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