J. M. Coetzee, A Life in Writing by J. C. Kannemeyer
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.