Friday, October 03, 2003

John M. Coetzee Wins Nobel Prize in Literature


The Nobel Prize in Literature 2003
John Maxwell Coetzee

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2003 is awarded to the South African writer John Maxwell Coetzee

"who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider".

J.M. Coetzee’s novels are characterised by their well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance. But at the same time he is a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilisation. His intellectual honesty erodes all basis of consolation and distances itself from the tawdry drama of remorse and confession. Even when his own convictions emerge to view, as in his defence of the rights of animals, he elucidates the premises on which they are based rather than he argues for them.

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.

His earliest novel, Dusklands, was the first example of the capacity for empathy that has enabled Coetzee time and again to creep beneath the skin of the alien and the abhorrent. A man working for the American administration during the Vietnam war dreams of devising an unbeatable system of psychological warfare, while at the same time his private life disintegrates around him. His reflections are juxtaposed with a report on an expedition to explore the country of the native Africans, which purports to have been written by one of the 18th-century Boer pioneers. Two forms of misanthropy, one of them intellectual and megalomaniac, the other vital and barbaric, reflect each other.

One element in his next novel, In the Heart of the Country, is the portrayal of psychosis. A careworn spinster living with her father observes with distaste his love affair with a young coloured woman. She has fantasies of murdering both of them, but everything seems to indicate that she decides rather to immure herself in a perverse pact with the house servant. The actual sequence of events cannot be determined, as the reader’s only sources are her notes, where lies and truths, crudeness and refinement alternate capriciously line by line. The high-flown Edwardian literary style of the woman’s monologue harmonises strangely with the surrounding African landscape.

Waiting for the Barbarians is a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naivety opens the gates to horror. The playful metanovel Foe spins a yarn about the incompatibility and inseparability of literature and life, told by a woman who yearns to be part of a major narrative when in reality only one of minor importance is offered.

With Life and Times of Michael K, which has its roots in Defoe as well as in Kafka and Beckett, the impression that Coetzee is a writer of solitude becomes clearer. The novel deals with the flight of an insignificant citizen from growing disorder and impending war to a state of indifference to all needs and speechlessness that negates the logic of power.

The Master of Petersburg is a paraphrase of Dostoevsky's life and fictional world. To die in one’s heart away from the world, the temptation that Coetzee’s imagined characters face, turns out to be the principle of the unconscionable liberty of terrorism. Here, the writer's struggle with the problem of evil is tinged with demonology, an element that recurs in his most recently published work, Elizabeth Costello.

In Disgrace Coetzee involves us in the struggle of a discredited university teacher to defend his own and his daughter’s honour in the new circumstances that have arisen in South Africa after the collapse of white supremacy. The novel deals with a question that is central to his works: Is it possible to evade history?

His autobiographical Boyhood circles mainly around his father’s humiliation and the psychological cleavage it has caused the son, but the book also conveys a magic impression of life in the old-fashioned South African countryside with its eternal conflicts between the Boers and the English and between white and black. In its sequel, Youth, the writer dissects himself as a young man with a cruelty that is oddly consoling for anyone able to identify with him.

There is a great wealth of variety in Coetzee’s works. No two books ever follow the same recipe. Extensive reading reveals a recurring pattern, the downward spiralling journeys he considers necessary for the salvation of his characters. His protagonists are overwhelmed by the urge to sink but paradoxically derive strength from being stripped of all external dignity.

The Swedish Academy

Source: Nobel e-Museum

Biobibliographical notes

John Maxwell Coetzee was born in 1940 in Cape Town in South Africa. His background is both German and English. His parents sent him to an English school and he grew up using English as his first language. At the beginning of the 1960s he moved to England where he worked initially as a computer programmer. He then studied literature in the USA and went on to teach literature and English at the State University of New York at Buffalo up until 1983. In 1984 he became Professor of English Literature at the University of Cape Town. In 2002 he moved to Australia, where he is attached to the University of Adelaide.

Coetzee made his debut as a writer of fiction in 1974. His international breakthrough came in 1980 with the novel Waiting for the Barbarians. He was awarded the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom for Life and Times of Michael K, 1983.

After “updating” Robinson Crusoe in the novel Foe, 1986, Coetzee returned to South Africa with Age of Iron, 1990.

In 1999 Coetzee became the first author to be twice awarded the Booker Prize, now for his novel Disgrace, in which the plot, as in In the Heart of the Country, 1977, mainly takes place on a remote farm in South Africa.

A fundamental theme in Coetzee’s novels involves the values and conduct resulting from South Africa’s apartheid system, which, in his view, could arise anywhere.

Coetzee has also published translations and acted as a literary critic for the New York Review of Books for instance. Coetzee’s literary criticism has been published in essay form in journals such as Comparative Literature, the Journal of Literary Semantics and the Journal of Modern Literature and collections have been issued as White Writing, 1998, Doubling the Point, 1992, Giving Offense : Essays on Censorship, 1996, and Stranger Shores : Essays 1986 –1999, 2001.

Coetzee’s latest work Elizabeth Costello : Eight Lessons, 2003, is a mixture of essay and fiction, and some sections have already been included in other published works such as What is Realism? and The Lives of Animals.

Works in English
Dusklands : [two novellas]. – Johannesburg : Ravan Press, 1974. – Contents: The Vietnam project ; The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee
In the Heart of the Country : [novel]. – London : Secker Warburg, 1977. – Published in the USA as From the Heart of the Country
Waiting for the Barbarians : [novel]. – London : Secker Warburg, 1980
Life and Times of Michael K : [novel]. – London : Secker Warburg, 1983
Foe : [novel]. – London : Secker Warburg, 1986
White Writing : on the Culture of Letters in South Africa. – New Haven : Yale Univ. Press, 1988
Age of Iron : [novel]. – London : Secker Warburg, 1990
Doubling the Point : Essays and Interviews. – Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard Univ. Press, 1992
The Master of Petersburg : [novel]. – London : Secker Warburg, 1994
Giving Offense : Essays on Censorship. – Chicago : Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996
Boyhood : Scenes from Provincial Life. – London : Secker Warburg, 1997
What is Realism? – Bennington, Vt. : Bennington College, 1997
Disgrace : [novel]. – London : Secker Warburg, 1999
The Lives of Animals / edited and introduced by Amy Gutmann. – Princeton : Princeton Univ. Press, 1999
The Humanities in Africa = Die Geisteswissenschaften in Afrika. – München : Carl Friedrich von Siemens-Stiftung, 2001
Stranger Shores : Essays, 1986–1999. – London : Secker Warburg, 2001
Youth. – London : Secker Warburg, 2002
Elizabeth Costello : Eight Lessons. – London : Secker Warburg, 2003

Œuvres en français
Au cœur de ce pays : roman / traduit de l'anglais par Sophie Mayoux. – Paris : M. Nadeau : Papyrus, 1977. – Traduction de: In the Heart of the Country; Aussi paru 1985 sous le titre Dust
En attendant les barbares : roman / traduit de l'anglais par Sophie Mayoux. – Paris : M. Nadeau : Papyrus, 1982. – Traduction de: Waiting for the Barbarians
Michael K, sa vie, son temps : roman / traduit de l'anglais par Sophie Mayoux. – Paris: Seuil, 1985. – Traduction de: Life and Times of Michael K
Terres de crépuscule : nouvelles / [traduit de l'anglais]. – Paris : Seuil, 1987. – Traduction de: Dusklands
Foe : roman / traduit de l'anglais par Sophie Mayoux. – Paris : Seuil, 1988. – Traduction de: Foe
L'âge de fer : roman / traduit de l'anglais par Sophie Mayoux. – Paris : Seuil, 1992. – Traduction de: Age of Iron
Le maître de Pétersbourg : roman / traduit de l'anglais par Sophie Mayoux. – Paris : Seuil, 1995. – Traduction de: The Master of Petersburg
Scènes de la vie d'un jeune garçon : récit / traduit de l'anglais, Afrique du Sud, par Catherine Glenn-Lauga. –
Paris : Seuil, 1999. – Traduction de: Boyhood : Scenes from Provincial Life
Disgrâce : roman / traduit de l'anglais, Afrique du Sud, par Catherine Lauga Du Plessis. – Paris : Seuil, 2001. – Traduction de: Disgrace
Vers l'âge d'homme / traduit de l'anglais, Afrique du Sud, par Catherine Lauga Du Plessis. – Paris : Seuil, 2003. – Traduction de: Youth

Verk på svenska
I väntan på barbarerna : [roman] / översättning: Thomas Preis ; förord av Per Wästberg. – Stockholm : Bromberg, 1982. – Originaltitel: Waiting for the Barbarians
Historien om Michael K : [roman] / översättning: Thomas Preis. – Stockholm : Bromberg, 1984. – Originaltitel: Life and Times of Michael K
Mr Foe : [roman] / översättning: Thomas Preis. – Stockholm : Bromberg, 1989. – Originaltitel: Foe
Järnålder : [roman] / översättning: Thomas Preis. – Stockholm : Bromberg, 1990. – Originaltitel: Age of Iron
Mästaren från Sankt Petersburg : [roman] / översättning: Thomas Preis. – Stockholm : Bromberg, 1995. – Originaltitel: The Master of Petersburg
Onåd : [roman] / översättning: Thomas Preis. – Stockholm : Bromberg, 2000. – Originaltitel: Disgrace
Pojkår : scener ur ett liv i provinsen / översättning: Thomas Preis. – Stockholm : Bromberg, 2001. – Originaltitel: Boyhood
Djurens liv / J. M. Coetzee ; Marjorie Garber ... ; utgiven och introducerad av Amy Gutmann ; svensk översättning: Lisa Gålmark. – Nora : Nya Doxa, 2001. – Originaltitel: The Lives of Animals
Ungdomsår : scener ur ett liv i provinsen: 2 / översättning: Thomas Preis. – Stockholm : Bromberg, 2002. – Originaltitel: Youth
Elizabeth Costello / översättning: Thomas Preis. – Stockholm : Bromberg, 2003. – Originaltitel: Elizabeth Costello

Werke auf deutsch
Warten auf die Barbaren : [Roman] / aus dem Engl. von Brigitte Weidmann. – Berlin : Henssel, 1984. – Orig.: Waiting for the Barbarians
Leben und Zeit des Michael K : [Roman] / aus dem Engl. von Wulf Teichmann. – München : Hanser, 1986. – Orig.: Life and Times of Michael K
Im Herzen des Landes : [Roman] / aus dem Engl. von Wulf Teichmann. – München : Hanser, 1987. – Orig.: In the Heart of the Country
Mr. Cruso, Mrs. Barton und Mr. Foe : [Roman] / aus dem Engl. von Wulf Teichmann. – München : Hanser, 1990. – Orig.: Foe
Eiserne Zeit : [Roman] / aus dem Engl. von Wulf Teichmann. – Frankfurt am Main : Fischer, 1995. – Orig.: Age of Iron
Der Meister von Petersburg : [Roman] / aus dem Engl. von Wolfgang Krege. – Frankfurt am Main : Fischer, 1996. – Orig.: The Master of Petersburg
Der Junge : eine afrikanische Kindheit / aus dem Engl. von Reinhild Böhnke. – Frankfurt am Main : Fischer, 1998. – Orig.: Boyhood
Schande : [Roman] / aus dem Engl. von Reinhild Böhnke. – Frankfurt am Main : Fischer, 2000. – Orig.: Disgrace
Das Leben der Tiere / aus dem Engl. von Reinhild Böhnke. – Frankfurt am Main : Fischer, 2000. – Orig.: The Lives of Animals
Warten auf die Barbaren : [Roman] / aus dem Engl. von Reinhild Böhnke. – Frankfurt am Main : Fischer, 2001. – Orig.: Waiting for the Barbarians
The Humanities in Africa = Die Geisteswissenschaften in Afrika. – München : Carl Friedrich von Siemens-Stiftung, 2001
Die jungen Jahre / aus dem Engl. von Reinhild Böhnke. – Frankfurt am Main : Fischer, 2002. – Orig.: Youth

Literature
Dovey, Teresa, The Novels of J.M. Coetzee : Lacanian Allegories. – Cape Town : Donker, 1988
Penner, Allen Richard, Countries of the Mind : the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee. – New York : Greenwood Press, 1989
Gallagher, Susan VanZanten, A Story of South Africa : J.M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context. – Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard Univ. Press, 1991
Attwell, David, J.M. Coetzee : South Africa and the Politics of Writing. – Berkeley : Univ. of California Press, 1993
Critical Perspectives on J.M. Coetzee / edited by Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson. – Basingstoke : Macmillan, 1996
Kossew, Sue, Pen and Power : a Post-Colonial Reading of J.M. Coetzee and André Brink. – Amsterdam : Rodopi, 1996
Head, Dominic, J.M. Coetzee. – Cambridge : Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997
Critical Essays on J.M. Coetzee / edited by Sue Kossew. – New York : G.K. Hall, 1998
Helgesson, Stefan, Sports of Culture : Writing the Resistant Subject in South Africa (Readings of Ndebele, Gordimer, Coetzee). – Uppsala : Dept. of Literature [Litteraturvetenskapliga institutionen], Univ., 1999
Viola, André, J.M. Coetzee : romancier sud-africain. – Paris : Harmattan, 1999


The Swedish Academy

Source: Nobel e-Museum

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