If you’ve never read a book by John Maxwell Coetzee, South Africa’s most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, chances are you think he’s dreary, boring and dead serious.
And in the unlikely event that you ever bumped into him at a social event, you’d no doubt think the same. After all, the man is famous for writing bleak Kafkaesque allegories and being impossibly antisocial at dinner parties.
But, man, he’s good.
The themes of Coetzee’s writing, as with any great author, are vast,complex and the subject of numerous post-doctoral theses and literary essays.
On awarding him the Nobel, the Swedish Academy described him as “a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilisation”.
He writes parables of inner isolation and human weakness and he is a pioneer of experimental narratives… And, for most readers, this all sounds scarily intellectual and way, way too heavy.
So let’s just skip all the highfalutin literary analysis (there’s simply not enough space, anyway) and look at one reason – the reason – Coetzee is so good. It’s because he writes bloody well.
Or, if you prefer, he is “a writer of rare acuity, with inventiveness and narrative skills that must rate among the best of our time, and an almost daunting mastery of the English language”, as described by his great contemporary, André Brink.
Take this passage, for example:
For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters.
Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside. ‘Have you missed me?’ she asks. ‘I miss you all the time,’ he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.
These are the opening lines of Disgrace, a depressing fictional deconstruction of post-apartheid South Africa and Coetzee’s most famous book – because it won him his second Booker Prize, set him up for the Nobel and was heavily criticised by the ANC for “brutally” representing “the white people’s perception of the post-apartheid black man”.
Its landscape is one replete with personal shame, sexual and physical violence and animal suffering, and it doesn’t exactly fill the average South African with unbridled joy for the future of the country.
And yet it is eminently and brilliantly readable, as much a page-turner as a Wilbur Smith novel, because of the incredible care and thought that has gone into each line.
Disgrace, like all Coetzee’s novels, is a short work, a little more than 200 pages, but it is so perfectly formed that it packs in as much meaning, and quite probably took as much time and effort to write, as other novels of two or three times the length.
Probably more, come to think of it. Every word has been deeply considered; none is out of place, none is missing. And yet there is no showy grandiloquence either; no trickery or word play to prove just how clever the author is. (Extremely.)
Of course, it would have made quite a difference to the arc of his career and his general position in the literary world if, rather than the pained human condition, Coetzee were interested in, say, vampires and werewolves or virgins and sadomasochists.
Or simply if his books weren’t predicated on the “denial of pleasure principle”, as Martin Amis has memorably put it.
But Coetzee is who he is, and to spend some time with him or to find out about his past is to know that his writing was always going to run rather deep. Indeed, he is so unfathomable that he couldn’t even write his autobiography in the first person.
Rather, it is a three-part fictionalised memoir, the last of which is written as a series of interviews and notes by “a young English biographer” researching Coetzee’s early career after he has supposedly died… So there is no quick understanding of the man, but there are clues to what has shaped him and his writing.
His family didn’t fit the nationalist mould that a traditional Afrikaans surname might suggest; he felt isolated as a youngster; he wanted to be a poet but ended up a computer programmer in London in the 1960s. “Warmth is not in his nature,” he wrote of his younger self. (Still applies.)
He eventually gained a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Texas where he earned a PhD in Linguistics with a thesis that was a “computer stylistic analysis of the works of Samuel Beckett”, which says rather a lot right there.
Ultimately, much of his writing is effectively about him finding himself – something he still hadn’t done late in life. Having moved back to Cape Town in the early 1970s, he spent thirty years teaching at UCT, then he retired and headed off to live in Adelaide, Australia, in 2002, where he would later complain that draconian new security laws reminded him of living in apartheid South Africa…
In person, he is notoriously cold. Rian Malan once called him “the stiffest man in Africa”. (Mbeki was second.)
He doesn’t like to talk unless he really has to. “Speech is not a fount of truth but a pale and provisional version of writing,” he explained once. In other words: why yack on when you can write?
There are numerous tales of him attending dinner parties and not speaking one word to the person seated next to him in the course of an evening.
Even when tutoring at university, where he couldn’t be bothered with youngsters and chose only to teach postgraduates, he would often appear almost unwilling to open his mouth. (Brink, in contrast, is affable and friendly.)
But when he did, finally, it was something to behold, his mind working like one of the computers he programmed decades before.
This extract was published with permission from Burnet Media publishers.
About the book:
50 Flippen Brilliant South Africans is the eagerly anticipated follow-up to the bestselling 50 People Who Stuffed Up South Africa, and is once again an irreverent and entertaining popular history of modern South Africa – but with a more positive spin this time around.
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