J. M. Coetzee Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A critically acclaimed novelist and critic—and an opponent of apartheid when it was the law of the land in South Africa—John Michael Coetzee (koo-ZEE) is one of the leading contemporary authors of South African literature. An Afrikaner who writes in English, he was born in Cape Town on February 9, 1940, and spent his childhood on his father’s isolated sheep farm in the stony semidesert of the Karroo.

Coetzee was educated at the University of Cape Town, receiving his B.A. in 1960 and his M.A. in 1963. From 1962 to 1963 he worked in London, England, as a computer programmer for the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). He married in 1963 and fathered two children, Nicholas and Gisela, before divorcing in 1980. He attended the University of Texas at Austin on a Fulbright exchange program and received his Ph.D. in 1969. His dissertation was entitled “The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay in Stylistic Analysis.” While studying Anglo-Saxon and linguistics, Coetzee began reading colonial accounts of the exploration of South West Africa. Among these histories of the Hottentots, he found an account written by a remote eighteenth century ancestor, Jacobus Coetzee, which was to give rise to his first novel, Dusklands.

After teaching as an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1968 to 1971, Coetzee returned to South Africa to become a lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town from 1972 to 1982, when he became a professor of general literature. He returned to SUNY at Buffalo in 1984 and 1986 as Butler Professor of English, was twice Hinkley Professor of English at The Johns Hopkins University (1986, 1989), and was a visiting professor of English at Harvard University in 1991.

Returning to South Africa in 1972, he brought with him the half-finished manuscript of Dusklands, which he finished and published in 1974. As he published scholarly essays on linguistics, modern European literature, and South African literature, Coetzee also began to establish his reputation as a novelist. His second novel, In the Heart of the Country, won for him the premier South African Central News Agency (CNA) Award in 1977. His second novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, also won the 1980 CNA Award, as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Award. In 1982, his novels were published outside South Africa and began reaching a broader audience. Since then, he has won numerous literary prizes, including the 1984 Booker Prize, CNA Award, and Prix Fémina Étranger for Life and Times of Michael K. Disgrace also garnered many awards, including the Booker Prize. He was awarded the 1987 Jerusalem Prize for the...

(The entire section is 1126 words.)

J. M. Coetzee Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Michael Coetzee was born on February 9, 1940, in Cape Town, South Africa. His family soon moved to the Karoo, a dreary region of semiarid plains in Cape Town Province, and he was raised there and on his grandparents’ farm. His father was an unsuccessful lawyer, and his mother was a teacher. His family spoke English at home, but he studied Afrikaans, South Africa’s other official language, in school. Coetzee attended the University of Cape Town, earning degrees in both mathematics and English. Soon after graduation, he moved to London. There he took a job as a computer programmer and wrote a master’s thesis on the English writer Ford Madox Ford. He earned his master of arts degree from the University of Cape Town in 1963 but remained in London for two more years working with computers.

Coetzee returned to the academic world in 1965, joining the doctoral program in linguistics at the University of Texas in Austin. Significantly, he was in the United States to witness the dramatic events of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960’s at the same time that South Africa’s apartheid system and racial turmoil were drawing increased international attention. After completing his thesis on the playwright Samuel Beckett, he moved to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he taught from 1968 to 1971 and began work on his first major work, Dusklands.

When Coetzee returned to South Africa in 1972, it was...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

J. M. Coetzee Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Michael Coetzee (koot-SEE) was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 9, 1940. His grandparents were farmers who descended from a long line of white Afrikaners, Dutch settlers who came to South Africa in the seventeenth century. Coetzee’s father was an attorney, and his mother was a schoolteacher whose free spirit Coetzee much admired. As a child, Coetzee grew up in and around the Karoo desert, an arid South African landscape that provided him with many of the settings for his novels. The author spoke English at home and, after attending various English-language schools, became knowledgeable in Afrikaans, Dutch, and several other languages. Coetzee’s wide intelligence is reflected in his academic degrees, as well as in his publications in a variety of disciplines. He received two bachelor of arts degrees from the University of Cape Town, one in English and the other in mathematics. In 1963, he also received an M.A. in English from the university. After graduation, he entered the private sector in England, working for International Business Machines in London and for International Computers in Bracknell, Berkshire. Coetzee’s marriage in 1963 produced a daughter and son; the couple divorced in 1980.

In 1965, Coetzee began his doctoral education in English at the University of Texas at Austin as a Fulbright scholar. There, he completed his dissertation on Samuel Beckett. He was offered a teaching position at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo in 1968, but he was denied permanent residence in the United States because of his involvement in protests against the Vietnam War. Although he left the United States in 1971, he returned in 1983 and 1986 as visiting professor at SUNY-Buffalo and Johns Hopkins University, respectively.

In 1972, Coetzee returned to South Africa to become a professor of English literature at the University of Cape Town. Retiring in 2002, he relocated to Australia, teaching at the University of Adelaide, where his partner, Dorothy...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

J. M. Coetzee Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

J. M. Coetzee’s novels are dense and filled with philosophical awareness of the situation of people living with or under oppressive circumstances, but, more importantly, his novels explore the way in which a false self, associated with a powerful but corrupt political or social system, must be dismantled. In creating realistic interior and external worlds that reflect human cruelty and atrocity, Coetzee never lets the reader forget that his protagonists are vulnerable men or women who have lost their way, and who are now on reparative journeys that involve serious moral and spiritual issues. His protagonists are not so much the victims of crime as they are themselves criminals who are unaware of their criminal natures, or, more often, they are ordinary people implicated in criminal systems, and for this they must atone. The novels are difficult to comprehend at times because the subject matter and the characters that inhabit the devastated worlds do not lend themselves to easy simplifications, especially since the reader must accept that pain and suffering is often the pathway to enlightenment, and that humiliation and disempowerment are necessary to achieve a full humanity.

J. M. Coetzee Biography

(Novels for Students)

Booker Prize–winning author J. M. Coetzee, descendant of seventeenth-century Dutch settlers, was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on...

(The entire section is 451 words.)