/ 6 October 2009

JM Coetzee to shun Booker prize ceremony again

He may be about to make literary history, but JM Coetzee will not be ruining his reputation as one of the world’s most reclusive writers by turning up to the Booker prize ceremony.

On Tuesday, four of the six novelists shortlisted for this year’s prize gathered for a day of Booker-related engagements before Wednesday night’s black-tie do at London’s Guildhall. Sarah Waters, the author of The Little Stranger, was not there because of illness, but the reason for Coetzee’s absence was far more predictable: he just does not do this sort of thing.

Coetzee has been nominated for his possibly autobiographical novel Summertime and, were it to win, the South African-born writer would become the first person to win three Booker prizes — after success in 1983 with Life & Times of Michael K and 1999 for Disgrace.

But Coetzee faces tough competition in what has been widely acknowledged as one of the strongest shortlists in years. Ladbrokes has shortened the odds to 8/13 for runaway favourite Hilary Mantel and her Tudor intrigue novel, Wolf Hall. About 80% of all the money placed has been for Mantel.

None of the novelists gathering today had met Coetzee, although AS Byatt — another former winner, this year shortlisted for The Children’s Book — said that she was rather chuffed that “one of his books begins with the heroine reading a book by me in an aeroplane”.There was also perhaps a tinge of envy about the fact that no-one expects Coetzee to ever turn up. Adam Foulds, the youngest nominee for The Quickening Maze, said he recalled when his first novel was published he met the publishers and they “discussed the modest marketing they were going to do.

“I was quite expecting them to say, ‘or we have option two which is recluse and you’ll never have to meet anyone.’ Sadly that didn’t come up.”

Of course, Coetzee may be doing the world a favour. It is said that he smiles rarely and can sit through a dinner party without saying a word. In his new novel his main character, John Coetzee, is described as “prickly, opinionated, incompetent, ridiculous.” He is “socially inept. Repressed.” He is “seedy”, exuding an “air of failure.” He is a “cold fish” with “no sexual presence whatsoever.” In fact sex with the Coetzee of the novel is sordid — or boring.

Such striking self-flagellation may win him tonight’s Booker prize, but if so it will be his editor who collects the prize. – guardian.co.uk