John Maxwell Coetzee (1940 - )
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Profile of John Maxwell Coetzee
John Maxwell Coetzee, born in Cape Town on 9 February 1940, has produced a large body of academic, biographical and literary comment and criticism, but is best known for his series of novels.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Coetzee worked in England as a computer programmer before studying literature at the University of Texas and then teaching literature and English at the State University of New York in Buffalo. Here he evolved his distinctive writing style: spare, cerebral and often enigmatic, with a recurring theme of the outsider who is at the mercy of events around him.
His fiction debut was Dusklands (1974), about a Vietnam War-era American civil servant who dreams of evolving an unbeatable system of psychological warfare, although his own life is disintegrating. This was followed in 1977 by Heart of the Country, an enigmatic Samuel Beckett-like monologue about a spinster on a remote South African farm who is revolted by her father's love affair with a young Coloured woman and comes up with a bizarre form of retaliation.
Both these novels elicited critical praise, but it was not until 1980 that Coetzee's first major international breakthrough came with his novel Waiting for the Barbarians, a story set in an outpost of an unnamed country ruled by a cruel regime, which was widely assumed to be a metaphor for South Africa (in 2005 the book was turned into a full-length opera with music by composer Philip Glass).
His next novel, The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), won the prestigious Booker Prize. The book chronicled the struggles of a mentally retarded gardener (living in Cape Town on the brink of racial war) in trying to get his dying mother back to the farm where she was raised.
In 1984 Coetzee became Professor of English Literature at the University of Cape Town, but his next novel did not appear till 1994, when he published The Master of Petersburg, in which the main character is the Russian writer Dostoevsky in disillusioned middle-age. In 1999 Coetzee made history by winning the Booker Prize for the second time with his novel Disgrace, about a discredited professor who is forced to face various post-apartheid problems after his daughter is raped.
In 2002, the year Coetzee immigrated to Australia, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In part, the Nobel Prize citation reads: “Coetzee's interest is directed mainly at situations where the distinction between right and wrong, while crystal-clear, can be seen to serve no end. It is in exploring weakness and defeat that Coetzee captures the divine spark in man."
Soon after becoming a Nobel laureate, Coetzee published another novel, Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, an abstract book consisting of eight essays about a fictitious Australian writer and intellectual.
J M Coetzee is an author whose fiction is not anchored in any particular era. He is unashamedly a thinker's writer. He has never made a deliberate bid for popular acclaim in either word or deed.