JM Coetzee: A Life In Writing

JC Kannemeyer

(Jonathan Ball, R325)

Before this recently published work by JC Kannemeyer, enigmatic Nobel laureate John Maxwell Coetzee has not yet been the subject of a comprehensive biography, although books and studies on his novels are appearing constantly, and about 500 masters and doctoral dissertations have been completed on his work.

John Kannemeyer’s hefty book is so much more than a biography: it is an impressive, thorough and complete work of reference about the work of Coetzee. The 750-page biography, which was completed just before the author’s untimely death on Christmas Day 2011, has been translated from the Afrikaans into English by Michiel Heyns. In Afrikaans the subtitle is “ ’n Geskryfde Lewe” (A Written Life) and in English A Life in Writing – different meanings, but both apt.

In this work, Kannemeyer complies with all the rules of the perfect biographer: while providing ample information (substantional documents provided by Coetzee himself, visits to relevant places and conversations) he stands aside and lets his protagonist speak for himself. He gives his readers JM Coetzee, the man, in full.

Celebrated and much-awarded, Coetzee has been intriguing readers for a long time. His semi-autobiographical works (Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), Summertime (2009) have triggered the imagination about the elusive writer, but with enough red herrings to make you wonder even more.

Because of this, some labels have been attached to him, some not kindly. Through the utter thoroughness of Kannemeyer, the popular myth of the ascetic loner is waylaid: you see the kinder, more humourous, cricket-loving man, and stands aghast at his sustained capacity for work despite a series of sad personal incidents.

In Elizabeth Costello (2003) – sometimes described as his alter-ego – Coetzee shows that he would like to be elusive. The obvious speculative question asked is why an Afrikaans writer – out of the large international following – would attempt a biography of an English writer.

Kannemeyer tackled this daunting task after the suggestion was made by Hannes van Zyl, the ex-publisher who also edited both (Afrikaans and English) versions of the book.

In a conversation at the launch of the book in Stellenbosch with Michiel Heyns, Van Zyl said that Kannemeyer could identify with Coetzee’s work ethic, his complex relationship with children, and the period of South Africa’s history during which Coetzee grew up.

Coetzee grew up in Worcester, and Kannemeyer in Robertson, and in age they differed by just one year. Van Zyl also said that Coetzee’s Afrikaans and South African background formed a large part of who he was, and Kannemeyer understood that.

Coetzee’s knowledge of Afrikaans and Dutch literature and translations of (for example) Afrikaans poet Wilma Stockenström’s work is part of the understanding that makes this biography unique.

A meeting with the writer in Adelaide, Australia, was arranged by historian Hermann Giliomee. In the preface, the author states that, when he arrived in Adelaide to interview Coetzee, “he told me that his major concern was that the biography should be factually correct. He would in no way interfere with my interpretation of the data.”

“In the course of our conversations, I also developed a certain compassion with this intensely private and reserved man. Even on highly sensitive topics, he kept strictly to the facts. Only when he spoke of the illness of his daughter, Gisela, was there a measure of emotion and, at first, reticence,” Kannemeyer writes in his epilogue.

Every phase of Coetzee’s 40-year writing career is described in such a way (with precise references throughout) that a clear picture is given of the total literary and socio-political Zeitgeist in South Africa, including the tough times with cultural sanctions and the local censor board and his moving into international recognition.

The picture is complete: of Coetzee’s difficult and disrupted childhood; his schooling as a bright pupil; when and why he started writing; influences of places (such as Voëlfontein, the family Karoo farm) and people; perceptions; living in different places (London, Austin, Buffalo); how his life as an increasingly renowned writer mingled with his also being a son, husband, father and lover. Through the craftsmanship of the biographer, Coetzee shows his heart and his hand, masterly worthy of every award and prize.

“We are thus both in our eighth decade, having reached our biblical allotment of years,” Kannemeyer says. “I would be satisfied to contemplate the future with the equanimity that is so finely expressed in JM Coetzee’s lucid prose,” he continues, after quoting from Dusklands (1974): “Whether I am alive or dead, whether I have ever lived or never was born, has never been of real concern to me. I have other things to think about.”

The monumental biography of a great writer is a worthy farewell to John Kannemeyer. – Renée Rautenbach