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J. M. Coetzee: Biography & Books

Instructor: Kimberly Myers

Kimberly has taught college writing and rhetoric and has a master's degree in Comparative Literature.

This is a summary of the life and work of the award-winning South African author and literary critic, J.M. Coetzee. It includes discussion of some of his notable works and accolades, including his Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.

Who Is J.M. Coetzee?

J.M. Coetzee
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J.M. Coetzee is 'inarguably the most-celebrated and decorated living English-language author'--at least that's what Richard Poplak, a South African journalist argued in 2013. Coetzee, born in South Africa, is one of the most successful literary figures to emerge from the country.

Coetzee is acknowledged not only for his ability to build engaging narratives but also for the socio-political critique that they include. Coetzee spoke out strongly against South Africa's apartheid, or practice of racial segregation, and explores themes of racial division and exploitation in many of his books.

Early Life and Academia

John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1940. As a young boy, Coetzee struggled to understand the complicated racism of South African society. This early struggle is reflected in some of his work, particularly his third-person memoir, Boyhood, in which he writes, 'John Michael is always trying to make sense of his mother....He cannot understand how she can hold so many contradictory beliefs at the same time.' These contradictions come up often in Coetzee's work.

Coetzee has been around the world, studying and working. He attended the University of Cape Town, studying mathematics and English Literature, and then lived in England and worked as a computer programmer. He earned a doctorate in English from the University of Texas at Austin in 1969 with his dissertation focused on Samuel Beckett's fiction.

Afterward, Coetzee began teaching literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he experienced the whirlwind of conflict of the Vietnam War era in the United States.When he was denied permanent residence in the United States, Coetzee accepted a teaching position back at the University of Cape Town from 1971-2002. He retired to Australia in 2002, where he became an Australian citizen and an honorary research fellow at the University of Adelaide.

Coetzee's decision to leave South Africa raised controversy. Some other South Africans felt that he was turning his back on his country. He explained, 'I did not so much leave South Africa, a country with which I retain strong emotional ties, but come to Australia. I came because from the time of my first visit in 1991, I was attracted by the free and generous spirit of the people, by the beauty of the land itself and...by the grace of the city that I now have the honour of calling my home.'

Notable Works and Awards

Coetzee published his first novel, Dusklands, in 1974. The novel is split into two separate stories. The first story follows the main character's spiral into insanity as he helps the U.S. Government develop methods of psychological warfare to use in Vietnam. The second story follows the conflict between eighteenth-century Dutch settlers and a native tribe in southern Africa. This story was loosely based on a 1760 account of explorations into South Africa written by one of his distant ancestors, Jacobus Coetzee.

Two more books followed in 1977 and 1980. Both In the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians explored colonial themes and the related issues of race.

In 1984, Coetzee won the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, for The Life & Times of Michael K. The novel also received the C.N.A. Literary Award and the Prix Étranger Femina literary award. The book tells the story of a man's struggle to bring his dying mother to her childhood home as a civil war rages on.

Always interested in the individual whose perspective is not usually considered, Coetzee was inspired by Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and wrote Foe, a novel published in 1986. Coetzee wrote the story from the perspective of Friday, Crusoe's slave, whose tongue had been cut out.

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