Tables and Chairs

Christopher Tayler

  • J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing by J.C. Kannemeyer, translated by Michiel Heyns
    Jonathan Ball, 710 pp, R 325.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 1 86842 495 5
  • Here and Now: Letters 2008-11 by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee
    Viking, 256 pp, $27.95, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 670 02666 1
  • The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
    Harvill Secker, 210 pp, £16.99, March 2013, ISBN 978 1 84655 769 9

A few months before the publication of Dusklands in 1974, J.C. Kannemeyer reports, Peter Randall, the director of Ravan Press in Johannesburg, asked J.M. Coetzee to consider supplying ‘a few more personal details’ for the jacket of his first novel. ‘We are often criticised,’ Randall wrote, ‘for not telling readers about our authors. While I do not want to overdo this, some more information about your school education, for example, or your family background, may be useful.’ Coetzee, who was 33 and a lecturer in the University of Cape Town’s English department, replied:

The information you suggest suggests that I settle for a particular identity I should feel most uneasy in. A few words about my schooling, for example, make me a player in the English-South African game of social typing and can even be read as a compliment to those monsters of sadism who ruled over my life for 11 years. As for my family background, I am one of the ten thousand Coetzees, and what is there to be said about them except that Jacobus Coetzee [a historical frontiersman reimagined in Dusklands] begat them all?

Among his interests, he added, were ‘crowd sports; other people’s ailments; apes and humanoid machines; images, particularly photographs, and their power over the human heart; and the politics of assent’. These warning shots, if that’s what they were, backfired: Randall put a list of the author’s interests on the novel’s back cover along with details of his family tree. Coetzee had them removed from subsequent editions, complaining that his letters had been misused, and for many years the original Dusklands jacket was the only instance of arch self-display in an otherwise spotless record of authorial impersonality.

In the 1980s and 1990s Coetzee’s dislike of being interviewed led to fraught encounters with journalists and much recourse to the Cape Town rumour mill. ‘A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once,’ Rian Malan wrote in a famous profile filled with words like ‘reclusive’, ‘cold’ and ‘aloof’. (‘I have met Rian Malan only once in my life,’ Coetzee responded later. ‘He does not know me and is not qualified to talk about my character.’) His unease with what was expected of ‘committed’ writers in late apartheid South Africa caused Nadine Gordimer to speak of his work’s ‘stately fastidiousness’, and it was plain long before Disgrace (1999) that he felt no duty of optimism towards the democratised state. Outside South Africa, meanwhile, his media non-appearances were received as ‘a critique of the entire economy of prestige’, in one reader’s words, while adding to his non-authoritative authority. The tight-lipped, technical interviews in Doubling the Point (1992), and the icy ironic distance of Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), were seen as being splendidly in character.

‘After retiring from UCT and settling in Adelaide,’ Kannemeyer writes, ‘John Coetzee became a far more relaxed person.’ One symptom of this relative relaxation is the emergence, or re-emergence, since 2002, of a playful, inscrutably teasing side to his writing. In the essays collected in Inner Workings (2007) a dry sense of humour sometimes surfaces (‘Senilità grew out of an affair Svevo had in 1891-92 with a young woman of, as one of his commentators delicately puts it, indeterminate profession, later to become a circus equestrienne’); it can also be detected here and there in Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Slow Man (2005). But it was still surprising that comedy was so prominent in the interrogatory toolkit he then took to using on opinionated figures closely modelled on himself. ‘My guess is he unbuttons himself when I am gone,’ an attractive typist says of ‘C’ in Diary of a Bad Year (2007), ‘and makes himself come. And then buttons up and gets back to John Howard and George Bush, what villains they are.’ In Summertime (2009) a biographer of ‘John Coetzee’ hears endlessly of writerly and personal failings: ‘After Disgrace I lost interest… Too lacking in passion.’ ‘To sum up: sex with him lacked all thrill.’

Another sign of Coetzee’s increased relaxation is his decision to co-operate with Kannemeyer, a specialist in Afrikaans literature from Stellenbosch University who approached him in 2008, during the writing of Summertime. ‘He told me,’ Kannemeyer writes, ‘that his major concern was that the biography should be factually correct. He would in no way interfere with my interpretation of the data.’ Coetzee gave Kannemeyer access to his papers, put him in touch with friends and relatives and submitted to two weeks’ worth of interviews, answering questions ‘succinctly and pertinently’ while sidestepping requests for explanations of his work. Kannemeyer – who died in 2011, having finished only a first draft – seems to have been more than comfortable with his subject’s just-the-facts stipulations. His biography’s most conspicuous interpretive aim is to show that Coetzee’s knowledge of Afrikaans writing ‘might actually influence his work more than he admits’. For the most part, though, it uses review cuttings, a trawl through the academic literature and lengthy excerpts from honorary degree citations to illuminate the work. Thanks also to slapdash editing, a lack of reportorial deftness and the local literary politics around Coetzee, the book has been widely mocked in the South African press.

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