J. M. Coetzee Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to his long fiction, J. M. Coetzee (kuht-SEE-uh) has published a number of book reviews and essays, primarily dealing with South African authors and Thomas Hardy. He has also published translations of other writers’ work into Afrikaans, Dutch, French, and German. In White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988), he surveys South African literature from its beginnings up to, but not including, World War II. Coetzee has also published two memoirs, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002), both written in the third person. In these works, with characteristic restraint, he tells of his youth in the dreary suburbs and farms of Cape Town Province and of the growing awareness of contradiction that led to his becoming a writer. Coetzee continually publishes scholarly essays and speeches on literature, animal rights, censorship, and other topics. Many of these have been collected in Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000-2005 (2007).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

J. M. Coetzee is recognized as one of South Africa’s finest writers, one whose allegorical fiction suggests that apartheid is but a particularly virulent expression of humankind’s will to dominate. At the same time, like many contemporary writers, he is acutely aware of problems of language and representation, and his fiction reflects an increasing preoccupation with the complex interplay of language, imagination, and experience. It is Coetzee’s distinctive achievement to fuse such philosophical concerns with probing social and psychological insights.

Coetzee has received many prestigious literary awards. His second book, In the Heart of the Country, won South Africa’s premier literary award, the Central News Agency (CNA) Prize, in 1977. Waiting for the Barbarians, chosen as one of the best books of 1982 by The New York Times, won the CNA Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; Life and Times of Michael K won Great Britain’s Booker Prize in 1983. In 1987, Coetzee received the Jerusalem Prize for writing “that contributes to the freedom of the individual in society.” He became the first person to win the Booker Prize twice, receiving the second in 1999 for Disgrace. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2008, he was awarded the high honor of the Order of Mapungubwe by the South African government for his literary achievements.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In his novels, J. M. Coetzee subjects his major characters to considerable suffering of one kind or another. Is there a meaning or purpose to this suffering? Are there lessons to be learned?

How do Coetzee’s novels explore the relationship between the powerful and the powerless?

Discuss Coetzee’s novels in the context of the violent history and politics of South Africa, especially apartheid.

Discuss the way in which the suffering of animals has developed into an important aspect of Coetzee’s fiction.

Often Coetzee’s narratives frustrate a desire for clarification and will defer meanings indefinitely. What is the purpose of this cryptic aspect of his novels?

In awarding Coetzee the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy praised him for his exposure of the “cosmetic morality and cruel rationalism” of Western civilization. How do his novels explore this critical problem?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Attridge, Derek. J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Scholarly study discusses Coetzee’s long fiction through Elizabeth Costello, with an emphasis on exploring ethical issues presented by the works. Asserts that the act of reading the literature presents both intellectual and ethical challenges and should move the reader to self-examination.

Attwell, David. J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Explores the relationship between imagination and the real world and argues that while Coetzee may be right that his fiction is not about history, history nevertheless lies inescapably below the surface of his fiction. Although perhaps difficult for nonspecialists, with its focus on “postmodern metafiction,” this work offers a valuable review of Coetzee’s intellectual sources.

Castillo, Debra A. “The Composition of the Self in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.” Critique 27 (Winter, 1986): 78-90. Presents in-depth examination of the novel, noting that Coetzee carefully charts “the physical and mental topography” of a fictitious place and, in so doing, invites readers to confront “the essential nature of both history and the self in history.” Offers valuable criticism and comments on Coetzee’s theme of the seductress and the magistrate’s relation to her, which leads to his...

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