Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:February 10th, 2007 12:46 EST
Cold and frozen. Nobel Literature Prize winner John Maxwell Coetzee celebrates his 67th birthday

Cold and frozen. Nobel Literature Prize winner John Maxwell Coetzee celebrates his 67th birthday

By Krzys Wasilewski

His books are compared to such masterpieces as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Three times has he been shortlisted for the Booker Prize – “the ultimate prize to win in the English speaking world” – and won it twice. The biggest success, however, came in 2003 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On February 9, John Maxwell Coetzee celebrates his 67th birthday.

Winter days in Sweden are usually short and dark, to say nothing of the notorious Scandinavian weather. But on December 10, 2003, a plethora of camera flashes must have melted even the most frosted snow in the Swedish capital. It was on this day that the 2003 Nobel Prize winners gathered in the Stockholm Concert Hall to receive the medals and congratulations from the Royal family. Among them was John Maxwell Coetzee. His recent novel Disgrace had earned him not only this most important distinction in literary world, but also catapulted into the limelight. Those who had a chance to be there on that day, however, could have noticed a considerable embarrassment behind the writer's faultless tuxedo. Even the Nobel Prize lecture was delivered with a perceptible quaver in the speaker's voice. The great master was too stressed to dissimulate his awkwardness. Although Coetzee had already been an acclaimed writer, the Stockholm ceremony was the first and last official event he would ever attend.

“Everyone admired, no one passionately liked, JM Coetzee,” stated one English literary critic in 1999 when Coetzee won his second Booker Prize. Neither then nor 16 years earlier, when he was awarded for his third novel, Life & Times of Michael K, did Coetzee appeared at the official ceremonies. It was not the spoiled celebrity's flagrant disregard for the British juries though; it was Coetzee in his entire self. A number of hypotheses have been made about this eccentric behavior. Some pointed at the writer's upbringing in apartheid South Africa which cushioned him from the barbarians on the streets; some suggested that he is simply faithful to the dictum that a writer's aim is to write, not to model. Whatever the cause, Coetzee has stayed well clear of any official parties and literary soirées since the start of his career.

And this began in 1973 with the novel Dusklands. It was a period of social tension at American universities with thousands of students rising in a revolt against the Vietnam War and the ossified political establishment, and Coetzee, at this time himself a student at University of Texas at Austen, was no exception. Thus, it doesn't surprise that his first book casts a critical eye over the US presence in South-East Asia as well as questions the myth of the courageous colonization of South Africa. “Coetzee's vision goes to the nerve center of being,” one critic summed up the book. To his native country Coetzee also returned in his second novel, In the Heart of the Country, another account of the abused relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.

The breakthrough came three years later, in 1980. It was the year when Waiting for the Barbarians - “a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad” - was published and immediately won the author international acclamation. Many reviewers compared the novel to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, praising its skillfully crafted vivisection of the human nature and the way it changes along with conditions one lives in. Penguin Books chose Waiting for the Barbarians, along with nine other masterpieces, for their series “Great Books of the 20th century.” Unlike most young writers whose careers are like a supernova – go off unexpectedly and shine with a blinding light, but for a very short time – Coetzee's next books lived up to high expectations. Whether 1986 Foe, a rewritten story of Robinson Crusoe (to the Crusoe-Friday duo, Coetzee added a woman); or The Master of Petersburg which presents a fictionalized biography of the Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky; or published in 1999 Disgrace, a novel that “makes one happy that he doesn't live in South Africa;” all of Coetzee's books have been praised by both professional critics and the general reader. In the interstice between writing fiction, Coetzee has penned a number of essays and autobiographical works with Youth and Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000-2005 among the most recent ones. His books has been translated to many languages and sold in millions of copies around the world.

J.M. Coetzee was born on February 9, 1940 in South Africa. He began his education at St. Joseph's College, an exclusive Catholic school in a suburb of the picturesque town of Cape. It was probably the college's spirit of intellectual freedom, which ran counter to the grim reality of apartheid South Africa, that caused Coetzee to broaden his literary horizons. At the age of 21 he graduated from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Arts in English, only to receive the similar degree in Mathematics one year later. Unable to make up his mind, Coetzee soon leaved for England (after a long struggle to get the British visa) where he started working as a computer programmer for, at that time informatics giant, IBM. Although devoted to his new job, long hours spent at the computer did not stop him from pursuing his literary ambitions. Coetzee became renown of visiting frequently London bookstores and libraries, and, against odds, effortlessly wrote his master's thesis on the works of Ford Maddox Ford. Hard work paid off and after two years, in 1963, he could add another title – Master of Arts from the University of Cape Town - to his extensive collection. But the British climate, this meteorological and intellectual did not suit the young writer. This, and Coetzee's independent spirit sped up his decision to move out of the islands.

This time, and where else, America was the destination. At the University of Texas at Austin, Coetzee combined linguistics studies with political activities, engaging himself in the Anti Vietnam War movement. This short episode would later weigh heavily against granting Coetzee American citizenship, which the writer had unsuccessfully applied for. Disillusioned with the Land of Freedom, Coetzee returned to South Africa where, at his home university, taught English literature to always packed-full with students classes. Not a permanent residence, but a short break in this self-imposed emigration, as it soon turned out. It had not been until 2002 that Coetzee eventually settled down not in South Africa or America, where he had spent most of his life, but in distant Australia. “"I was attracted by the free and generous spirit of the people, by the beauty of the land itself and–when I first saw Adelaide–by the grace of the city that I now have the honor of calling my home,” he would say four years later holding a brand new document stating that from now on John Maxwell Coetzee is an Australian citizen.

Many artists take a swipe at Coetzee's attitude. He does not eat meat, let alone drink or smoke; a monk among writers as he is called because of his strict daily schedule (despite his 67 years, he keeps fit and never fails to spend at least one hour a day at his writing desk). But the life of a recluse apparently suits the South African-turned-Australian writer. On the last page of his fictionalized biography, Youth, he writes about himself: “If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry. But warmth is not in his nature. Poetry is not written out of warmth anyway. Rimbaud was not warm. Baudelaire was not warm. Hot, indeed, yes, when it was needed – hot in life, hot in love – but not warm. He too is capable of being hot, he has not ceased to believe that. But for the present, the present indefinite, he is cold: cold, frozen.”

To email the writer:

krzys_wasilewski@yahoo.com