Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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J.M. Coetzee | Biography


John Maxwell (J.M.) Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 9, 1940. He attended the University of Cape Town before moving to Texas, where he earned his PhD in 1969.

Coetzee's Response to Apartheid

Coetzee grew up during apartheid ("apartness"), the time when South Africa was segregated by race (1948–94). During apartheid, nonwhite South Africans, who were the overwhelming majority in the country, were forced off their land and sent to live on reserves. They could not share public facilities or engage in personal relationships with white South Africans. Black South Africans were essentially forced into poverty and despair. Many whites, including Coetzee, vehemently opposed apartheid. Despite his opposition, Coetzee, who speaks English, Dutch, and Afrikaans, returned to South Africa after his studies to work as a teacher and literary translator. His antiapartheid mentality is a central theme in most of his literary works.

Literary Works

Coetzee published his first book, Dusklands, in 1974. The book contains two novellas, The Vietnam Project, set in the United States in the late 20th century, and The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee, set in 18th-century South Africa. The novellas are united in their theme of exploring the effects of colonization. The same theme is explored in his Nobel Prize–winning novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). His other works include Foe, a reimagining of the Robinson Crusoe story (1986), Life & Times of Michael K (1983), Age of Iron (1990), and Disgrace (1999). Both Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace won the Booker Prize for best novel of the year published in the United Kingdom. Coetzee was the first writer to win the award twice. An intensely private person, he refused to collect his Booker prizes in person.

Controversy Over Disgrace

Critics almost unanimously adored Disgrace, calling it a "masterpiece" and praising its skillful treatment of universal themes. While no other novel by a South African writer has generated more attention, not all of it has been positive, especially from South African readers. The African National Congress brought the novel before the South African government's Human Rights Commission during a series of public hearings on racism in the media. They objected to the novel's depiction of black people as animalistic and immoral and its suggestion that the postapartheid order facilitated the victimization of whites at the hands of blacks. Coetzee's peers—fellow South African novelists—were divided in their response to the novel. Some objected to the racism they saw in Coetzee's treatment of his subject matter. However, others praised Coetzee for what they considered to be a complex, honest reflection of social problems that did not magically go away when apartheid ended.

Coetzee moved to Australia in 2002, where he currently lives and works as a research fellow. In 2003, four years after the publication of Disgrace, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Following his move, his novels have had Australian settings or main characters. In addition to his fiction, Coetzee has published three fictionalized memoirs, Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and Summertime (2009). He is best known for creating philosophically complex characters and landscapes that encourage readers to project their own beliefs and fears onto the page.

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