J. M. Coetzee, A Life in Writing by J. C. Kannemeyer. Scribe Publications. 712pp.
J. M. Coetzee, A Life in Writing by J. C. Kannemeyer is a wonderful book that explodes more than a few myths. One myth that I used to day dream about entailed a breakfast meeting between Jorge Luis Borges and Coetzee during their time at the University of Texas, Austin (unfortunately, for my imagination, the years do not line up). It’s a blistering hot day and beads of sweat form along Borges’ bald patch that glisten beneath the hot sun. A young Coetzee has to help him find his table and then reads aloud the entire menu. Borges decides on a cowboy’s breakfast (chili beans, eggs, and toast with coffee), Coetzee gets pancakes and coffee. Coetzee sits in awe of the accomplished writer before him. My day dream continued as I saw these two provincials who found a new way out of the stultified tradition of high modernism (a stultification that Coetzee captures so well in Youth). After their food arrives they start to discuss the use of footnotes in Gibbon’s histories, the banalities of living in a police state, far from any cultured metropole and, finally, breaking out in laughter over the absurdity of the word realism.
The other myth that can now be dismissed is Coetzee as a recalcitrant recluse: Kannemeyer shows us a writer who is deeply engaged with society and with the people around him. Yet in choosing to show us this Coetzee, Kannemeyer’s challenge is sizable. On the one hand Coetzee is a writer who believes that the “stories finally have to tell themselves, that the hands that holds the pen is only the conduit of a signifying process.” But then again, he has written a series of novels about a character named John whose story closely follows Coetzee’s own life (Boyhood, Youth, Summertime) and one about an elderly writer living in Australia who once published a book called Waiting for the Barbarians. So where do the biographical details of Coetzee become important, and when do the stories become so strong that they start to tell themselves through Coetzee? Often it is both at the same time. Kannemeyer’s achievement is to chart the way that Coetzee’s creativity swings back and forth between his own storehouse of personal history and the entire discourse of literature, history, politics, and culture that he has mastered through his own passionate reading and subsequent academic career.
Kannemeyer starts his biography of Coetzee well before the subject is born. The opening chapters familiarize readers (especially helpful for U.S. readers, where South African and British Colonial history is not widely known) with the early colonization of South Africa and Coetzee’s ancestors. As a professor of Afrikaans, Kannemeyer is particularly suited to this task; in fact, his reputation as a stickler for the faces and intimate knowledge of South Africa in general and the Western Cape in particular is what may have convinced the subject to allow him access to extensive interviews and private papers. Kannemeyer shows just how important roots are and how the lingering effects of historical violence can seep into the contemporary age. The figure of J. M. Coetzee then catches up with his own biography and is finally born in Chapter Two. We read about his student days in Cape Town, self-imposed exile to London, Ph. D. at Texas, and teaching at SUNY Buffalo. Like many great writers in the past, Coetzee continually struggled to find “home” and was always trying to see if a new location would fit. These chapters reveal an especially precocious young man, but nothing that would signal the great talent that was to emerge as he started to write (not until his 30th birthday). As London quickly became tedious, he decided to try the energetic United States. He was awarded a Fulbright to study at the University of Texas, Austin, and was awarded a Ph. D. for his troubles. His time in America was mostly happy, as he fully committed himself to research and teaching. He was popular with staff and students and everything seemed to line up for a healthy academic career. That is until the specter of the Vietnam War loomed over campuses. Coetzee participated in an on-campus demonstration at SUNY Buffalo (he and other members of the faculty wanted to meet with the college president to discuss how unrest on campus was making teaching impossible—hardly civil disobedience). The president called the cops. Coetzee’s record was now “tarnished.” A subsequent visa application was denied, so it became time to head home.
All of this material starts to glow later in the biography when we see how the wounds that Coetzee writes out of are not necessarily personal (except, perhaps, in Master of St Petersburg and the accidental death of his son, Nicolas Coetzee). But as a bookish and engaged individual (but afraid of joining mass political movements) he compacts the mass confusions and, at times, horrors of the society that he is living in and combines this with his knowledge of literature to create his novels. In Chapter Eight we find Coetzee back in South Africa. If he had stayed in the U.S. then his oeuvre may have been quite different, and possibly it is the forced return that re-presented him with the richness of South African society that was to feed the writing. He may have been happier in the U.S., but a wellspring that his writing required would have been missing. He combined his readings of early narratives of exploration in South Africa (a country where Apartheid was now fully implemented) with his exposure to the effects (especially the media effects) of the Vietnam War while he was living in the U.S. He believed that “the old stories of discovery and exploration were in some sense written over much darker stories which have thus been obliterated, so that going back to the past becomes a matter of recovering what was covered up.”
It is at this point that the biography starts to really serve a purpose, as Kannemeyer meticulously shows the reader how these “darker stories” became Duskland,which introduced the postmodern novel to South Africa, enabling that nation’s writers to take a playful and suspicious approach towards such a damaged society. In Coetzee’s second novel he engaged directly with the dream of an Edenic farmland that works like a keystone in the Afrikaans imagination: In the Heart of the Country is set on a farm in the Karoo, a vast plain that is well suited to cattle ranching. The Boer War’s guerilla campaign was fought here, and the British Empire established the first concentration camps where Afrikaan children were brutishly starved to death. This novel plays with what is called the plaasroman (farm novel). Far from a bucolic wonderland where farmers become one with the land, the vicious reality of dispossession and racism that was required to establish these farms comes filtering in. Coetzee’s relationship to the plaasroman can be described as similar to Faulkner’s relationship to a book like Gone with the Wind: the setting of In the Heart of the Country is the same as a traditional Afrikaans plaasroman, however the novel’s style is a radical departure (monologues, with influences of film, photography, and Robbe-Grille). The sleepy sealedness of the plaasroman genre is shaken by the introduction of European avant-garde literary techniques.
What makes Coetzee interesting as a South African author are the new techniques that he applies to these “darker stories.” And as a modernist he is interesting for how his books seep up the milieu of South Africa. As we see in Kannemeyer’s biography, in Coetzee’s early career these “darker stories” become one with the signifying process. Coetzee’s life is the very conduit that enables this to occur.
When discussing Coetzee’s later work, Kannemeyer’s insight shines. He usefully charts the key role that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Hegel’s master/slave dialectic plays throughout Coetzee’s oeuvre. He also keenly reads the influence of Apartheid and the regime’s torture of the writer Steven Biko on the germination of Waiting for the Barbarians. The Life and Times of Michael K is unpacked to reveal a society teetering on the brink of a race war, and K must try to find a way to live without becoming appropriated by a society saturated with violence and paranoia. Many of Kannemeyer’s key insights might have only come from someone with his background in South African literature (and probably from South Africa).
In terms of structure, the book naturally follows Coetzee’s life, with each new chapter signaling a new school/geographical relocation, or, after he starts to publish, a new work. There is little to indicate how each new novel builds upon the last and then takes Coetzee’s oeuvre into new territory, an omission, for Coetzee is a writer who continually builds upon his works, with each new composition trying to ascertain how to follow the Poundian call to continually “make it new.” Instead, Kannemeyer follows the conventions of most biographers. This being the first biography of Coetzee, it is not surprising that he must be diligent to the facts and not be too experimental with the structure.
After Coetzee wins the Nobel Prize, the biography starts to drag (and in Kannemeyer’s telling Coetzee’s life did as well, due to the amount of requests on his time that were made). Coetzee had become a cause celebre, and the reader encounters pages of Coetzee turning down offers to give lectures, write introductions, and judge prizes. Many readers will skip these parts. It’s the contact between the writer and society and the subsequent creation of the novels that is the lifeblood of this, and maybe all, biographies of writers.
Coetzee has not lived a particularly adventurous life. And yet when Kannemeyer reads the texts back into the context that they grew out of we see how each of Coetzee’s books is a deeply informed commentary on the changing nature of the novel and its methods for engaging with the society that has spurned that novel’s writer. The strengths of Kannemeyer’s work is on the texts that emerge from the life (not surprising giving the subtitle is “a life in writing”). The depiction of the figure of Coetzee ultimately remains unsatisfying. Perhaps to grasp this real individual he must become fictionalized. The example of Evelyn Juer’s House of Exile achieves what is missing in this biography: House of Exiles is a vivid biography of Heinrich Mann and Thomas Mann, which, while remaining true to the facts, lays down lines of prose that are rich with the sensations of fiction. The result is that the reader feels that they are “there” witnessing the events, instead of just receiving information to process in what ever way they feel necessary. The methods of a writer like Juers is that the biographical subject appears as alive to the reader as Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, or Clarissa Dalloway.
J. M. Coetzee A Life in Writing finishes with the subject’s relocation to Australia, where he continues to write. He has been naturalized and in public addresses refers to “we Australians.” Unfortunately it is a rather unsatisfying finish. But that may be part of the danger in writing the biography of a subject who is still alive, indeed, writing about a writer as he still writes.
Rumors have begun circulating about Coetzee’s new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be published March 2013. The main character is a refugee that has landed in a foreign land by boat. With Australia’s disgraceful current immigration policies and treatment of so called “illegal immigrants” (unauthorized entrants would be more correct), it is no surprise that Coetzee has allowed this toxic environment seep into his new novel. Kannemeyer has shown just how in-tune Coetzee’s work is with the milieu that circulates around the writer. What a blessing that he is now in Australia and focusing his prose on a new society that, at times, can be just as morally corrupt as South Africa. This biography is obviously incomplete and must now remain so after the sad death of Kannemeyer last year. The connection between the artist, the society and the tradition is a topic of much debate and Kannemeyer offers us an example of one writer who has got that relationship right. It’s a fascinating biography that will be of interest to any who want to see this relationship and chart how it grows and changes as an individual progresses through life and through creating their art.
Jeffrey Errington is a writer living in Sydney.
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