John Michael Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940, the son of an attorney and a school teacher. He grew up outside of Worcester, living a provincial life. He attended the University of Cape Town where he received degrees in mathematics and English, and thereafter he moved to London where he worked as a computer programmer. In 1965 he left London for the United States, where he studied for a Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. He eventually returned to South Africa in 1971, after spending three years teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Living in the U.S. during the turbulent 1960s inspired the novella “The Vietnam Project,” which follows a protagonist who is working on a propoganda project to destroy the country of Vietnam. This novella appeared in his first book, Dusklands (1974).
In the books that followed, Coetzee started to set his novels in geographical and political situations that implied South Africa, as he wanted to create geographical anonymity and avoid being labeled a “political writer.” Indeed, the exposed protagonist in an unspecified landscape is a structure Coetzee utilizes in most of his fiction. Writing in The New Republic, Caryl Phillips explained that Coetzee’s writing never collapses into “clumsy antinomies” of black and white, left and right, revolutionary and reactionary, or any other oppositions that “threaten to reduce the complexity of life to easily adhesive slogans.” In fact, he addresses the most sensitive of political issues without asserting a political agenda of his own.
Coetzee went on to win the Booker Prize twice, for Life & Times of Michael K and most recently for his 1999 novel, Disgrace. After the publication of Disgrace, The Sunday Times wrote, “This is a harsh story, told in a prose of spare, steely beauty and with an intelligent potency that makes it as exhilarating as it is grim.” It is an account of a man’s midlife crisis that turns into a starkly honest and compelling examination of his relationship with his daughter, contemporary South Africa, and, ultimately, human dignity and love.
Coetzee received the Lannan Literary Award for fiction in 1998. He is a professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town.
Excerpt from Disgrace (1999)
The two young sheep are tethered all day beside the stable on a bare patch of ground. Their bleating, steady and monotonous, has begun to annoy him. He strolls over to Petrus, who has his bicycle upside down and is working on it. ‘Those sheep,’ he says – ‘don’t you think we could tie them where they can graze?’
‘They are for the party,’ says Petrus. ‘On Saturday I will slaughter them for the party. You and Lucy must come.’ He wipes his hands clean. ‘I invite you and Lucy to the party.’
‘Yes, I am giving a party on Saturday. A big party.’
‘Thank you. But even if the sheep are for the party, don’t you think they could graze?’
An hour later the sheep are still tethered, still bleating dolefully. Petrus is nowhere to be seen. Exasperated, he unties them and tugs them over to the damside, where there is abundant grass.
The sheep drink at length, then leisurely begin to graze. They are black-faced Persians, alike in size, in markings, even in their movements. Twins, in all likelihood, destined since birth for the butcher’s knife. Well, nothing remarkable in that. When did a sheep last die of old age? Sheep do not own themselves, do not own their lives. They exist to be used, every last ounce of them, their flesh to be eaten, their bones to be crushed and fed to poultry. Nothing escapes, except perhaps the gall bladder, which no one will eat. Descartes should have thought of that. The soul, suspended in the dark, bitter gall, hiding.
‘Petrus has invited us to a party,’ he tells Lucy. ‘Why is he throwing a party?’
‘Because of the land transfer, I would guess. It goes through officially on the first of next month. It’s a big day for him. We should at least put in an appearance, take them a present.’
‘He is going to slaughter the two sheep. I wouldn’t have thought two sheep would go very far.’
‘Petrus is a pennypincher. In the old days it would have been an ox.’
‘I’m not sure I like the way he does things – bringing the slaughter-beasts home to acquaint them with the people who are going to eat them.’
‘What would you prefer? That the slaughtering be done in an abattoir, so that you needn’t think about it?
‘Wake up, David. This is the country. This is Africa.’
Selected WorkFictionDisgrace (1999)The Master of Petersburg (1994)Age of Iron (1990)Foe (1986)Life and Times of Michael K. (1983)Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)In the Heart of the Country: A Novel (1977)Dusklands (1974)
Non-fictionBoyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1998) Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1996)Doubling the Point : Essays and Interviews (1992)White Writing: On the Culture of Letters (1988)
LinksReview of Disgrace on Salon.comArticle on Coetzee’s 2nd BookerFeatured author on New York Times web siteBook reviews written by Coetzee on The New York Review of Books’ web site