The Tribune - Spectrum


October 12, 2003

Coetzee’s unflinching yet compassionate gaze makes him Nobel
Manju Jaidka

In winning the Nobel, Coetzee got his due
In winning the Nobel, Coetzee got his due

OCTOBER 2002. J.M. Coetzee flies into the city of Buffalo without fanfare. He does not want anyone to receive him at the airport. He stands in line without any fuss, collects his bags, moves towards the exit, takes a shuttle into the city and checks into the campus guesthouse. All this is done very quietly, very unobtrusively.

In the evening he addresses a packed auditorium where we have all gathered for his reading. We do not know that he will be the next Nobel Laureate for literature. He reads for an hour, not from his recently published Youth but from a still untitled novel in the making. There are no highs and lows in the reading; it is steady and even-paced and much like the author: elegant, stately and unruffled. Although it is a portion from an unpublished novel, the character he speaks of is familiar – Elizabeth Costello resurrected from his earlier work, The Lives of Animals. The chapter he reads narrates an intense encounter between two intellectuals, a theme that goes down well with a crowd that comprises university students and faculty.

The reading over, Coetzee is ushered to another venue for a reception where he is, perhaps, the only one without a glass of champagne in hand for he is a teetotaler. He is also a vegetarian – which does not surprise those familiar with his views on animal rights. Interacting with guests, he uses words sparingly, is attentive and quietly responsive. The next day he takes a shuttle, politely declining all offers of a ride to the airport, and heads back to Chicago where he is the university’s visiting professor.


That is John Maxwell Coetzee. No fuss, no humbug about him. He can never be accused of improper demeanor. He is not (thank heavens!) like V. S. Naipaul. His role model seems to be someone like T.S. Eliot who believed that a writer has to wear the mask of conformity and appear conventional. Coetzee is very, very conventional.

Today he is the Nobel Laureate for literature and I am thrilled at the news. About a year ago, I had written a piece on him that ended with the prophetic lines: "He is a writer who stands head and shoulders above other contemporary writers. True, he has received recognition for his works, including two Bookers and the Commonwealth Prize, but `85 the best of Coetzee is yet to come. Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, the Nobel Prize for Literature will go to `85 my friend, John Coetzee."

Name-dropping, I agree, is a vice that we non-entities are occasionally guilty of. But in the given circumstances it is pardonable for it isn’t every day that one’s acquaintance wins the Nobel! I am proud to boast of a fairly long, if somewhat erratic, association with John Coetzee beginning in the fall of 1991 at Harvard where I was on a Fulbright Scholarship. He and his gorgeous companion, Dorothy Driver, were visiting professors from the University of Cape Town. At first, I admit, I was not aware of Coetzee’s literary achievements and when I discovered them I was taken aback that such a low-profile academic could have so distinguished a record.

John Coetzee is again like Eliot in the way he deliberately keeps his private life out of public eye. A researcher seeking information on his biography invariably draws a blank. The writer is hard to contact; it is near impossible to get an interview or even a response from him. His space is not to be encroached upon. That’s just his style and his closest friends respect his right to privacy. Tokens of worldly fame do not seem to matter to him. He is the sort of who person would not turn up even to claim prestigious awards like the Booker or the Commonwealth. His job is to study the world and write about it. Material gains, rewards, international awards, do not seem to matter much.

The Nobel citation refers to him as a writer "who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider". Let me expand on the "involvement of the outsider": as a white man from South Africa, Coetzee is deeply rooted in his environment, can commiserate with the sufferings of his people and feel the deep pain of the country’s chequered political history. He writes from the perspective of an insider, presenting the true story of a people emerging from the throes of colonial rule, goes deeper, driving home the lesson that there is no turning one’s back on a nation’s history, for history continues to live in the present, and into the future. At the same time, Coetzee is the outsider in the sense that he is not comfortable in the given scenario; he can see the flaws of the system, apartheid and post-apartheid. His sympathies remain with the underdog, the meek and downtrodden, the marginalised, or the silenced other.

But, one may ask, with all his commitment to South Africa, why did he choose to migrate to Australia (where he now lives with Dorothy, making occasional lecture trips to Chicago)? Why did he not, as a social activist, fight for the cause of the country? Again, the answer is not far too seek. Coetzee is not the militant rebel who would take up cudgels and jump into the battlefield. His arena is the printed page and that is where he concentrates. Moving to Australia gives him the required distance, allowing him to get a clearer picture of issues that move him the most. If you remember the last stanza of Yeats’s Lapis Lazuli, Coetzee is one of the three Chinamen on the hilltop, looking at the scene down below, taking all upheavals, all the vicissitudes of life at a glance. He may be serene in appearance but his works seethe with passion. Passion and compassion for all the wretched of the earth.

It is his ability to see the other’s point of view that informs Foe (1986), his revisionist novel based on the story of Robinson Crusoe, where a woman is brought into the castaway’s exclusive domain in such a way as to present the story from a female perspective. The Age of Iron (1990) takes the form of the letter-diary of a classics professor facing an imminent death from cancer. The horrors of apartheid are revealed through her descriptions of events that turn the social fabric topsy-turvey. The same theme of social and political confusion is explored from a different angle in the Booker-winning Disgrace (1999) which begins as the story of a professor of English driven into professional disgrace, but ultimately turns out to be the tale of the white man in South Africa. Racial hatred is laid bare and harsh, ugly post-apartheid realities come in the foreground. There is no doubt that apartheid is horrifying, but what follows it is equally vicious, substituting one social malaise for another.

Coetzee's other well-known novels are Dusklands, Waiting for the Barbarians, The Life and Times of Michael K (which won the Booker in 1983), and The Master of Petersburg, each a masterpiece in its own right. Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons is now slated for release on October 16, but previews are already in circulation. There are two autobiographical works, too: Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997), and Youth (2002), which are different from the usual autobiographical fare in that they are neither confessional outpourings nor the glorification of a childhood. The memoirs take a distanced but harsh look at the years of his childhood and youth. His gaze is ruthless and unflinching. And yet there is dignity in this kind of self-exposure. There is strength. These are the hallmarks of J.M. Coetzee.

Excerpts from Disgrace

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 him. `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.

Soraya is tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be her father; but then, technically, one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et volupt`E9.


Because he takes pleasure in her, because his pleasure is unfailing, an affection has grown up in him for her. To some degree, he believes, this affection is reciprocated. Affection may not be love, but it is at least its cousin. Given their unpromising beginnings, they have been lucky, the two of them: he to have found her, she to have found him.


He has toyed with the idea of asking her to see him in her own time. He would like to spend an evening with her, perhaps even a whole night. But not the morning after. He knows too much about himself to subject her to a morning after, when he will be cold, surly, impatient to be alone.

That is his temperament. His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is fixed, set. The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.

Follow your temperament. It is not a philosophy, he would not dignify it with that name. It is a rule, like the Rule of St Benedict.