J. M. Coetzee Biography


Born John Maxwell Coetzee, February 9, 1940, in Cape Town, South Africa; married, 1963 (divorced, 1980); children: Nicholas, Gisela. Education: University of Cape Town, B.A., 1960, M.A., 1963; University of Texas, Austin, Ph.D., 1969.


Agent —Peter Lampack, 551 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10017. Home —Australia.


Applications programmer, International Business Machines (IBM), London, England, 1962–63; systems programmer, International Computers, Bracknell, Berkshire, England, 1964–65; State University of New York at Buffalo, NY, assistant professor, 1968–71, Butler Professor of English, 1984, 1986; University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa, lecturer in English, 1972–82, professor of general literature, 1983–2001; Hinkley Professor of English, Johns Hopkins University, 1986, 1989; visiting professor of English, Harvard University, 1991.


International Comparative Literature Association, Modern Language Association of America.


CNA literary award for In the Heart of the Country, 1977; CNA literary award for Waiting for the Barbarians, 1980; James Tait Black memorial prize for Waiting for the Barbarians, 1980; Geoffrey Faber Award for Waiting for the Barbarians, 1980; CNA literary award for The Life and Times of Michael K, 1984; Booker–McConnell Prize for The Life and Times of

J. M. Coetzee
Michael K, 1984; Prix Femina Etranger for The Life and Times of Michael K, 1984; D. Litt., University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1985; Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, 1987; Sunday Express book of the year prize for Age of Iron, 1990; Premio Modello for The Master of Petersburg, 1994; Irish Times international fiction prize for The Master of Petersburg, 1995; Booker prize for Disgrace, 1999; National Book League and Commonwealth Writer's prize for best novel for Disgrace, 1999; Life Fellow, University of Cape Town; Nobel Prize for literature, 2003.


J. M. Coetzee explores the implications of oppressive societies on the lives of their inhabitants, often using his native South Africa as a backdrop. As a South African, however, Coetzee is "too intelligent a novelist to cater for moralistic voyeurs," Peter Lewis declared in the Times Literary Supplement. "This does not mean that he avoids the social and political crises edging his country towards catastrophe. But he chooses not to handle such themes in the direct, realistic way that writers of older generations, such as Alan Paton, preferred to employ. Instead, Coetzee has developed a symbolic and even allegorical mode of fiction—not to escape the living nightmare of South Africa but to define the psychopathological underlying the sociological, and in doing so to locate the archetypal in the particular."

Though many of his stories are set in South Africa, Coetzee's lessons are relevant to all countries, as Books Abroad 's Ursula A. Barnett wrote of 1974's Dusklands, which contains the novellas The Vietnam Project and The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee. "By publishing the two stories side by side," Barnett remarked, "Coetzee has deliberately given a wider horizon to his South African subject. Left on its own, The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee would immediately have suggested yet another tale of African black–white confrontation to the reader." Although each is a complete story, "their nature and design are such that the book can and should be read as a single work," Roger Owen commented in the Times Literary Supplement. Dusklands "is a kind of diptych, carefully hinged and aligned, and of a texture so glassy and mirror–like that each story throws light on the other." Together the tales present two very different outcomes in confrontations between the individual and society.

Coetzee's second novel, 1977's From the Heart of the Country, also explores racial conflict and mental deterioration. A spinster daughter, Magda, tells the story in diary form, recalling the consequences of her father's seduction of his African workman's wife. Both jealous of and repulsed by the relationship, Magda murders her father, then begins her own affair with the workman. The integrity of Magda's story eventually proves questionable. "The reader soon realizes that these are the untrustworthy ravings of a hysterical, demented individual consumed by loneliness and her love/hate relationship with her patriarchal father," Barend J. Toerien reported in World Literature Today.

Coetzee followed From the Heart of the Country with 1980's Waiting for the Barbarians, in which he, "with laconic brilliance, articulates one of the basic problems of our time—how to understand [the] mentality behind the brutality and injustice," Anthony Burgess wrote in New York. In the novel, a magistrate attempting to protect the peaceful nomadic people of his district is imprisoned and tortured by the army that arrives at the frontier town to destroy the "barbarians" on behalf of the Empire. The horror of what he has seen and experienced affects the magistrate in inalterable ways, bringing changes in his personality that he cannot understand.

Coetzee's fourth novel, The Life and Times of Michael K, was published in 1983. According to CNN.com , it was "the story of a young gardener abandoned after his mother's death in a South Africa whose administration is collapsing after years of civil strife." The book won the Booker Prize in 1984.

In 1987's Foe, a retelling of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee tells the story of the mute Friday, whose tongue was cut out by slavers, and Susan Barton, the castaway who struggles to communicate with him. Daniel Foe, the author who endeavors to tell Barton's story, is also affected by Friday's speechlessness. Both Barton and Foe recognize their duty to provide a means by which Friday can relate the story of his escape from the fate of his fellow slaves who drowned, still shackled, when their ship sank; but both also question their right to speak for him. "The author, whether Foe or Coetzee, wonders if he has any right to speak for the one person whose story most needs to be told," West Coast Review 's Maureen Nicholson noted. "Friday is the tongueless voice of millions."

In 1990's Age of Iron Coetzee addresses the crisis of South Africa in direct, rather than allegorical, form. The story of Mrs. Curren, a retired professor dying of cancer and attempting to deal with the realities of apartheid in Cape Town, Age of Iron is "an unrelenting yet gorgeously written parable of modern South Africa, a story filled with foreboding and violence about a land where even the ability of children to love is too great a luxury," Michael Dorris wrote in Tribune Books.

In Coetzee's next novel, 1994's The Master of Petersburg, the central character is the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, but the plot is only loosely based on his real life. In Coetzee's story, the novelist goes to St. Petersburg upon the death of his stepson, Pavel. He is devastated by grief for the young man, and begins an inquiry into his death. He discovers that Pavel was involved with a group of nihilists and was probably murdered either by their leader or by the police. During the course of his anguished investigation, Dostoevsky's creative processes are exposed; Coetzee shows him beginning work on his novel The Possessed.

Coetzee's nonfiction works include 1988's White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, 1992's Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, and 1996's Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. In White Writing, the author "collects his critical reflections on the mixed fortunes of 'white writing' in South Africa, 'a body of writing [not] different in nature from black writing,' but 'generated by the concerns of people no longer European, yet not African,'" Shaun Irlam observed in MLN. The seven essays included in the book discuss writings from the late seventeenth century to the present, through which Coetzee examines the foundations of modern South African writers' attitudes. In Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, a collection of critical essays on Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Nadine Gordimer, and others, Coetzee presents a "literary autobiography," according to Ann Irvine in a Library Journal review. Discussions of issues including censorship and popular culture; interviews with the author preceding each section round out the collection.

Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship was Coetzee's first collection of essays in nearly ten years, since White Writing appeared. The essays collected in Giving Offense were written over a period of about six years. Coetzee discusses three tyrannical regimes: Nazism, Communism, and apartheid; and, drawing upon his training as an academic scholar as well as his experiences as a fiction writer, argues that the censor and the writer have often been "brother–enemies, mirror images one of the other" in their struggle to claim the truth of their position.

In 1997's Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, Coetzee experiments with autobiography, a surprising turn for a writer, as Caryl Phillips noted in the New Republic, "whose literary output has successfully resisted an autobiographical reading." Boyhood, written in the third person, "reads more like a novella than a true autobiography. Coetzee develops his character, a young boy on the verge of adolescence, through a richly detailed interior monolog," wrote Denise S. Sticha in Library Journal. He recounts his life growing up in Worcester, South Africa, where he moved with his family from Cape Town after his father's latest business failure. There, he observes the contradictions of apartheid and the subtle distinctions of class and ethnicity with a precociously writerly eye. Coetzee, an Afrikaaner whose parents chose to speak English, finds himself between worlds, neither properly Afrikaaner nor English. Throughout his boyhood, he encounters the stupid brutalities inflicted by arbitrary divisions between white and black, Afrikaaner and English.

The Lives of Animals, published in 1999, is a unique effort by Coetzee, incorporating his own lectures on animal rights with the fictional story of Elizabeth Costello, a novelist obsessed by the horrors of human cruelty to animals. In this "wonderfully inventive and inconclusive book," as Stephen H. Webb described it in Christian Century, Coetzee poses questions about the morality of vegetarianism and the guilt of those who use animal products. But his arguments are not simplistic: he wonders, for example, if vegetarians are really trying to save animals, or only trying to put themselves in a morally superior position to other humans. Following the novella, there are responses to Costello's arguments from four scholars who have written about animals: Barbara Smuts, Peter Singer, Marjorie Garber, and Wendy Doniger. The sum of the book, wrote Marlene Chamberlain in Booklist, is valuable "for Coetzee fans and others interested in the links between philosophy, reason, and the rights of nonhumans."

Coetzee's next novel, 1999's Disgrace, is a strong statement on the political climate in post–apartheid South Africa. The main character, David Lurie, is an English professor at the University of Cape Town. He sees himself as an aging, but still handsome, Lothario. He has seduced many young women in his day, but an affair with one of his students finally proves his undoing. Charged with sexual harassment, he leaves his post in disgrace, seeking refuge at the small farm owned by his daughter, Lucy. While David's world is refined and highly intellectualized, Lucy works at hard physical labor in simple surroundings. David's notions of orderliness are overturned when three men come to the farm, set him afire, and rape Lucy. Father and daughter survive the ordeal, only to learn that Lucy has become pregnant. Eventually, in order to protect herself and her simple way of life, she consents to become the third wife in her neighbor's polygamous family, even though he may have arranged the attack on her in order to gain control of her property. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1999; Coetzee made history by becoming the the first author to win the award twice.

Antioch Review contributor John Kennedy noted, "In its honest and relentless probing of character and motive … this novel secures Coetzee's place among today's major novelists.… The impulses and crimes of passion, the inadequacies of justice, and the rare possibilities for redemption are played out on many levels in this brilliantly crafted book." The author's deft handling of the ambiguities of his story was also praised by Rebecca Saunders, who in Review of Contemporary Fiction warned that Disgrace is "not for the ethically faint of heart." Saunders felt Coetzee has "strewn nettles in the bed of the comfortable social conscience," and his book is written in the style "we have come to expect" from him, "at once taciturn and blurting out the unspeakable."

On December 10, 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He dedicated the award to his mother. In 2004, Coetzee edited and translated Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands. The novelist introduced and translated one poem each by five 20th centruy Dutch poets and three by a sixth. In April of that year, Coetzee was nominated for the Christine Stead Prize for fiction, one of the New South Wales Literary Awards, which are one of Australia's top literary events. The event marked the first time that a Nobel laureate had been nominated for one of the awards. He also was on the shortlist for Australia's Miles Franklin Literary Award for his 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello. That same month, five of Coetzee's novels were released in China for the first time. The books included Waiting for the Barbarians, Youth, and Disgrace.

In addition to his writing, Coetzee has produced translations of works in Dutch, German, French, and Afrikaans, served as editor for others' work, and taught at the University of Cape Town. "He's a rare phenomenon, a writer–scholar," Ian Glenn, a colleague of Coetzee's, told the Washington Post 's Allister Sparks. "Even if he hadn't had a career as a novelist he would have had a very considerable one as an academic." Coetzee told Sparks that he finds writing burdensome. "I don't like writing so I have to push myself," he said. "It's bad if I write but it's worse if I don't." Coetzee hesitates to discuss his works in progress, and views his opinion of his published works as no more important than that of anyone else. "The writer is simply another reader when it is a matter of discussing the books he has already written," he told Sparks. "They don't belong to him anymore and he has nothing privileged to say about them—while the book he is engaged in writing is far too private and important a matter to be talked about."

Selected writings


Dusklands (contains two novellas, The Vietnam Project and The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee ), Ravan Press (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1974; Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1985.

From the Heart of the Country, Harper (New York, NY), 1977; published in England as In the Heart of the Country, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1977.

Waiting for the Barbarians, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1980; Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1982.

The Life and Times of Michael K., Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1983; Viking (New York, NY), 1984.

Foe, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.

Age of Iron, Random House (New York, NY), 1990.

The Master of Petersburg, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.

(With others) The Lives of Animals, edited with an introduction by Amy Gutmann, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1999.

Disgrace, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.

Youth, Viking (New York, NY), 2002.

Elizabeth Costello, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 2003.

Other works

(Translator) Marcellus Emants, A Posthumous Confession, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1976.

(Translator) Wilma Stockenstroem, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, Faber (London, England), 1983.

(Editor, with Andre Brink) A Land Apart: A Contemporary South African Reader, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.

White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (essays), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1988.

Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, edited by David Attwell, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.

(With Graham Swift, John Lanchester, and Ian Jack) Food: The Vital Stuff, Penguin (New York, NY), 1995.

Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.

(With Bill Reichblum) What Is Realism?, Bennington College (Bennington, VT), 1997.

(With Dan Cameron and Carolyn Christov–Bakargiev) William Kentridge, Phaidon (London, England), 1999.

Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986–1999, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.

The Humanities in Africa/Die Geisteswissenschaften in Afrika, Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung (Munich, Germany), 2001.

Contributor of introduction, The Confusions of Young Törless, by Robert Musil, Penguin (New York, NY), 2001.

(Translator and author of introduction) Landscape With Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands, Princeton University Press, 2004.

Contributor of reviews to periodicals, including New York Review of Books.

Media adaptations

An adaptation of In the Heart of the Country was filmed as Dust, by ICA (England), 1986.



Attwell, David, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1993.

Coetzee, J. M., Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.

Gallagher, Susan V., A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.

Goddard, Kevin, J. M. Coetzee: A Bibliography, National English Literary Museum, 1990.

Head, Dominic, J. M. Coetzee, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Huggan, Graham, and Stephen Watson, editors, Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee, introduction by Nadine Gordimer, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1996.

Jolly, Rosemary Jane, Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African Writing: Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J. M. Coetzee, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1996.

Kossew, Sue, editor, Critical Essays on J. M. Coetzee, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1998.

Kossew, Sue, Pen and Power: A Post–Colonial Reading of J. M. Coetzee and Andre Brink, Rodopi (Atlanta, GA), 1996.

Moses, Michael Valdez, editor, The Writings of J. M. Coetzee, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1994.

Penner, Dick, Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee, Greenwood Press (New York, NY), 1989.


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"J. M. Coetzee Honored with Booker Prize, Top British Fiction Award," University of Chicago Chronicle, http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/991104/coetzee.shtml (July 6, 2004).

"Shy Nobel winner dedicates prize to mother," CNN.com , http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/africa/12/10/nobel.coetzee.reut/index.html (July 6, 2004).

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