Waiting for the Barbarians -- Tidbit #5: JM Coetzee

Waiting for the Barbarians by ‎J.M. Coetzee

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Waiting for the Barbarians -- Tidbit #5: JM Coetzee

Unread post by fireflydances » Wed Jul 24, 2019 4:19 pm

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High Street, Worcester - 1948 -- Notice the mountains at the end of the street



JM COETZEE



Writers become writers because they are in some way outsiders. Perhaps it’s because the act of writing encourages isolation. Or is it the other way ‘round -- does isolation compound reflection and result in the writer? In any case, it is true that writing offers a way to reflect on difference and what it means.

This tidbit introduces the author - John Maxwell Coetzee. Born in Cape Town, South Africa on February 2, 1940, Coetzee was the oldest of two sons born to Zacharias (Jack) and Vera Coetzee.

Jack Coetzee’s family was Afrikaner, descendants of Dutch forebears who arrived in Cape Colony mid-17th century. By 1940 the Coetzee ancestral home had become a farm in the Karoo named Voelfontein (bird fountain in Afrikaans). Vera’s parents were from the Uniondale district of the Cape. Her mother, Louisa, was the daughter of Polish and Moravian missionaries. Her father was German.

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Vera Coetzee, mother, stands in front of the family’s house in Plumstead Credit: JM Coetzee

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Jack Coetzee, father and Aunt Lizzy Credit: JM Coetzee

The year 1948 brought significant change. Coetzee was eight years old, just entering that stage of life when the mist of early childhood lifts and you are able to grasp exactly what is going on around you. In notes made during the writing of Boyhood (1997), Coetzee describes the time as ‘Deformation. My life as deformed, year after year, by South Africa.” The coming of apartheid, the marginalization of anyone who was not Afrikaner.

Coetzee’s paternal grandparents spoke Afrikaans but also English and considered themselves anglophiles. Not drawn to the Calvinism and ethnic nationalism that was typical of their generation. But the election of the National Party in 1948 introduced a cultural divide among white Afrikaners: those who considered themselves politically and religiously attuned to a social system that strictly enforced the laws of apartheid, and those distinctly resistant to this trend. Families such as Coetzee’s “were regarded as volksverraaiers, traitors, by more militant Afrikaners.” (Attwell)

These were hard times. Every facet of life was soaked in an atmosphere of division, but for a child it was in school that he experienced the full weight of cultural transformation. Adults who made very clear that certain last names carried benefits, and membership in the wrong faith had negative consequences. Sometimes it was things only a child would focus on -- the banning of Superman and Captain Marvel comics, the end of the BBC news broadcast with its familiar and comforting ‘This is London.’ The National Party did not care much for Great Britain.

The other touchstone of these years was Voelfontein, the farm in the Koup region of Karoo. Purchased by his grandfather and maintained by his uncle, it utterly captivated Coetzee.

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Voelfontein as photographed by a young Coetzee Credit: JM Coetzee

The farm is called Voelfontein, Bird Fountain; he loves every stone of it, every bush, every blade of grass, loves the birds that give it its name, bird that as dusk falls gather in their thousands in the trees around the fountain, called to each other, murmuring, ruffling their feathers, settling for the night. (80)

He knows Voelfontein best in summer, when it lies flattened under an even, blinding light that pours down from the sky. Yet Voelfontein has its mysteries too, mysteries that belong not to night and shadow but to hot afternoons when mirages dance on the horizon and the very air sings in his ears. (91)


Boyhood is one of a trio of Coetzee books which can best be described as autobiographical fiction. Coetzee himself refers to them as ‘hovering between memoir and fiction.’ The other two are Youth (young adulthood) and Summertime (details the life of one John Coetzee from the perspective of five people who have known him.) Coetzee does not use the pronoun ‘I’ in these books but rather the third person ‘he.’ These are intentionally distanced reflections which focus on significant elements of the author’s life in a way that allows him to unearth some deeper essential and often emotional truth. I have read only Boyhood so far, and it is superlative in capturing the child’s take on what goes on around him. Completely raw and unfiltered with all the naïve wondering and self-consciousness of those years. I have very clear memories of the high and low points of being a child, and this book absolutely nails it. Searing really.


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A young Coetzee at the University of Cape Town Credit: Adelaide Review, 2012


In 1957, at the age of 17, Coetzee enters the University of Cape Town. By December 1961 he has completed two BA degrees -- English and Mathematics. He has also begun to consider writing, having taken several classes in creative writing and published his poetry in university magazines. By 1962 he is working as a computer programmer for IBM in London. Between 1963 and 1966 Coetzee writes a master’s thesis on the English novelist Ford Maddox Ford (1873 - 1939), marries old friend Philippa Jubber in South Africa, and applies to doctoral programs in the United States and South Africa, is accepted by the University of Texas at Austin’s PhD program in linguistics and literature, secures a Fulbright scholarship, and becomes a father -- with the birth of his son Nicolas in Austin.

We join Coetzee again in 1970. He has completed his doctoral dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett and earned a Ph.D. in English, linguistics and Germanic languages. He is an assistant professor of English at the State University of New York in Buffalo. Coetzee is thirty years old and convinced that if his dreams of becoming a novelist are to reach fruition the time is now, so clad in boots and an overcoat he is at work in his unheated basement.

Since his time in London, Coetzee had been researching colonialization and more specifically European accounts of exploration among the indigenous populations of southern Africa: the Dutch Cape, Namaqualand and Namibia, the latter two were part of the German colony of South West Africa. He tracks down the story of one Jacobus Coetzee’s -- not an ancestor but a distant relation -- who conducted expeditions of the Northern Cape, the home of Khoikhoi. This research intensified in Austin and bloomed in Buffalo with the inklings of a possible story. Attwell describes it like this, “What Coetzee wrote on that date was the first salvo of a project called ‘Lies,’ the purpose of which was to open the can of worms that came with being a white South African seeking to put his background behind him and get on living in, or with, America.” (26) This first project would be called ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee.’

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Teen-age self portrait Credit: JM Coetzee

This is an intense period in the United States because of the Vietnam War and the burgeoning anti-war movement. I don’t think one could be in college during the early 1970s and not be affected by a deepening opinion that the war was wrong, and yet another example of Western aggression. So too Coetzee. In March 1970 Coetzee was arrested along with forty-four other faculty members in a sit-in on the Buffalo campus. All were convicted of trespass. Not a particularly consequential event for the Americans but, as Attwell puts it, ‘For Coetzee, it was a catastrophe. He did not have permanent residence in the United States because the terms of his visa, which related to his having held a Fulbright Scholarship, required him to return to his home country.’ (35)

Before his arrest Coetzee had been actively involved in trying to obtain permanent resident status with a petition submitted by US Senator Jacob to overturn an INS decision that Coetzee must leave. Both of his children (a daughter Gisela born in Buffalo) had been born in the US, and his professional future -- and his deep disdain for the South African government -- made it essential that he and his family stay in the US. The conviction ended all that.

But it did lead to a second novella written to accompany the piece about Jacobus Coetzee -- The Vietnam Project -- and a name for the set, Dusklands (1974). Elisabeth Lowery in an October 1999 article in the London Review of Books characterizes Dusklands as ‘twin satires on the civilising mythologies underpinning US intervention in Vietnam and Boer expansion into the African interior in 1760.’ Attwell describes it as Coetzee’s attempt to understand ‘of what I am.’ The answer being ‘that to be a white African is to be the heir of an expansionist colonial philosophy of violence fueled by Western rationalism and the delusion of one’s own election.’ (30)

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Coetzee around the time of the Nobel Prize Credit: Bert Nienhuis

For the next ten years (1972 - 1982) Coetzee will hold a position as lecturer of English at the University of Cape Town while he works on In the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Life & Times of Michael K (1983). In 1983 Coetzee becomes Professor of General Literature at the University. One of the ancillary issues faced by those teaching college level English in South Africa was censorship. It frustrated Coetzee intensely. Here he is responding to a request by the director of the English Department for a list of banned books whose absence might adversely impact Coetzee’s research and teaching, ‘ I am convinced, in particular, the number of works by serious American writers of our day proscribed quite emasculates any course we might offer in the twentieth-century American novel.’ (Attwell)

Among the American books banned: William Faulkner (Sanctuary), Nathaniel West (Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locusts), Richard Wright (Native Son), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita, Ada), Joseph Heller (Catch 22). Let’s take the rest of the American lot wholesale: Mailer (4 books), Henry Miller (5 books), Jack Kerouac (3 books), James Baldwin (5 books), John Updike (4 books), John O’Hara (5 books), Gore Vidal (2 books).

I have left out the English writers as well as other international writers.

In 1996 Coetzee published Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, an examination of South African censorship in which he seeks ‘to understand a passion for which I have no intuitive sympathy, the passion that plays itself out in acts of silencing and censoring.’ Coetzee had his share of censorship dilemmas over the years. How and when to publish in South Africa because it was not the writer alone who was sticking his neck out. South African publishers had to weigh every decision to publish, seeking that narrow margin between successful publication and censorship.


AWARDS


What happens when you tear at your writing with an intensity that leaves you no room for anything else? If you are lucky you are rewarded with esteem, that highest of recognitions. Coetzee has been amply rewarded.

In 1980 the University of Edinburgh bestowed the James Tate Black Memorial Prize on Coetzee. This is an unusual award for several reasons. It is Britain’s oldest literary award; it finds and honors the work of writers early in their career; and there is no panel of experts or celebrities -- the honor comes directly from students and their professors who have read and recognized the quality of the writing. Other writers who have been similarly honored: William Golding, Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing.

In 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K, Coetzee was awarded the Mann Booker Award. The committee provided the following comment about the book, ‘In a South Africa torn by civil war, Michael K sets out to take his ailing mother back to her rural home. On the way there she dies, leaving him alone in an anarchic world of brutal roving armies. Imprisoned, Michael is unable to bear confinement and escapes, determined to live with dignity. This life-affirming novel illuminates the human experience: the need for an interior, spiritual life; for meaningful connections to the world in which we live; and for purity of vision.’

Coetzee was the first person to win the Booker twice, in 1983 and again in 1999, when he described it as 'the ultimate prize to win in the English speaking world'.

In 1987 Coetzee was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society from then mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. The award requires the awardee to make a speech. Coetzee used the opportunity to call on South Africa to ‘dismantle apartheid.’

‘Speaking in a calm and measured fashion, Mr. Coetzee stressed the limitations of art in a society whose artificial structures had resulted in 'deformed and stunted relations between human beings' and 'a deformed and stunted inner life.' Even creators of fiction, with its seemingly unlimited boundaries, are not free under apartheid, he said. 'South African literature is a literature in bondage.' Mr. Coetzee said. 'It is a less than fully human literature. It is exactly the kind of literature you would expect people to write from prison.' (NY Times)

Octavio Paz, V. S. Naipaul, J. M. Coetzee and Mario Vargas Llosa all won the Jerusalem Prize prior to winning the Nobel.

In 1999 Coetzee wins the Man Booker Award for Disgrace, his novel of life in post-apartheid South Africa. ‘Disgrace tells the story of a 52-year-old college professor -- Coetzee himself is professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town -- who is accused of sexual harassment after an affair with a student and seeks refuge on his daughter's farm.’ (Lyall)

‘Gerald Kaufman, a member of Parliament and chairman of the judges’ panel called the novel ‘an allegory about what is happening to the human race in the post-colonial era.’ He added that it was a ‘millennial book, ‘because it takes us through the 20th century into a new century in which the source of power is shifting away from Western Europe.’ (Lyall)

Another NY Times reviewer, Michael Gorra, sought to compare the work of Nadine Gordimer to that of Coetzee. ‘Gordimer is expansive where Coetzee is spare, and if her sentences are often knotty and elliptical, she nevertheless remains committed to a kind of social realism. Coetzee's prose has, in contrast, an accessible ease that belies the slippery nature of his work as a whole. Each is a gambler, but they've staked their careers on different games: Gordimer so timely that she risks obsolescence, Coetzee so determined to avoid a fiction based on what he has called ''the procedures of history'' as to chance his own irrelevance.’ (Gorra)

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Coetzee at the Nobel Awards Ceremony with the South African Ambassador


In 2003 Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The committee’s motivation in assigning this award to Coetzee was the writer ‘who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider.’

There is a wonderful description of the power of Coetzee’s writing in the informational text that the Nobel Committee provides:
Coetzee’s interest is directed mainly at situations where the distinction between right and wrong, while crystal clear, can be seen to serve no end. Like the man in the famous Magritte painting who is studying his neck in a mirror, at the decisive moment Coetzee’s characters stand behind themselves, motionless, incapable of taking part in their own actions. But passivity is not merely the dark haze that devours personality, it is also the last resort open to human beings as they defy an oppressive order by rendering themselves inaccessible to its intentions. It is in exploring weakness and defeat that Coetzee captures the divine spark in man.

Finally, Coetzee is not comfortable in the limelight. I have watched several interviews with him -- painful exercises in slow on-camera thinking that end in observations which fly over the head of everyone present including the moderator. I don’t think he enjoys the process of exposing whatever painful or transformative thing that lies at the heart of his words. He holds a steady rein which is why his simple prose grabs the reader and leaves her rereading entire passages over and over. One can’t help but see things his words describe.

But sometimes even the austere let down their guard. The Nobel Banquet speech during which all awardees speak was Coetzee’s time. On paper the speech is lovely, but I was lucky to find a video of him giving his speech:


[bbvideo=560,315]https://youtu.be/59A4kbJ_JlA[/bbvideo]



Coetzee moved to Adelaide, Australia with his partner Dorothy Drivers in 2002, becoming a citizen of Australia in 2006.



Sources:

Attwell, David. ‘J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing -- Face-to-face with History’ 2015 Viking Penguin

Coetzee, JM ‘Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life’ 1997 Viking Penguin

Farago, J. ‘J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood, in Black and White’ New York Times, January 16, 2018


Gorra, M. ‘After the Fall’ New York Times, November 28, 1999


Lowry, Elizabeth. ‘Like a Dog’ London Review of Books, October 13, 1999


The Nobel Prize website. The Nobel Prize for Literature 2003 - Press Release, October 2, 2003


Special to the NY Times. ‘Coetzee, Getting Prize, Denounces Apartheid’ New York Times, April 11, 1987


Updike, John. ‘The Story of Himself’ The New Yorker, July 7, 2002
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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SnoopyDances
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Waiting for the Barbarians -- Tidbit #5: JM Coetzee

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Wed Jul 24, 2019 11:23 pm

:thanks!: Thanks again Firefly for another interesting tidbit!

He certainly moved around enough to be very knowledgeable of many societies, cultures, and governments. Kudos to him for sharing that vast knowledge with the rest of us through his writings. :applause2:

I loved his speech. Good find! :agree:

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Waiting for the Barbarians -- Tidbit #5: JM Coetzee

Unread post by gipsyblues » Thu Jul 25, 2019 5:43 am

:thankyou: fireflydances .

J.M Coretzee, what a biography. You can only be impressed. We need more of these wonderful people like him, so brave. I admire people like him, but he and his family did not have an easy life either.

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Waiting for the Barbarians -- Tidbit #5: JM Coetzee

Unread post by fireflydances » Thu Jul 25, 2019 8:21 am

SnoopyDances wrote::thanks!: Thanks again Firefly for another interesting tidbit!

He certainly moved around enough to be very knowledgeable of many societies, cultures, and governments. Kudos to him for sharing that vast knowledge with the rest of us through his writings. :applause2:

I loved his speech. Good find! :agree:

I am glad you enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to research and write. And yes, the speech. You see inside him with that one. I know Coetzee has a reputation of being very closed, but his writing really contests that opinion, particularly the memoir/fiction of a book like Boyhood. So raw and amazing catch of what childhood is like from a psychological standpoint.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Waiting for the Barbarians -- Tidbit #5: JM Coetzee

Unread post by fireflydances » Thu Jul 25, 2019 8:23 am

gipsyblues wrote::thankyou: fireflydances .

J.M Coretzee, what a biography. You can only be impressed. We need more of these wonderful people like him, so brave. I admire people like him, but he and his family did not have an easy life either.
He has definitely had an interesting life! I think the early childhood trauma opened his heart and brain. Without apartheid I don't know that he would have become a writer, and a Nobel prize winner at that!
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies