3 October 2003

J.M. Coetzee wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

South African writer J.M. Coetzee has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature -- the second South African writer to do so in the past 12 years -- Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991.

Coetzee (pronounced kut-SEE'-uh) is not only a novelist: he's written numerous essays and manifestos covering everything from rugby to censorship; he has written on stylistics, is a literary critic, translator and writer of political journalism. He's acted as a literary critic for the New York Review of Books and his 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 -- 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. His latest work, Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons is a mixture of essay and fiction.

In 1999 Coetzee became the first author to be twice awarded the Booker Prize.
The Yale Review of Books has a fascinating review of Coetzee's 'Stranger Shores' -- Coetzee's analysis of the canonical giants of several continents: 'The great novelist and critic boldly set out for distant shores; one of his most remarkable triumphs is to describe in thorough detail the literary traditions of countries vastly different from South Africa. His unique background allows him to comment on these traditions with lively and original insight. Few contemporary writers could produce such compelling commentaries on Samuel Richardson’s novel of 1798, Clarissa, or on Daniel Defoe, whose Robinson Crusoe inspired Coetzee’s own novel, Foe.

'In addition to his chapters on Richardson and Defoe, Coetzee brilliantly criticizes several major writers whom you may have always wanted to read but still neglected. The collection covers not only eighteenth and nineteenth century giants (Defoe, Richardson, Turgenev), but also masters of twentieth century European literature (Byatt, Mulisch, Rilke) and dominant figures of Latin American, African, and even Caribbean letters (Borges, Lessing, Phillips).

'In a typically far-reaching article, “What is a Classic?” Coetzee manages insightfully to link J.S. Bach, T.S. Eliot, and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. This essay opens the collection and articulates Coetzee’s overarching task. The novelist-turned-critic has set out to exercise “one of the instruments of the cunning of history,” to affirm the privileged status of several classics by slowly and meticulously picking them apart. In doing so, Coetzee inserts himself into the European, African, and colonial literary traditions. His description of Clarissa’s body, for example, complements and even bests many older, stuffier Richardson commentaries.

'The book’s opening reflection on the classics also highlights one of Coetzee’s most consistently charming techniques: his revealing treatment of great writers as literary characters. In the case of “What Is a Classic?” the protagonist is T.S. Eliot, whom Coetzee alternately describes as “a man with the magical enterprise of redefining the world around himself” and “a man whose narrowly academic, Eurocentric education has prepared him for little else but life as a mandarin in one of the New England ivory towers.”
' (Source: The Yale Review of Books).

Announcing the Nobel prizewinner, the Swedish Academy said that Coetzee, "who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider", is "ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilisation" and continued:

"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-spiraling journeys he considers necessary for the salvation of his characters."
While Coetzee makes the distinction between right and wrong crystal-clear, he also portrays it as being ultimately pointless. "It is in exploring weakness and defeat that Coetzee captures the divine spark in man." (Press release).

'Coetzee has absorbed the textual turn of postmodern culture while still addressing the ethical tensions of the South African crisis. As a form of "situational metafiction," Coetzee's writing reconstructs and critiques some of the key discourses in the history of colonialism and apartheid from the eighteenth century to the present. While self-conscious about fiction-making, it takes seriously the condition of the society in which it is produced.' (David Attwell, University of Natal, in "J.M. Coetzee : South Africa and the Politics of Writing", Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1993.)

J.M. Coetzee is currently on sabbatical from his role as professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town and is attached to the University of Adelaide in South Australia. He visited Hobart about a decade ago at the invitation of Ruth Blair, then lecturer at the University of Tasmania's English Department.

NB see the Swedish Academy's biobibliographical notes on J.M. Coetzee.

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