The South African writer J. M. Coetzee is a notoriously private and quiet man. In a 1990 profile by journalist Rian Malan, it was noted that “a colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.” For there to be a new and official biography (A Life in Writing) of the Booker and Nobel prize-winning author is therefore quite surprising. For it to be done with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of Coetzee himself is remarkable – publisher Scribe even go so far as to describe it as a “global publishing event”.
Curiously, despite his unwillingness to be interviewed about his private life prior to the publication of this new biography, Coetzee has produced a trilogy of novels that he describes as “fictionalised memoir”: Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009). He has also enigmatically commented that, “all autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography”. But Coetzee’s consistent refusal to discuss interpretations of his works after their publication has left many readers wondering to what extent they mirror his life. Now, finally, they will get to find the answer to this question.
A Life in Writing is a weighty tome (600 plus pages before you even get to the endnotes), compiled as a result of two weeks of intensive interviews between the writer, JC Kannemeyer, and Coetzee, and complete access to private papers, original manuscripts, friends, colleagues and others from the writer’s life that could shed light upon his history. To say it is an in-depth study feels like something of an understatement; it is certainly rigorous and meticulously researched. Coetzee checked all facts and personally authorised any quotes used from unpublished sources before their inclusion in the finished book, although he gave Kannemeyer free reign with his interpretations of these facts and turned down the chance to check over the finished manuscript before publication went ahead. This may have been just as well given that the manuscript was handed over for editing just 3 months before Kannemeyer sadly died in December 2011.
Perhaps in respect to his South African origins (although he has also lived for extensive periods in the UK and USA and is currently a citizen of Australia) or perhaps because of his contrarian nature, A Life in Writing was originally published in Afrikaans in 2012. This edition, released in the UK in June 2013, is the English translation produced by Michael Heyns. Although criticised by some reviewers as being written in a “star-struck” fashion, I think it will quickly become the definitive biography on this great man of letters and a popular (if long) read for those who have enjoyed reading Coetzee’s novels.
Recommended to fans and students of JM Coetzee, although at a £30 price tag, you may want to wait for a paperback edition to be released!
J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing by JC Kannemeyer
Published by Scribe in hardback, June 2013
With thanks to the publisher for providing this review copy.
|Buy book online