J.M. Coetzee: A life in writing by J C Kannemeyer

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J.M. Coetzee: A life in writing by J C Kannemeyer

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A full study of the life and work of Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 640 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Scribe
ISBN: 9781922070081

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J.M. (John Maxwell) Coetzee is described as probably the most celebrated and decorated writer throughout the English-speaking world. The author of sixteen published novels, he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Booker Prize twice. At the same time he has guarded his privacy jealously, tending to decline interviews and requests to discuss his work, and refusing to collect prestigious awards in person. On one occasion he explained his absence by saying that he could not imagine anything better calculated to reduce me to misery. One acquaintance claims to have attended several dinner parties at which the author was a fellow guest and did not utter a single word.

Pre-empting a threatened spate of unauthorised biographies, he agreed to cooperate fully with Kannemeyer, a university professor and authority on South African literature, granting him extensive interviews, full access to his manuscripts, letters and documents, and put him in touch with members of his family, friends and colleagues. Kannemeyer, who died in 2011 shortly after completing the book, also naturally made an extensive study of his subject’s literature. The result is a painstaking 600 pages plus a bibliography and extensive endnotes and source notes on Coetzee’s life, times and literary output.

It has clearly been a cosmopolitan life. Born in 1940 in Cape Town to parents of Afrikaner descent, he moved to Britain in 1962 where his first job was as a computer programmer in London. This had a major influence on his future vocation in that a day’s work at IBM produced a mere five lines of code carefully honed to saving space and saving time, instilled in him the principle that work is often a matter of endless time revising and cutting down. It was an invaluable lesson for a budding writer – and could be likewise for any book reviewer as well, no doubt. Next he spent a few years in the United States, firstly as a student at Texas and then as a university lecturer at New York, a post which he would have held longer had his application for a visa not been turned down because of his participation in a peaceful protest against the presence of police on the campus. Returning to his native South Africa in 1971, he took up another university lectureship at Cape Town. On retirement some thirty years later he moved to Australia, where he was made an honorary research fellow at the University of Adelaide.

Despite a busy life in academia, he was not to be deterred from his vocation as a writer. His first novel, ‘Dusklands’, was published in 1974, and subsequent titles rapidly established him as one of the leading English language novelists, not only in South Africa but throughout the world. It therefore comes as something of a surprise to learn that he had initially seen himself as a poet, before conceding that the inspiration of Eliot and Pound was insufficient to launch him in such a direction. Kannemeyer analyses all the novels, from its genesis to completion and reception in full, as well as setting them against the climate of censorship which existed during the years of apartheid. Although he was never afraid to court controversy, his work was never suppressed in his native country, although in 1999 the African National Congress denounced one of his titles – ironically named Disgrace – as racist.

It is not only interviews and invitations to ceremonies which have been declined. He also said no to a proposal from The Guardian in 2000 to go to Israel and write a special report on the current state of affairs. One of the stranger aspects of literary fame, he remarked, was that once one has proved one’s competence as a writer and inventor of stories, people clamour for you to make speeches and tell them what you think about the world.

As well as his writing, this book also examines his family life in some detail: his hard-drinking father, marriage and divorce, followed by the death of his ex-wife from cancer, the unexplained tragic death of his teenage son and the ill-health of his daughter. There are also welcome glimpses of his interests outside teaching and writing, such as his enjoyment of cooking, cycling and cricket.

It’s a scrupulously researched read. Unless Coetzee turns out to be another P.G. Wodehouse still writing and publishing new books into his nineties, this will almost certainly remain more or less the definitive read and work of reference for him. There is however something of an air of ‘in progress’ about it. Writing a biography of an author, musician or artist who is still apparently in good health and from whom further works can be expected in the near future is arguably a less than ideal task. In this case it matters not to Kannemeyer, as he died shortly after completing the manuscript. Yet this volume, which is clearly aimed at the specialist or the student rather than the general reader, will presumably not be the final word on him, painstakingly detailed though it is. Perhaps we will see a revised edition in the years ahead, but until then this will be more than satisfying.

We can recommend having a look at some of Coetzee's work:

Diary of a Bad Year
Scenes From Provincial Life
Summertime by J M Coetzee

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