Chasing Coetzee

February 9: J. M. Coetzee was born on this day in 1940. Coetzee doesn't do interviews, perhaps letting his characters speak in explanation for him: "These are puritanical times. Private life is public business. Prurience is respectable, prurience and sentiment. They wanted a spectacle: breast-beating, remorse, tears if possible. A TV show, in fact. I wouldn't oblige." That's the protagonist of Disgrace, one of two Booker winners (Coetzee did not show up to accept either of the awards).

 

Nor should any would-be biographers expect help. In a 2005 review of a recent biography of William Faulkner, Coetzee wonders at the biographer's tendency "to trouble the text with fancies plucked out of the air," and cites Faulkner's ambition to be "abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless" save for this epitaph: "He wrote the books and he died." In Summertime (2009), the third of Coetzee's fictionalized autobiographies" or "anti-autobiographies," a would-be biographer uses purported "clues" to track down a handful of the deceased Coetzee's friends and lovers. One of them, a teaching colleague of Coetzee's, tells the biographer that "It would be very, very naïve to conclude that because the theme was present in [Coetzee's] writing it had to be present in his life":

In his inner life, then.


His inner life. Who can say what goes on in people's inner lives?

 

Is there any other aspect of him that you would like to bring forward? Any stories worth recounting?


Stories? I don't think so…. Why do you ask if I have stories?

 

Because in biography one has to strike a balance between narrative and opinion. I have no shortage of opinion—people are more than ready to tell me what they think or thought of Coetzee—but one needs more than that to bring a life-story to life.


Sorry, I can't help you. …Are you not inevitably going to come out with an account that is slanted toward the personal and the intimate at the expense of the man's actual achievement as a writer? Will it amount to anything more than—forgive me for putting it this way—anything more than women's gossip?


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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