An insightful literary biography of the Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee’s, illuminating the creation of his extraordinary novels
J. M. Coetzee is one of the most renowned yet elusive authors of our time. Now, in J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, David Attwell explores the extraordinary creative process behind Coetzee's work, from Dusklands to The Childhood of Jesus. Drawing on Coetzee's manuscripts, notebooks and research papers housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Attwell reveals the fascinating ways in which Coetzee's famous novels developed, sometimes through more than fifteen drafts. He convincingly shows that Coetzee's work is strongly autobiographical, and that his writing proceeds with never-ending self-reflection while it moves toward aesthetic detachment. Above all, Attwell argues, South Africa, with its history, language, landscape and conflicts, is much more present in his novels than we have realized.
Having worked closely with Coetzee on Doubling the Point, a collection of essays and interviews, Attwell is an engaging, authoritative source. J.M. Coetzee and The Life of Writing is the first book-length study to make use of Coetzee's extensive archive. A fresh, engaging and moving take on one of the world's foremost literary figures, it is bound to change the way Coetzee is read.
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David Attwell is a graduate of the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa, and completed an MA in African literary theory and criticism at the University of Cape Town, where his supervisor was J. M. Coetzee. He holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently a professor at the University of York. He lives in England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Coetzee Papers
J.M. COETZEE and the Life of Writing is a critical biography whose purpose is to read the life and the work of its subject, the novelist J.M. Coetzee, together. By concentrating on Coetzee’s authorship, what I have called the life of the writing – it could equally be the life in the writing – I focus on just one aspect of the life of the man John Maxwell Coetzee, the part that makes him publicly known and to which he has devoted himself most fully. It is not the whole story, and aspects of Coetzee’s life that have little bearing on his authorship have little relevance to this book.
This is therefore not a biography in the conventional sense. Nor does it pretend to be an intellectual biography. If by an intellectual biography we mean an account of the growth and development of Coetzee’s ideas and their expression in his fiction and other writings (including the translations, reviews, scholarly essays and books), then such a task would be beyond the scope of what is offered here. The book is mainly an account of my reading Coetzee’s manuscripts, which have been made available to the public in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
The background to my reading Coetzee’s papers is a relationship with his work that began in 1974, when as a student in Durban I read his first novel, Dusklands. Since then I have followed Coetzee’s career closely and have either taught or written about each of the novels at some stage. In the early 1980s, I began to get to know something of the man when I worked under his guidance as a Master’s student at the University of Cape Town, preparing a thesis on African criticism and theory. Then, over a period of three years from 1988 to 1990, when I was in the doctoral programme at the University of Texas at Austin, Coetzee and I worked together on a book entitled Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992).1 Doubling the Point is an intellectual autobiography, which collects a body of Coetzee’s academic essays and some ephemerally published pieces and links them together with a series of written dialogues. Soon after Doubling the Point I produced a work of literary criticism, based on the thesis submitted to Texas, on the six novels that Coetzee had published up to that point, entitled J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (1993).
Now, twenty years later, I take an entirely different approach, a step back in order to look again, this time not as a literary critic would, which is to say at the finished works, but at the authorship that underlies them: its creative processes and sources, its oddities and victories – above all, at the remarkable ways in which it transforms its often quite ordinary materials into unforgettable fiction.
The five weeks spent exploring Coetzee’s papers could easily have become five months, or five years, if I had had the time and means to continue, but the experience was astonishing enough – both unsettling and illuminating – for me to proceed with an account of it. I could not have done this if I had not been so deeply immersed in the published fiction for so long. Coetzee’s papers will keep scholars busy for many years – few, if any, living authors attract as much critical attention as Coetzee does – but I have found enough for an entirely different account, one that I would like to record before the spell dies.
One element of the magic I must confess to and dispel quickly is sentimental. As a doctoral candidate in Austin himself in the late 1960s, Coetzee had read Samuel Beckett’s papers there; in my own student days in the 1980s, in the same library, I pored over the papers of writers whose formation had taken place in South Africa: Olive Schreiner, Herman Charles Bosman, Alan Paton, Roy Campbell (whose exaggeratedly unhandsome bust is still there). I did this because it connected me with home, South Africa, though in ways that home could not easily appreciate or accommodate.
Coetzee had indulged himself in a similar way when, in his twenties, he had taken time out from his studies of Ford Madox Ford in the Reading Room of the British Museum in London to look at the textual traces of early European explorers in South Africa, notably William Burchell. Coetzee’s hand-drawn map of Burchell’s travels is now in Texas, where I came across it. Circles within circles: the stuff of middle age, perhaps, and of the autobiography that seems to be embedded in the work of biography.
Certain essentials of a literary biographer’s craft, such as a writer’s most private letters, are not currently available to researchers on Coetzee. They are housed in Austin, but under restricted access until after his death. I doubt if I will go looking for them, should I live that long. I can’t envisage taking pleasure in reading Coetzee’s most personal papers after he has gone, so it will fall to others to find out how he might have used diaries when writing his partly fictionalized autobiographies, or whether his intimate correspondence played any role in the lives of the people who inhabit his novels. Aspects of his personal life that are elided in the autobiographies, such as his marriage to Philippa Jubber and the birth and early years of their children, Nicolas and Gisela, do occasionally surface in the papers, but for the most part they are off stage.
For a man who is known to protect his privacy, the collection housed at Texas is remarkably complete. In addition to the extensive business correspondence, speeches, awards, citations, press clippings, photographs, family memorabilia, and the author’s well-preserved research materials, for the fiction and the non-fiction alike, it includes the manuscripts of all the novels from Dusklands (1974) to Elizabeth Costello (2003). After his relocation to Australia in 2002, the drafts consist mainly of computer printouts. Most of the manuscripts are written on blue examination books lifted from the University of Cape Town, where Coetzee lectured for most of his academic career – one can imagine him collecting unused exam books at the end of an invigilation session.
The manuscript entries and revisions are meticulously dated, fortunately for those who wish to follow their development. The dating and self-archiving would have served the creative process, enabling the author to move blocks of text around and to recover discarded fragments. Coetzee works with the roughest of outlines. Typically, the earliest drafts are sketched quickly, provisionally, determinedly. Writing as often as he can, daily if possible, he is in search of his subject: the voice especially, embedded in a distinctive genre and a distinctive history. The plot is the least stable of the elements, always subserving the voice, and continually revised.
Contrary to a widely held assumption that Coetzee’s novels are spun from quotations drawn from literary theory, the allusions to other writers (some theorists, but more often than not novelists, poets and philosophers) are brought in only once the work has found its own legs. He records possible titles throughout the drafting process, but decisions about them are postponed to the very end. He is content to call a work by a number (‘Fiction No. 4’) until the right title makes itself known.
Such methods are built on absolute faith in the creative process, on tenaciously working through the uncertainties (which are real and made explicit, as we will see) towards a distant goal until an illumination arrives, providing direction and momentum for the next phase. Of course, this process involves revision and more revision – by hand on manuscripts, by hand on typescripts, and by retyping. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen versions of a work are not unusual. Taking full advantage of hindsight, I refer at times in the chapters that follow to a ‘writing event’, which is the point at which a quantum leap is made, when the draft becomes more like the novel it wants to be.
Of particular interest are the pocket-sized notebooks that Coetzee would have kept when he was not at his desk. From a comparison of the reflections, self-corrections and sources jotted down in these notebooks with the more extended exam-book manuscripts, a story emerges of Coetzee’s creativity, its changes of direction, insecurities, periods of confidence and fluency. Once the computer takes over, as it does in the later, Australian-based writing from Slow Man (2005) on, the evidence of the creative processes is less intimate, but the patterns are still discernible.
Until 2011, the manuscripts of the early fiction up to the mid-1990s were held in the Houghton Library at Harvard, where Coetzee had lodged them for safekeeping. They were available to researchers, among whom was John Kannemeyer, Coetzee’s first biographer. Between 2009 and 2011, Coetzee gave interviews to Kannemeyer and provided access to many of the papers he kept at his home in Adelaide, Australia. The result was J.M. Coetzee: ŉ Geskryfde Lewe (‘A Written Life’), written and published in Afrikaans and simultaneously published in English translation as J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, by Jonathan Ball in Johannesburg (2012).
Kannemeyer’s biography is a feat of collation, monumental in scale and full of information about Coetzee’s genealogical background, childhood, education, close relationships, academic career, dealings with publishers, censors and filmmakers, and the publication and reception of each of the novels.2 The work is all the more useful for being empirically minded, indeed conservative in its approach to biography. Since Coetzee is uncooperative with most enquirers, in the absence of reliable knowledge a good deal of anecdote is in circulation, much of it embellished, a malaise that Kannemeyer has largely dispelled. Given that, by admission, his attention was trained on Coetzee’s life rather than the work, Kannemeyer was unable to pay more than cursory attention to the manuscripts.
All good writers dread biography, of course, even when it is not contemptuous. Biography is one of the ways in which the present generation puts the previous one firmly in the past. Lytton Strachey, the man who started the trend by pouring irony over his Victorian subjects, eventually became a victim of it himself. Coetzee was anticipating this kind of treatment when, in Summertime (2009), he invented the English biographer Vincent (a conquering name), who was going to write a biography of the departed John Coetzee.3
But while he was still writing Summertime, history dealt Coetzee a surprising card in the form of the arrival of John Kannemeyer, whose purposes were not to overthrow the past at all but to archive the present in a spirit of generational fellow feeling, and out of respect for Coetzee’s contribution to South African and world literature. That this could happen is related to the fact that while Coetzee’s work is intellectually anchored in the cultural metropoles of Europe and the United States, it also belongs to a regional literature whose canons are barely known outside South Africa.
In being cooperative with Kannemeyer, though without authorizing him (Coetzee would not authorize any biography), he would have understood that biography is an inescapable consequence of success. Whether they like it or not, successful authors, especially Nobel laureates, have to come to terms with biography, as much as they have to endure migraines and toothache. And when, as Ian Hamilton shows in Keepers of the Flame,4 writers try to ghost-write or in some cases even write their own biographies, or try to do so by remote control from the grave, the results are usually mixed. Coetzee said much of what he needed to say about biography in Summertime, which, as an autobiography, uses as its fictional pretext a biography-in-the-making. On these terms, it takes pre-emptive evasive action. Nevertheless, Coetzee gave John Kannemeyer courteous attention, assistance and, most importantly, a free hand.
Most ordinary readers, among whom I include myself, remain fascinated by biography, especially the insights it affords into the creative processes that produce the fictions we treasure most. When I introduced J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing twenty years ago, I said that I was uncertain whether the book was a tribute or a betrayal, ‘infinitely wishing’ that it were the former. I am caught in the same quandary today. I respect the novels as public documents no less than I did then, but my admiration has undergone a major change, from the finished work to the immense labour, and the openness to the difficult and the strange, that have produced one of the exemplary authorships of our times.
AN ALPHABET OF TREES
Autobiography – The uses of impersonality
Her books teach nothing, preach nothing; they merely spell out, as clearly as they can, how people lived in a certain time and place . . . they spell out how one person lived, one among billions: the person whom she, to herself, calls she, and whom others call Elizabeth Costello.1
IF WE THINK of Coetzee as a cerebral writer, a weaver of clever palimpsests, then the ordinariness of his fictions’ beginnings will come as a surprise. Typically, the novels begin personally and circumstantially, before being worked into fiction. The Coetzee who emerges from his papers turns out to be a little more like the rest of us: more human or, at least, less Olympian, though only up to a point, because the question remains: if he started here, how on earth did he get there?
My subtitle, Face to Face with Time, is taken from a draft of Life & Times of Michael K, the novel for which Coetzee won his first Booker Prize in 1983.2 The relevant passage sees K escaping from his captors by retreating into the Swartberg mountain range where he muses,
I have retreated and retreated and retreated, till I am on the highest mountaintop and there is nowhere more to go save up into the heavens. Now I am face to face at last with time: everything else is behind me, only the huge block of the day is before me everyday when I wake, and will not go away. Now there is nothing for me to do but live, through time, like an ant boring its way through a rock.3
There is much here that is suggestive of Coetzee’s authorship: the inwardness and isolation of the voice; the sense of being embattled; the desire for meaning, even when it is thwarted. The ant boring its way through rock is a good metaphor for all of Coetzee’s writing.
‘Face to face with time’ conveys the way Coetzee puts fiction between himself and history, between himself and his mortality. It does this in highly self-conscious ways, with the result that Coetzee criticism is filled with commentary on the novels’ metafictional qualities – the writing about writing. The most trenchant of the purposes of Coetzee’s metafiction, however, is that it is the means whereby he challenges himself with sharply existential questions, such as, Is there room for me, and my history, in this book? If not, what am I doing? The book must in some sense answer to the mystery of its author’s being. Coetzee’s writing is a huge existential enterprise, grounded in fictionalized autobiography. In this enterprise the texts marked as autobiography are continuous with those marked as fiction – onl...
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