice (in 1983 and 1999). The renowned Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, acquired his archive in 2011, and has made it accessible to the public. J.M. Coetzee lives in Adelaide.