J. M. Coetzee Additional Biography


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...

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(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.


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

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