South African Nobel Prize Essayist; J.M. Coetzee

John Maxwell Coetzee is a South African-born Australian novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature born 9th February, 1940. He has won the Booker Prize (twice), the CNA Prize (thrice), the Jerusalem Prize, the Prix Femina étranger, and The Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and holds a number of other awards and honorary doctorates.


Coetzee is one of the most critically acclaimed and decorated authors in the English language. He moved to Australia in 2002 and became an Australian citizen in 2006. He lives in Adelaide. Coetzee was born in Cape Town, Cape Province, Union of South Africa, on 9 February 1940 to Afrikaner parents. His father, Zacharias Coetzee (1912–1988), was an occasional attorney and government employee, and his mother, Vera Coetzee (née Wehmeyer; 1904–1986), a schoolteacher. The family mainly spoke English at home, but John spoke Afrikaans with other relatives. He is descended from 17th-century Dutch immigrants to South Africa on his father’s side, and from Dutch, German and Polish immigrants through his mother.

Coetzee spent most of his early life in Cape Town and in Worcester, a town in the Cape Province (modern-day Western Cape), as recounted in his fictionalised memoir, Boyhood (1997). His family moved to Worcester when he was eight, after his father lost his government job. He attended St. Joseph’s College, a Catholic school in the Cape Town suburb Rondebosch, later studying mathematics and English at the University of Cape Town and receiving his Bachelor of Arts with honours in English in 1960 and his Bachelor of Arts with honours in mathematics in 1961.

He moved to the United Kingdom in 1962 and worked as a computer programmer for IBM in London and ICT (International Computers and Tabulators) in Bracknell, staying until 1965. In 1963, the University of Cape Town awarded him a Master of Arts degree for his thesis “The Works of Ford Madox Ford with Particular Reference to the Novels” (1963). His experiences in England were later recounted in Youth (2002), his second volume of fictionalised memoirs.


In 1965 Coetzee went to the University of Texas at Austin, in the United States, on the Fulbright Program, receiving his doctorate in 1969. His PhD dissertation was a computer-aided stylistic analysis of Samuel Beckett’s English prose. In 1968, Coetzee began teaching English literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he stayed until 1971. At Buffalo he began his first novel, Dusklands. From as early as 1968 Coetzee sought permanent residence in the U.S., a process that was finally unsuccessful, in part due to his involvement in protests against the war in Vietnam. In March 1970, he was one of 45 faculty members who occupied the university’s Hayes Hall and were arrested for criminal trespass.

The charges against them were dropped in 1971. In 1972 Coetzee returned to South Africa and was appointed lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town. He was promoted to senior lecturer and associate professor before becoming Professor of General Literature in 1984. In 1994 Coetzee became Arderne Professor in English, and in 1999 he was appointed Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Humanities. Upon retirement in 2002, he was awarded emeritus status. He served on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago until 2003.

After relocating to Adelaide, Australia, Coetzee was made an honorary research fellow at the English Department of the University of Adelaide, where his partner, Dorothy Driver, is a fellow academic. As of May 2019, Coetzee is listed as Professor of Literature within English and Creative Writing at the school, and Driver as Visiting Research Fellow.
Coetzee’s first novel was Dusklands (1974) and he has continued to publish a novel about every three years. He has also written autobiographical novels, such as Boyhood, Youth and Summertime, short fiction, translations from Dutch and Afrikaans, and numerous essays and works of criticism.
Coetzee has received numerous awards throughout his career, although he has a reputation for avoiding award ceremonies. Coetzee was the first writer to be awarded the Booker Prize twice: for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and for Disgrace in 1999. As of 2020, four other authors have achieved this, J.G. Farrell, Peter Carey, Hilary Mantel, and Margaret Atwood.
Summertime, named on the 2009 longlist, was an early favourite to win Coetzee an unprecedented third Booker Prize. It made the shortlist, but lost to bookmakers’ favourite Wolf Hall, by Mantel. Coetzee was also longlisted in 2003 for Elizabeth Costello and in 2005 for Slow Man.


The Schooldays of Jesus, a follow up to his 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus, was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. On 2 October 2003, Horace Engdahl, head of the Swedish Academy, announced that Coetzee had been chosen as that year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the fourth African writer to be so honoured and the second South African, after Nadine Gordimer. When awarding the prize, the Swedish Academy stated that Coetzee “in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider”.

The press release for the award also cited his “well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance”, while focusing on the moral nature of his work. The prize ceremony was held in Stockholm on 10 December 2003. Coetzee is also a three-time winner of South Africa’s CNA Prize. His Waiting for the Barbarians received both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Age of Iron was awarded the Sunday Express Book of the Year award, and The Master of Petersburg was awarded The Irish Times International Fiction Prize in 1995. He has also won the French Prix Femina étranger and two Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes for the African region, for Master of St Petersburg in 1995 and for Disgrace in 2000 (the latter personally presented by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace), and the 1987 Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society.
He really is decorated.


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