Chasing Coetzee

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

Nor should any would-bebiographers expect help. In a 2005 review of a recent biography of WilliamFaulkner, Coetzee wonders at the biographer’s tendency “to trouble thetext with fancies plucked out of the air,” and cites Faulkner’s ambitionto be “abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless” savefor this epitaph: “He wrote the books and he died.” In Summertime (2009), the third of Coetzee’sfictionalized autobiographies” or “anti-autobiographies,” awould-be biographer uses purported “clues” to track down a handful ofthe deceased Coetzee’s friends and lovers. One of them, a teaching colleague ofCoetzee’s, tells the biographer that “It would be very, very naïve toconclude that because the theme was present in [Coetzee's] writing it had to bepresent in his life”:

In his inner life, then.


His inner life. Who cansay what goes on in people’s inner lives?

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


Stories? I don’t thinkso…. Why do you ask if I have stories?

Because in biography one has to strike a balancebetween narrative and opinion. I have no shortage of opinion—people are morethan ready to tell me what they think or thought of Coetzee—but one needs morethan 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 slantedtoward the personal and the intimate at the expense of the man’s actualachievement as a writer? Will it amount to anything more than—forgive me forputting 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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