When retired English professor Wayne Booth first met JM Coetzee at a Chicago dinner party in the late 1990s, he ran across the room, and dropped to his knees in homage to his literary idol.
“He was very surprise and embarrassed,” said Booth, describing how the notoriously reclusive South African writer physically recoiled from him in shock.
“He took me aside at a later date and told me I shouldn’t have done that.”
Had Booth realised how reserved and retiring the novelist was, he might have behaved differently, he acknowledged on Thursday with a wry grin.
A little research would have saved the former University of Chicago professor a lot of face and helps explain the novelist’s stubborn refusal to deal with the press even after winning a Nobel Prize for literature.
A winner of two Booker Prizes for his novels, The Life and Times of Michael K, and Disgrace, Coetzee was a no-show at both of the Booker’s awards ceremonies in London. He now lives in Australia.
A reporter for the British daily, The Independent, who was dispatched to Chicago to interview Coetzee at the University of Chicago where he is a visiting professor was forced to interview his subject by e-mail.
Quizzed on his stubborn refusal to meet the reporter, Coetzee responded that “Responding to you via the written word allows me time to think,” according to a 1999 article in the daily.
Nobel prize winners are not a rarity at the elite Chicago university where Coetzee has been a visiting professor since 1996: the institution has had 10 Nobel laureates in the past 20-odd years — most of them, however, economists.
But Coetzee is only the second to decline to speak to the press, according to Larry Arbeiter, head of the university’s communications department.
Coetzee was “very gracious,” when he finally returned calls from the university’s press department around 7am on Thursday, but adamant that he would not do press interviews.
“You don’t tell a Nobel Prize winner what to do on a day like this,” said Arbeiter, who revealed that he thought Coetzee was screening his calls this morning. “It’s their choice.”
And so it was that acquaintances like Booth, and colleagues like Jonathan Lear, a professor of philosophy who teaches with Coetzee, were left to handle press inquiries, while the man himself remained in seclusion.
“I thought for years he should win it,” said Jonathan Lear, who had dinner with Coetzee and his girlfriend on Wednesday night.”
As for snippets about this most private of men, “he’s an intensely honest man in everything he does. There isn’t an ounce of bullshit about him,” Lear offered.
Coetzee left South Africa several years ago for what some called self-imposed exile after a bruising clash with the ruling African National Congress over his novel Disgrace. The daughter of the central character, like Coetzee a white academic, is raped by three black men, but declines to prosecute, partly because of colonial guilt.
Cabinet ministers said the story was racist, and invoked the human rights commission in a high profile attack.
Coetzee never fully explained whether his subsequent move to Australia was linked, but many South Africans believe he felt hounded. There is also speculation that he was upset by a burglary.
If the ANC felt awkward yesterday it did not show it, heaping praise on the the writer and welcoming the award as a sequel to Nadine Gordimer’s 1991 Nobel prize for literature.
“On behalf of the South African nation, and indeed the continent of Africa, we salute our latest Nobel laureate and bask with him in the glory radiating from this recognition,” President Thabo Mbeki said.
Gordimer said she was delighted for her friend. “It’s an honour for the country and of course it does give some indication of how South African literature has developed, particularly under the difficult conditions we have [had].”
It is not clear if he will attend the Nobel ceremony on December 10. In addition to a cheque for Â£780 000 (about R9 071 400), yesterday’s prize will boost Coetzee’s sales, with his publishers hoping for a run on his new novel, Elizabeth Costello.
The 18 lifetime members of the 217-year-old Swedish Academy who made the annual selection all agreed on Coetzee, according to Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the academy.
“We were convinced of the lasting value of his contribution to literature. I’m not speaking of the number of books, but the variety, and the very high average quality. He is a writer that will continue to be discussed and analysed.”
The son of liberal parents, John Michael Coetzee changed his middle name to Maxwell before using just his initials. He worked briefly in Britain as a programmer for IBM and in 1969 received a PhD from the University of Texas for computer-generated language.
With the exception of Disgrace, which sold more than 100 000 copies in South Africa, he is not widely read there and yesterday’s jubilation was not widespread. The state broadcaster SABC led some bulletins on other news, such as car sales.
“I don’t think the majority of South Africans know who he is,” said David Attwell, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand. “We have a very small readership.”
Prof Attwell credited the academy for looking beyond conventional political morality in endorsing oblique, idiosyncratic writing which had been at the centre of a race row.
Shaun de Waal, literary critic of the Mail and Guardian, said the ANC had had misread Disgrace. “South Africa is such an unliterary country. The majority of books are imported at very high price [and] books are seen as luxury items.”
Coetzee is said to have had a strong influence on a generation of young black and white writers, including Mike Nicol, Ivan Vadislavic, Zoe Wicomb and Zakes Mda.
“We can be proud of our homeboy,” said Professor Stephen Gray, an author friend of his. “It is extraordinary, in our short history, how many Nobel winners we have had.” – Guardian Unlimited Â