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J. M. Coetzee: Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

abstract:At lunch the other day, my companion mentioned that she's read all of Coetzee's books—and didn't like any of them. 


November 01, 2003
— I thought, how curious: to keep reading a novelist whose work you don't enjoy. That either takes self-discipline or masochistic tendancies. I surveyed my friend for bruises and rope marks. Then I realized that I had not read any work by John Maxwell Coetzee, winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.


Well, you can't read everything I submit weakly, and rationalize further that I have read several other South African authors. But my friend's comment made me ponder the nature of choice and the objective of reading, and selfconsciously, I was fast-rewinding through my recollections of which other books were on the shelves when Coetzee's were published and garnering awards—which books had I selected over his? My interest was now piqued to discover exactly  what aspects of his writing must compell admiration and distaste.


The first review I found in Salon by Andrew O'Hehir (November 1999)said it all:

 "In his sober, searing and even cynical little book Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee tells us something we all suspect and fear— that political change can do almost nothing to eliminate human misery. What it can do, he suggests, is reorder it a little and half-accidentally introduce a few new varieties. This view should not surprise any of the great South African novelist's readers. In his early-1980s masterpieces Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K— indeed, in all of his work—political and historical forces blow through the lives of individuals like nasty weather systems, bringing with them a destruction that is all the more cruel for being impersonal. Disgrace is Coetzee's first book to deal explicitly with post-apartheid South Africa, and the picture it paints is a cheerless one that will comfort no one, no matter what race, nationality or viewpoint."


There was my answer: If you're looking for escapism, Coetzee's not your man. Who would want to meet such a person, much less subject yourself to crawling into bed with him [as a reader] night after night? 


But isn't this just the point of great literature? To give the reader an experience, a point of view they would otherwise have not felt to the sentient depths one undergoes in the union of reader and storyteller?  Where were my ambitious aspirations? Why had our group failed to select any of Coetzee's books? 


With this insight a facet of my friend's character is revealed to me (actually I knew it all along, this just confirmed it) not through what she claims to like or dislike, but through her determination to read what she knows to be important. 

So who's bringing a Coetzee novel next month for Book Group?  Postscript: like a good student I have now plowed through the brilliance of Coatzee's books in consecutive fashion and it is an experience I highly recommend.


For more information:

The Nobel Prize for Literature 2003: Announcement, Bio-bibliography, Presentation and Acceptances Speeches.

In its citation, the academy said "his novels were characterised by their well-craft composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance. [H]e is a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilisation."

BBC News

Coetzee's editor in Britain says that while Coetzee is "delighted to have won the prize he will not give any interviews himself."

The Guardian article:

"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."

The New York Times

To read this review on Coetzee's latest work, Elizabeth Costello, you must select a NYT member ID and password (FREE) and log in for access. Once cookies are set, you will be able to access all the articles.

Works of Fiction:

Dusklands (1974)
In the Heart of the Country: A Novel (1977)
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
Life and Times of Michael K (1983) Winner of the 1983 Booker Prize
Foe (1986)
Age of Iron (1990)
A Land Apart (1992)
The Master of Petersburg (1994)
Disgrace (1999) Winner of the 1999 Booker Prize
The Lives of Animals (1999)
Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002)
Elizabeth Costello (2003)



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