/ 21 October 2011

Our literary disgrace

On the face of it, it seems an outrage: JM Coetzee, South Africa’s most prominent author of the past few decades, selling out to an American institution, which will henceforth be the repository of some of the most avidly discussed and researched ­literary works in recent South ­African history.

Where were our local institutions? Why could Coetzee’s papers not have found a home where they belong — in the matrix that gave them birth? And where people can pronounce his name?

Will local scholars now be placed at a severe disadvantage in not having ready access to this trove? Is this another form of exploitation of the developing world by the rich West?

There are no clear answers to these questions.
The first thing to say, perhaps, is that Coetzee is by no means the first South African writer to lodge his papers with the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas in Austin. The following writers all have significant holdings at the research centre: HC Bosman, Roy Campbell, Jack Cope, Stephen Gray, Uys Krige, ­William Plomer and Olive Schreiner.

But is this not precisely the point — that some of our most prominent writers have been bought off by the wealthy Americans?

There are arguments for and against. First, perhaps the best thing about this is that some of South Africa’s finest literary talent gets to rub shoulders with the likes of Byron, the Brownings, Joyce, Lawrence, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing, another writer with Southern African connections, and John Fowles — among many, many others. In other words, instead of keeping it local and parochial ­­– each writer to his or her own region — “our” writers are placed in a much larger cultural context, in which comparative studies and greater exposure in general can occur.

Preserving and protecting

Second, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre is an extremely well-resourced and ­well-run institution. The papers in its collections are kept in ­immaculate, climate-controlled and ­visitor-controlled conditions and will thus be preserved intact for ­generations of scholars to come. The staff are friendly and efficient and have that Southern way of making one feel at home.

Third, the centre annually makes generous scholarships available to researchers from all over the world, enabling them to go to Austin and undertake research there.

Each of these points can be countered, though.

First, are “our” writers not marginalised there? Do we not become again, at best, Third World curiosities in the context of the much larger, more illustrious holdings of the likes of Yeats, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, for example? Or, at worst, do we not disappear completely? I have had the curious experience of giving a guest lecture, as an Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre fellowship-holder, to a large “friends-of-the-HRHRC” group, not one of whom had even heard of Herman Charles Bosman, and were there, it seemed, mainly for the sherry, which was trolleyed in, tinkling invitingly, halfway through my talk.

Second, are there no local archives that could do as good a job of preserving the papers of South African writers? Of course there are. The foremost of these is the admirable National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown, which does a stellar job of ordering, preserving and making available to researchers a wide array of South African literary materials. And it does this — it must be added — on a very limited budget.

There is also the Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg. The various libraries and associated archives of many of our larger universities also do excellent work in this respect.

Third, if the papers were here, scholarships to research them would not be necessary, as local scholars would have them within easy reach, at low cost — and well-heeled international scholars could still access them. Would that not help democratise what is, at present, the preserve of the privileged few who are able to make the pilgrimage to Austin?

Hedging his bets
Let’s be frank: there is a double sting here. Many South Africans felt a sense of betrayal when Coetzee, in quick succession, published the most controversial novel of the past few decades (Disgrace, 1999), in which contemporary South Africa is seen through a glass very darkly, emigrated to Australia in 2002, where he later became an Australian citizen and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. The honour of having one of our finest writers acknowledged in this way was somewhat sullied by the sense that he was no longer one of us, whatever that means.

And now he has sold out to the Americans, for the princely sum of R12-million.

Could the South African cultural authorities not have rallied around to make an attractive counter-offer? Possibly, but they would no doubt have dithered forever and racial politics would inevitably have entered the frame (“We are paying this fortune for the papers of a white ­ex-South African who damned us in his best-known novel and then spurned us for a country that has the nasty habit of beating us in rugby?”).

Coetzee himself, ever canny, ever inscrutable, would have made this decision very carefully. The money would have been a factor, but his connections to the University of Texas also played a role, as a recent article, quoting Coetzee on his ­relationship with the university, reveals (Texan university holds JM Coetzee’s past to Ransom, Mail & Guardian, October 10 2011).

I suspect Coetzee was not merely selling to the highest bidder and would never have been ­amenable to a South African offer anyway. I understand that the University of Cape Town, where he taught from 1972 until his retirement in 2002, has nothing to show for his time there in terms of literary residue.

I have no doubt that Coetzee would have made his decision on solid professional grounds: along with assiduously preserving the papers of one of the English-speaking world’s most important writers in recent times, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre would offer Coetzee incomparable exposure to international literary scholarship. Never a parochial writer anyway, his papers now range alongside those of other world greats — most importantly Samuel Beckett, on whom Coetzee wrote his PhD at the University of Texas from 1965 to 1969, using the centre’s own resources.

In the long run perhaps South Africa’s reputation as a breeding ground of talent that it then profligately exports benefits most from this arrangement.

Craig MacKenzie is professor of English at the University of Johannesburg