On His Terms
JC Kannemeyer’s ‘JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing’
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How many biographies of Nobel Prize winners have to start by clarifying the name of their subject? Such is the mystery of South African author JM Coetzee that even his full name – John Maxwell Coetzee – has been in doubt, one factor among many feeding the “half-truths and blatant falsehoods” used to flesh out the gaunt facts of the man. Yet with every interview he has refused to grant during his 40-year career, every prize-acceptance speech he has chosen not to deliver, every question he has rejected in conversation, the literary world has worked harder to build an elaborate understanding of the man on the far-from-solid foundations of his fiction.
Finally, almost a decade after the Nobel, and some 30 years since his first Booker Prize win, there is a biography. JC Kannemeyer has produced JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing (Scribe; $59.95). Remarkably, not only has he done so with the author’s full permission but with his “unstinting” and “enthusiastic” co-operation.
Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise. For Coetzee – a perfectionist and master of the telling detail – granting Kannemeyer full access to his manuscripts, letters and documents, and consenting to several weeks of interviews at his home, has been an exercise in damage control. With unauthorised biographies in the offing, Coetzee opted to endorse a solid and comprehensive work by a reputable South African scholar and career biographer. “He told me that his major concern was that the biography should be factually correct,” writes Kannemeyer, who died late last year, in his preface. “He would in no way interfere with my interpretation of the data.” The result is a pathfinder biography, ambitious in scope without assuming undue authority.
In her “reflection” on Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, critic Marjorie Garber speaks of “fiction that builds itself around a hall of mirrors”, and nowhere are these mirrors more deceptive, more wilfully distorting than in his three volumes of autobiographical fiction: Boyhood, Youth, and the recent Summertime. The third-person narration of the trilogy’s first two books suggests fiction, while the intimate, first-person content dares the reader to think of it as memoir. By the time we arrive at Summertime, in which a biographer gathers information on the recently deceased author John Coetzee, the reflection is blurred still further.
Add to this Coetzee’s shadowy fictional doubles – Elizabeth Costello, the mouthpiece and author-persona with which he has framed public lectures and latterly novels, and the celebrated writer Señor C of Diary of a Bad Year – and you have a biography hidden in plain sight, the truth ducking and weaving between the structural pillars of Coetzee’s fiction. When appointed to a professorship at the University of Cape Town, Coetzee chose “Truth in Autobiography” as the topic of his inaugural lecture. It exposes the dominant interest of an author who would later declare “all autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography”.
It is a flaw of Kannemeyer’s work as a biography, but perhaps a strength as a piece of literary criticism, that it respects these conflations. Kannemeyer accepts that any understanding of the relationship between Coetzee and his novels must be provisional, contingent, incomplete. “If Youth is a reliable guide …”; “He would probably have …”; “It is to be assumed …”; “If the details in Summertime are to be trusted …” – in many ways the biography feels more like that of a dead author than one still living, as though Summertime’s prophecy had been fulfilled and Kannemeyer were working without recourse to Coetzee himself.
Again and again, quoting from letters, conversations and from Coetzee’s writing, Kannemeyer reveals the author’s unwillingness to offer explication. As early as 1974, with the publication of his first novel, Dusklands, Coetzee refused to provide a conventional dust-jacket biography – “As for my family background, I am one of the 10,000 Coetzees, and what is to be said about them …?” It suggests an early and pervasive wariness of cultural and biographical assimilation, a suspicion of a single authorial identity.
Rejecting the possibility of a “psychological biography”, Kannemeyer counteracts the decades of speculative criticism with a barrage of facts. Since few of these have ever been assembled with any coherence or certainty, it is enough that they are set out in a straightforward chronological account. We follow Coetzee, born in 1940, from his early family life, through the parental troubles with alcoholism and fraud that are excised even from Boyhood’s stern gaze, to the education that the author considered so second-rate. (When his graduating classmates were each asked to sum themselves up in a single sentence, Coetzee put forward, “I refuse to Rock and Roll.”) We learn of his unhappy emigration to England in 1962, his happier time as an academic in the US and his subsequent return in 1971 to South Africa (where Coetzee’s marriage, never referred to in his fiction, finally occupies the influential place it has been denied), and eventually his relocation to Adelaide and taking up of Australian citizenship.
The source documents, particularly from the earlier years of the author’s life, are comprehensive, offering a surprisingly human and humane image of the private Coetzee. He emerges as a loyal friend, a dedicated and skilled teacher (despite his persistent avowals to the contrary) and – perhaps most surprisingly – something of a wag. A contemporary, Lionel Knight, recalls him “jumping out from behind trees on walks in Virginia Water, sometimes taking photographs”, and a university friend remembers the time when “J ... threw a candlelit party for some engineers, who were lured, one by one, into dark rooms and wardrobes, doors slamming and locking behind them.”
Coetzee’s love of cooking (his specialities included curries and soufflé omelettes at a time when “South African men could at most scorch meat in the open air”) and cycling are also well documented, as is his lifelong passion for cricket. There his self-discipline stood out: while playing for UCT’s staff cricket team, he was “the only team member who turned up regularly for practice”.
Less expected, yet consistent with the precision of this prose-surgeon, is that Coetzee once entertained ambitions towards poetry. He only turned to novels once he realised “I just haven’t got it”. Kannemeyer includes some extracts of the author’s early Eliot- and Pound-inspired efforts, and offers a vivid portrait of creative-writing seminars at UCT in which Coetzee the student sat invariably and inscrutably silent while all around fell into easy debate.
Coetzee’s decision to return to South Africa from the US and his decision to leave for good in 2002 are pivotal moments in the author’s ideological and philosophical life. Quoted multiple times, Coetzee’s own defence – “I did not so much leave South Africa … but come to Australia” – is bolstered by the documents Kannemeyer brings to light. They show that Coetzee could have readily stayed away after his student years. Even when forced out of America on account of his political activities (he was arrested in 1970 for his role in an anti–Vietnam War protest), he received offers from a number of international institutions. His relationship with a nation of people who were “not European but not yet African” was complex, and as a writer with an Afrikaner name and heritage but with English as his first language, not to mention Europe as his frame of literary reference, his identity was torn. Kannemeyer is at his best when marshalling critical resources to disprove the widely held assumption that Coetzee’s departure was purely down to the public condemnation he received after the post-Apartheid ANC government lambasted Disgrace, in which a group of black men rape a white woman, calling it racist.
Yet styled as “A Life in Writing”, the biography also seeks to view the author through the public worlds of his own fiction and nonfiction, and the focus is split evenly between the context of Coetzee’s life and the content of his works. There’s no denying the truth of Kannemeyer’s assertion that “Coetzee is the kind of writer whose art has to a large extent become the substance of his life”, but the precise workings of this relationship are never fully exposed. The tensions and correlations between the author’s creative and critical writings (which, for Kannemeyer, “frequently stand in osmotic relation to each other”) are an overlooked area within the booming “critical industry” of Coetzee scholarship. The permeable membrane between the two could have been more rigorously tested, with the 1992 book of essays and interviews with David Atwell, Doubling the Point – an “intellectual biography” – as well as Coetzee’s academic writings being compared to his later works of fiction.
Coetzee’s working practices are revealed as characteristically ritualised and meticulous. Kannemeyer takes us through the many exercise books, filled with neat ballpoint writing, that form the drafts of each novel (all preserved, from Dusklands onwards). The 15 edited versions of Disgrace, the 25 of Slow Man, all testify to the painstaking process of an author for whom writing is no escape. (“It’s bad if I do write, worse if I don’t.”) These manuscripts also expose the textual archaeology of Coetzee’s writing: the early draft of Waiting for the Barbarians is set in Cape Town; an unthinkable version of Disgrace sees Professor Lurie commit suicide, having been accused of the murder of Melanie, one of his students.
Although Kannemeyer’s lengthy summaries of novels and their critical responses will be invaluable to new readers, to those familiar with Coetzee’s work they tread old ground, risking bald repetition even as they (mostly) succeed in escaping interpretational bias. Episodes on Boyhood and Youth inevitably feel the most familiar, and Kannemeyer is more engaging when not being forced to follow in Coetzee’s fictional footsteps. It’s a problem every biographer of this author will face, but those valuing style and innovative structuring over a critically hands-off approach will suffer less than Kannemeyer.
Only very occasionally does Kannemeyer’s own opinion burst into the narrative. A vehement rebuttal of Bernard Levin’s reading of Waiting for the Barbarians, which claims the novel is a psychological rather than political work, gets as close to authoritative as Kannemeyer allows himself to become – “I cannot believe this was Mr Coetzee’s intention” – and gives some hint of the biographer’s frustration at his subject’s refusal to defend or explain.
Even without his postscript acknowledgement of the “compassion” he feels for Coetzee, Kannemeyer’s feelings would be plain. His narrative touch is delicate and respectful in the darker episodes of the author’s life – his son’s early death, the collapse of his marriage, his daughter’s illness – but conversely heavy-handed in defence of his subject. Coetzee’s legendary hostility and brusqueness towards interviewers (summed up in Rian Malan’s description of him as a “prince of darkness”) become manifestations of his “mischievous” streak, his long silences in conversation those of a “perfectionist” seeking nothing less than precision. In striving so assiduously to smooth down Coetzee’s more contrarian corners, Kannemeyer indirectly seems to make excuses – something that jars next to the author’s own self-sufficient silence.
The closing scene of Foe – difficult, too generous in its symbolism – is a touchstone for readers and critics of JM Coetzee’s fiction. In it, the body of the tongueless slave Friday is discovered underwater, near a wreck. While Friday was on land his silence was a marker of subordination and oppression, but here in the silent underwater world he becomes suddenly and marvellously eloquent, in a kingdom “where bodies are their own signs”. The clarity of each of Coetzee’s 15 novels, and his refusal to offer explanation or interpretation, has surely been an attempt to recreate this – a literary space in which the ‘bodies’ of his novels are their own signs. Any biography of the man and his writing must necessarily defy this philosophy, mooring the works to the very contexts and truths from which Coetzee seeks to free them.
Kannemeyer’s book has failure encoded in its very task; if it were more successful as a conventional biography, it would be less successful as a biography of this writer. But even as biographical fact pins him down, Coetzee finds a strange sort of victory. In commissioning Kannemeyer, a scholar of Afrikaner literature, to write the work in Afrikaans, Coetzee has maintained his determinedly ambiguous, non-assimilated identity on the fringes of both Western and South African literary traditions. He has also ensured that many readers will read the work only in Michiel Heyns’s English translation. Just as we thought we had a grip on the slippery JM Coetzee, so certainty wriggles free of our grasp, and even the words themselves are revealed as mediated, provisional, inexact.
Alexandra Coghlan is the classical music critic for the New Statesman. She has written on the arts for the Guardian and Prospect.