On February 9 2020 JM Coetzee, long considered among the preeminent writers of his times, turns 80. His gifts as a writer have been widely recognised. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, and the Booker Prize in 1983 and 1999. Behind the eminence of JM Coetzee the writer is a deeply private man, John Coetzee, shy of the public attention which attends the publication of writing done, ironically, in solitude.
My first encounter with Coetzee came when I picked up Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) in a library at the age of 16. Its opening sentence reflected my own response; I too felt that “I have never seen anything like it,” as the magistrate says of Colonel Joll’s dark glasses. Written in the late 1970s, partly a response to Steve Biko’s murder in detention by the apartheid security state’s agents, the novel examined notions of complicity with and implication in injustice. That such writing could be done, and that it could be done by someone from the same marginal part of the world as I found myself in, signalled a sea change in my intellectual life.
Over the past three decades each of Coetzee’s subsequent books have enthralled and challenged his readers. Never one to accept trite solutions to the larger questions of ethics and responsibility, his exploration of the human condition can be disturbing, but always rewarding. In the Heart of the Country (1977) asked readers to confront the torsions and tensions of power beneath traditional notions of rural idyll in representations of the pastoral in South Africa. In the Booker Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and the Age of Iron (1990) were the stories of the lives of people caught up in the spectacular conflagrations of history (real or imagined); the lot of billions the world over.
Coetzee’s ethical vision allowed him to show how the “deformed and stunted relations between human beings that were created under colonialism and exacerbated under what is loosely called apartheid have their psychic representations in a deformed and stunted inner life” (Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech, 1987). This was echoed by the warning sounded to white South Africa by Njabulo Ndebele in his seminal essay on the politics of the English language in South Africa. Coetzee’s excoriating examinations of “the burden of consciousness” (whether as novelist or essayist, as critic or teacher) often centred on the paradoxes of white South African life, the concerns of “people no longer European, not yet African”; one recalls that apartheid signage referred to white people as “Europeans”; one thinks of post-apartheid yearnings for European habits of being that echo what Coetzee in 1987 diagnosed as “a sentimental yearning … to have fraternity without paying for it”.
But while he indicated that his work “suffer[ed] from the same stuntedness and deformity” that blighted the inner life in colonial and apartheid South Africa — analogous to what Abdullah Ibrahim called “the madness of South Africa” in Lee Hirsch’s Amandla: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (2002) — his ethical vision pushed through the local boundary. It allowed Philip Glass to adapt Waiting for the Barbarians as an opera, to comment on the human condition in light of the rendition and detention programmes run by the regime of George Bush II in the United States prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. I sat on a train for eight hours to travel from Amsterdam to Erfurt in Germany to see the premiere performance of the opera. It was worth the effort to see the meeting of two such fine minds confront notions of responsibility and accountability in a work of such profound depth. Coetzee returned to such questions of ethics and humanity in Diary of a Bad Year (2007), now broadening his critique to his adopted country, Australia. Recently, in an essay on Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains (2019) for The New York Review of Books, he renewed this concern with ethical conduct, humanity and political responsibility.
In the last, paranoid year of apartheid South Africa’s existence, I was a student in an honours seminar led by Coetzee on the 18th-century English novel. Once a week, over a semester, seven of us met for two hours in the afternoon to discuss the works of Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne. But these meetings in the attic of what was then the Arts Block, now renamed for the African intellectual, Archie Mafeje, were not escapes from the violence and violations that went on beyond the classroom. On the contrary.
In the middle of the semester Chris Hani was assassinated. I was 20 years old. Things in South Africa looked bleak. Even the present felt uncertain at that time; there was no guarantee that little more than a year later the edifice of the white supremacist apartheid state would be gone. Coetzee led his students through discussions of the emergence of the sentimental tradition in English letters — the notion of “fellow feeling”, a kind of profound empathy that suggested imagining oneself into the emotional life of another was politically crucial for a more just way of living. But he also connected these two centuries-old texts with the present. We explored, with Coetzee, how the engendering of “race” in Southern Africa could be contrasted with and connected to the developments in Protestant thinking in 18th-century Europe and England. This way of reading, of being taught to reread, has been invaluable for understanding so much of what has happened in South Africa before, then and since. That it happened in a class on literature written in another time and in another place is testimony to Coetzee’s gift as a teacher.
Doris Lessing, in her 2007 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, lauded Coetzee as part of the great tradition of writers whom she held in awe. She even expressed the wish that she could have been a student in his classes at the University of Cape Town, where he had served as professor of literature for two decades. I am humbled to be among those students envied by Lessing.
But most people will know Coetzee’s fine mind, his formidable intellect, from his many books. A few of us have had the gift of his instruction. In February this year, the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature will host Coetzee for the opening of Scenes from the South, an exhibition in honour of his 80th birthday. The exhibition will be on display in Makhanda until July 6, after which it will be moved to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin (where Coetzee completed his doctoral studies).
“Other people’s stories may become part of your own, the foundation of it, the ground it goes on,” Ursula K Le Guin wrote in Gifts (2004). Coetzee is a gift to South Africa and, in many senses, one of South Africa’s gifts to the world. As Simòn says of Don Quixote in The Death of Jesus (2019), Coetzee’s latest novel: “If he had really abominated his stories … [h]e would have stayed at home with his horse and his dog, watching the clouds cross the sky, hoping for rain, eating coarse bread and onions for supper. He would never have been recognised, let alone become famous.”
We are grateful to John Coetzee the man who gave us the masterful writing of JM Coetzee.