J. M. Coetzee Biography

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(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 Freedom of the Individual in Society, made an honorary doctor of letters from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, and he has been named a Life Fellow of the University of Cape Town.

Coetzee’s novels are often described as metaphysical, allegorical, or postmodern. Avoiding the realistic novel of character or social commentary, Coetzee nevertheless is concerned in his writing with the dynamics of oppression and injustice. Waiting for the Barbarians, for example, is set in a frontier town of a civilization known only as the “Empire,” which is apparently being threatened by nomadic, dark-skinned tribes called the “Barbarians.” The novel focuses on the town’s civil magistrate, who initially acquiesces in the military’s imprisonment and torture of the Barbarians, until a crisis of conscience prompts him to reject the Empire’s viewpoint. The parallels with the South African situation under apartheid are obvious. While Waiting for the Barbarians is set in an indefinite time and place, Life and Times of Michael K takes place in a futuristic South Africa torn by civil war. This lyrical novel follows the attempts of the slow and inarticulate Michael K to escape the senseless bureaucracy of the city for the pastoral peace and freedom of the country.

Oppression within the context...

(The entire section is 2,012 words.)