Trying to unwrap the great Coetzee enigma

The determinedly private JM Coetzee is one of the world’s great writers. Billy O’Callaghan reports on a biography that unwraps the enigma

J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing
J.C. Kannemeyer
Scribe, €42.90; Kindle, £16.68

SOUTH AFRICA’S 2003 Nobel Prize Laureate, JM Coetzee, (that is, John Maxwell, despite rumours to the contrary) is a man shrouded in myth.

He ranks, by most estimations, among the world’s greatest and most thought-provoking writers, his gift defined by the psychological clarity of his often bleak subject matter and by the concision and extraordinary weight of his sentences.

But he is also known for a compulsion toward privacy that fringes on the obsessional. Twice a winner of the Booker Prize, he refused on both occasions to collect the award in person; he keeps a monkish dedication to his craft, and rarely makes public appearances or grants interviews. According to South African author, journalist, and musician, Rian Malan: “A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once.”

Coetzee himself has somewhat fuelled the myth, blurring the lines between reality and make-believe across a body of work that spans almost 40 years, more than a dozen novels, half a dozen collections of essays and letters and, most significantly, the stunning triptych of autobiographical fiction, Boyhood, Youth, Summertime, that presents a surgically excised portrait of the artist as a young man.

In David Attwell’s 1992 volume of essays and interviews, Doubling the Point, Coetzee further clarifies his position on the subject, stating that, for him: “All autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography”, and that, at its core, autobiographical writing is “a kind of self-writing in which you are constrained to respect the facts of your history. But which facts? All the facts? No... You choose the facts insofar as they fall in with your evolving purpose”.

Given such fixed opinions, and taking into account the author’s obvious penchant for evading the public eye, an authorised biography has long seemed an unlikely proposition. The fact that this book’s author, JC Kannemeyer, a professor of Afrikaans and Dutch at Stellenbosch University, sadly passed away on Christmas Day 2011 just as he was attending to the final edits of his manuscript, makes his achievement all the more impressive.

J.M. Coetzee — A Life in Writing is a tome of serious scholarship, meticulously researched, and mammoth in scale, yet eminently readable and, in parts, utterly absorbing. In the preface, we get a feel for the project’s evolution. Kannemeyer’s letter of enquiry reached Coetzee while the author was in Adelaide, hard at work on Summertime, writing about an English biographer, Mr Vincent, who is preparing a biography on the deceased writer, John Coetzee. The proposition of a real biography by a real biographer “may have appealed... with his contrarian take on things”.

It is likely, too, that Coetzee was taken by Kannemeyer’s intention to eschew a psychological approach in favour of presenting a strictly factual biography, with the sequential details of a much-travelled life combining in a way that would let any analysis emerge of its own accord. As well as being provided with unfettered access to family members, colleagues, and precious multiple drafts of manuscript texts, Kannemeyer was also granted a series of in-depth interviews.

The book is divided into five sections. Beginning with Coetzee’s origins, childhood and education, it then catalogues brief but important sojourns, for the purposes of study, employment and the search for freedom, firstly to Britain and then as a Fulbright Scholar to America, where he attained a PhD with a thesis on Samuel Beckett at the University of Texas.

By 1970, following Visa problems, he reluctantly returned to South Africa and began, seriously, to write. The final section takes us into the new millennium and coincides with not only a new adventure, the emigration to Australia, but also the career-defining pinnacle of the Nobel Prize.

His Cape ancestry begins as early as the 17th century with the arrival from Holland of one Dirk Couché, and there is evidence of a literary gene among his maternal lineage, with his great uncle Albert, who in the 1920s achieved modest fame as an Afrikaans novelist.

Coetzee himself was born in 1940 to an adoring mother and a largely absent father, a lawyer by trade but with criminal tendencies, who enlisted in the army and fought in the Second World War in order to avoid prosecution, leaving the family to rely on the generosity of relatives.

We get to meet Coetzee as a young man, rather intense but enigmatic, handsome and possessed of a dazzling intellect. He didn’t drink, smoke, or eat meat, loved cricket, mathematics and literature, and indulged in brief affairs apparently so that he could imbue his poetry with greater passion. In 1963 he married Philippa Jubber, a union that would last some 17 years, during which time she gave birth to a son, Nicholas, and a daughter, Gisele.

Nicholas died in 1989, aged just 23, falling 11 stories, most likely accidentally. Gisele suffered years of health issues, including a worsening epilepsy condition that would come to compromise virtually every aspect of her life. Nothing is hidden, but the overall impression is of a relatively ordinary existence, lived by an extraordinary talent. And what really shines through is the particular genius of his work. As his writing develops, we get a feel for how it is infused with a knowledge of history, a broad appreciation of literature and a keen-eyed observance of the world.

Steve Biko’s torture informs Waiting for the Barbarians; The Booker Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K reveals a country on the brink of race war and echoes with hints of Kafka; Foe, a symbolic commentary on lost histories and the speechless downtrodden, is woven around the plot of Robinson Crusoe; Byron provides the frame of reference for Disgrace, the ferocious depiction of post-Apartheid society that earned him a second Booker Prize. In the end, the writing is what matters.

Across these 600 densely packed pages, there is something for everyone. The early focus on Coetzee’s genealogy plays up the sense of belonging within the framework of a country’s slow formation. Following the young man’s reactions to national events reveals the constrictions and effects of apartheid not only on South Africa’s greater populace but also on the mind and heart of a sensitive thinker.

The glimpses of a poet’s first tenuous steps, influenced by Eliot, Pound, Beckett, and Ford Madox Ford, foreshadow what lies ahead. 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.

And most of all, best of all for bibliophiles, the stately analyses and inherent revelations that lurk among the foundations of book after book brings about a deepened appreciation of the text and its creator.

JM Coetzee’s worth will always be measured by his astonishing novels. The stories present a view of the man that is only enhanced by refractions and misdirecting asides. Most readers can happily accept such confusion as part of the deal, but for those who insist on glimpsing the mechanics behind the magic, Kannemeyer’s hulking biography will tick every box. It is a masterly tome that certainly lends greater understanding for anyone intending to read their way through Coetzee’s entire oeuvre and will, without question, be the starting point for all such biographies to come.

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