J. M. Coetzee (1940-)

J. M. Coetzee published his first novel, Dusklands, in 1974. Since that time he has become one of South Africa's leading writers; and increasingly, he has achieved a position at the forefront of contemporary writers in English. He was the first novelist to be twice awarded the London-based Booker Prize, given for the best novel of the year (for Life & Times of Michael K, 1983, and Disgrace, 1999). His international reputation was marked by the announcement in 2003 that he was that year's Nobel Prize winner in Literature.

(Marais, Michael, and Merritt Moseley. "J. M. Coetzee." Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 1, Gale, 2007.)


Winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature and the first of only two novelists to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize twice, Coetzee is celebrated for his postmodernist explorations of themes of the colonizer and the colonized that both elucidate and draw on the history of South African apartheid. Coetzee's works develop a complex view of colonialism and its legacy of gender and racial prejudice. Many of his stories reenact the Robinson Crusoe scenario with its encounter between the colonizer and the colonized and the dialectic of Self and Other that informs the relationship. Coetzee posits the inherent division of the Self, and by extension the multiple subjectivity of the authorial persona, thus challenging the presumptions of Western rationality and the realist novel to totalizing narratives of history. Refusing to recognize the boundary commonly thought to separate fiction and history, and compelled by a moral obligation to respond to the horrors of apartheid that he witnessed for many years in his native Cape Town, Coetzee developed an elaborate aesthetics of allegory, allusion, and metatextuality meant to deliver an ethical response to the marginalization of the Other, if not a political one. Coetzee foregrounds the processes of writing and speech in the lives of his characters, many of whom are authors whose texts form portions of the narratives, thereby adding additional layers of meaning. In awarding him the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy praised Coetzee as a "scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization," also citing him for work that "in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the Outsider."

Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, to parents of Afrikaner descent, though the family spoke English at home. He attended a Catholic school in a Cape Town suburb and then attended the University of Cape Town, where he received a bachelor's degree in mathematics and English in 1961. Coetzee then moved to London, where he worked as a computer programmer for International Business Machines (IBM). In 1965, through the Fulbright program, Coetzee left England to complete his graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin. At the library there Coetzee stumbled upon the journal of an eighteenth-century Boer explorer named Jacobus Coetzee who undertook expeditions into Namaqualand on the west coast of South Africa to hunt elephants for ivory. This journal provided the inspiration for Coetzee's first novel, Dusklands (1974), which actually consists of two related stories of Western imperialism, juxtaposing a narrative of Jacobus Coetzee's exploitation of native Africans with one about American intervention in the Vietnam War. Coetzee taught English at State University of New York in Buffalo for a few years but returned to South Africa in 1971 when his application for permanent U.S. residence was denied due to his protesting of the conflict in Southeast Asia. From 1972 to 2000 Coetzee held a series of positions at the University of Cape Town, becoming Distinguished Professor of Literature in 1983. In 2002 Coetzee emigrated to Australia, where he now holds citizenship. Coetzee's so-called memoirs of his formative years, Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), actually combine biography and fiction and cannot be considered a reliable source of information about his life. The same can be said of Coetzee's most recent works, Diary of a Bad Year (2007) and Summertime (2009), which go even further in confusing the boundary between author and character. The first is presented as the edited journal of "James Coetzee," a famous novelist who has recently died; the second purports to be a series of essays written by one "J. C.," an aging and celebrated author from South Africa who has just recently moved to Adelaide, Australia.

Alyda Faber writes of Coetzee's work as being the product of his "yearning for the restoration of meaningful ethical judgment after years of apartheid law condoning torture." Tracing apartheid to its roots in a European imperialist practice that depended for its existence on the subjugation of the colonized by the colonizer, Coetzee rewrites the history of these "master-slave" relations by, as Steven G. Kellman remarked, "apprehending the Other." This discovery takes many forms, all of which betray Coetzee's sympathy for the oppressed Other, be they women, blacks and "coloureds" in South Africa, indigenous peoples, or, in his later novels, even animals. "Our craft," Coetzee writes in the essay collection White Writing (1988), "is all in the reading the other: gaps, inverses, undersides; the veiled; the dark, the buried, the feminine; alterities."

Coetzee's Foe (1986) directly engages Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, placing an eighteenth-century castaway, Susan Barton, on an island with an Englishman named Cruso and a mute negro slave called Friday whose tongue has been cut out. After Cruso's death, Barton takes Friday back to England, where she becomes obsessed with finding a way "to bring Friday to speech, or to bring speech to Friday" so that he can tell his own story. Eventually she seeks out a hack journalist, Foe, to help her write the tale of her life stranded at sea. But Foe alters Barton's story by presenting its characters as idealistic and enterprising rather than indigent and depressed, as Barton originally described them. Many critics assert that, through this scenario, Coetzee creates a viable parable of how language contributes to oppression. Life & Times of Michael K (1983), the first of Coetzee's Booker Prize winners, presents another example of an Other who is unable to speak for himself. Michael K is a slow-witted outcast with a cleft palette, a member of the oppressed majority during a time of civil war in a futuristic South Africa. Michael K and his mother retreat from Cape Town to a farm in the Karoo, where he lives in a burrow and tends vegetables. In the course of the novel the farm is destroyed by explosives. A medical officer then becomes fixated on learning the story of Michael K, whose speech organs, like those of Friday, have been damaged. Finally, the doctor and a fellow officer fabricate Michael K's history and, after he escapes, concoct a death report. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) features another character who attempts to get to know and understand the Other. Set along the frontier of an unspecified empire, this novel addresses oppression through its depiction of an imperial magistrate who must choose between helping to dominate a group of natives known as "the barbarians" and his desire to ally himself with them. The magistrate takes a tortured and badly beaten barbarian woman into his home, admitting to himself, "It has been growing more and more clear to me that until the marks on this girl's body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her." Age of Iron (1990) describes a similarly unlikely friendship in the figures of Mrs. Curren, an aging white liberal bourgeoisie dying of cancer, and Mr. Vercueil, a homeless man who camps out in her backyard to escape the rioting that has consumed Cape Town in the waning days of apartheid. Mrs. Curren first reaches out to Vercueil on the day she finds out her illness is terminal in a genuine effort to repent her complicity in apartheid. She later entrusts him with the task of mailing a letter to her daughter--which forms the text of the novel--after her death.

Coetzee depicts language, with its capacity to create the "Other" as well as the political necessity of inequality, as the most significant of many obstacles that would prevent engagement with the Other. In the Heart of the Country (1977) is a stream-of-consciousness monologue from the point of view of a mad Boer woman, Magda, who seeks revenge on her father for consorting with their black maid. Magda observes that she "was born into a language of hierarchy. ... perhaps my rage at my father is simply rage at the violations of the old language, the correct language, that take place when he exchanges kisses and pronouns of intimacy with a girl who yesterday scrubbed floors and today ought to be cleaning windows." Coetzee's other Booker Prize winner, Disgrace (1999), takes place in South Africa in the late 1990s and concerns an aging scholar, David Lurie, whose sexual exploitation of a young student is found out by the university authorities. They order Lurie to apologize and enter counseling if he wishes to stay on as a professor. Lurie pleads guilty to the crime but refuses to apologize in the politically correct manner demanded by the university tribunal, in effect, according to critics, voicing Coetzee's own objections to the South African Truth and Reconciliations Committee, the post-apartheid judicial proceeding established to allow victims to air their grievances, but which granted the accused amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of wrongdoing. Lurie leaves his academic post in disgrace and, with the help of his daughter, finds work in a kennel. The experience transforms him. While assisting in the mercy killings of dogs, Lurie begins to pity the animals and feels empathy for the first time in his life. This broadening sensitivity to an animal ethic informs Coetzee's next several novels, The Lives of Animals (1999), Elizabeth Costello (2003), and Slow Man (2005), all of which feature a fictional university professor and novelist, Elizabeth Costello, who speaks out against the abuse of animals. In one of Coetzee's boldest metafictional maneuvers, The Lives of Animals consists of two lectures that he himself delivered at Princeton about a fictional animal activist named Elizabeth Costello. The two lectures were then incorporated into Elizabeth Costello, which in its entirety consists of eight lessons on the necessity of being kind to animals. In Slow Man, Elizabeth Costello becomes the mentor of the protagonist, a self-pitying cripple who lost a limb in a biking accident.

The criticism devoted to Coetzee is abundant, even more so since he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Much of the commentary addresses the philosophical implications of his attack on forms of political organization that subject one group to the domination of another. Marion Fries-Dieckmann observed in an essay on Foe, "As a white South African writer, Coetzee is very much aware of the problem of representing Otherness. He shows the dilemma of representing the unrepresented without solving it." For this reason, Coetzee has sometimes been faulted for shrinking away from everyday realities by privileging art over politics. But a number of critics have come to his defense in this respect. Kellerman remarked, "In their insistence on inserting dialogue into a monologic culture, Coetzee's fictions of the Other are more profoundly revolutionary than most explicitly polemical texts that have emerged out of the agonies of South Africa." John Gamgee found it judicious on Coetzee's part to avoid formulating any systematic program for political action. Gamgee wrote, "He poses questions, yet is too self-questioning, too skeptical or, quite simply, too honest to propose answers to problems that have kept philosophers busy since philosophizing began."

Critics have in the main found Coetzee's ambiguous authorial stance consistent with his beliefs in the inherent subjectivity of the Self and the importance of giving marginalized people a voice. His attitude has been seen to approximate that of Elizabeth Costello, who declares, "We change from day to day, and we also stay the same. No I, no you is more fundamental than any other." Faber noted that Coetzee's description of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novels as "dialogic" could be applied equally to Coetzee's own fiction. In an essay in the collection Stranger Shores (2001), Coetzee defined dialogism as literature having "no dominating, central authorial consciousness, and therefore no claim to truth or authority, only competing voices and discourses."

Most scholars have found Coetzee's focus on the relationship between authorship, authority, and language to be particularly relevant in postcolonial times, when many questions have been raised by historians and literary theorists about the so-called ownership of history. Some critics, apparently frustrated in their efforts to pinpoint Coetzee's true voice, have admitted to being overwhelmed by his metaliterary strategies. Although Coetzee refuses to provide any program of political action, critics emphasize his insistence on formulating an ethics that presents the possibility of dissolving Otherness, if only one individual at a time. In her comments on the dialogism of Coetzee's works, Faber added, "Within this polyphony, Coetzee has an implicit aim of creating goodness, without anticipating any progressive actualization of justice in history."


From: "J. M. Coetzee." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 305, Gale, 2011. 


  • Further Reading
    • Attridge, Derek. "Trusting the Other: Age of Iron." In J. M. Coetzee & the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event, pp. 91-112. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

      Examining Age of Iron, Attridge characterizes Mrs. Curren's reliance on Mr. Vercueil as "trust in the Other." The critic goes on to explore the relevance of this type of trust to the apartheid violence in South Africa, describing the tension between politics and ethics that exists in Mrs. Currren's embrace of the Other.

    • Chapman, Michael. "The Case of Coetzee: South African Literary Criticism, 1990 to Today." Journal of Literary Studies 26, no. 2 (June 2010): 103-17.

      Critiques contemporary South African literary criticism, suggesting a new approach.

    • Cheuse, Alan. "An Unsparing Look At A Writer Named Coetzee." All Things Considered (18 January 2010): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122449987.

      Praises the novel Summertime.

    • Coleman, Deirdre. "The 'Dog-Man': Race, Sex, Species, and Lineage in Coetzee's Disgrace.Twentieth Century Literature 55, no. 4 (winter 2009): 597-617.

      Analyzes the character of David Lurie in Disgrace.

    • de Klerk, Eugene. "The Poverty of Desire: Spivak, Coetzee, Lacan and Postcolonial Eros." Journal of Literary Studies 26, no. 3 (September 2010): 65-83.

      Reads the concept of desire in Coetzee's work against contemporary literary theory.

    • Lenta, Patrick. "Discipline in Disgrace.Mosaic 43, no. 3 (September 2010): 1-16.

      Reads Disgrace against the theories of twentieth-century philosopher Michel Foucault.

    • de Villiers, Rick. "Narrative (De)construction: Mr Coetzee, in the Basement, with the Quill: A Discussion of Authorial Complicity in J. M. Coetzee's Foe.Journal of Literary Studies 26, no. 2 (June 2010): 118-26.

      Offers an intertextual analysis of Coetzee's novel.

    • Marais, Michael. "J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace and the Task of the Imagination." Journal of Modern Literature 35, no. 1 (winter 2006): 75-93.

      Analyzes Coetzee's uses of the concept of imagination in Disgrace.

    • Middleton, Kim, and Julie Townsend. "Tenuous Arrangements: The Ethics of Rape in Disgrace." In Encountering Disgrace: Reading and Teaching Coetzee's Novel, edited by Bill McDonald, pp. 116-37. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2009.

      Assesses classroom reading of Coetzee's novel.

    • Morphet, Tony. "Reading Coetzee in South Africa." World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 78, no. 1 (January-April 2004): 14-16.

      Offers the perspective of a South African reader and academic on Coetzee's work.

    • Russell, Lorena. "Waiting for the BarbariansNarrative, History, and the Other." In Exploration and Colonization, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 213-23. New York: Bloom's Literary Criticism, 2010.

      Russell interprets Waiting for the Barbarians as a novel that describes what happens when a man of conscience resists a system of racialized Otherness.

    • Sevry, Jean. "Coetzee the Writer and the Writer of Autobiography." Commonwealth Essays and Studies 22, no. 2 (spring 2000): 13-24.

      Examines Coetzee's relationship with autobiography and its connection to his storytelling.

    • Wittenberg, Hermann. "The Taint of the Censor: J. M. Coetzee and the Making of In the Heart of the Country.English in Africa 35, no. 2 (October 2008): 133-50.

      Wittenberg describes the censorship controversy surrounding In the Heart of the Country as documented in the correspondence between Coetzee and his two publishers, Ravan in South Africa and Secker & Warburg in England.