Booker to Nobel
J.M. Coetzee's gaze pierces into the darkness that lies embedded within the human condition. UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA profiles this year's winner of the Literature Nobel.
John Maxwell Coetzee
ON the day they announced that J.M. Coetzee had won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, I was reading his latest novel, Elizabeth Costello. This novel, which hasn't made it to the Booker shortlist this year (just as Naipaul's Half A Life, published in the year of his Nobel Prize, didn't make it to the Booker shortlist), is an interesting adventure. The reviews are mixed. It's a great book, they acknowledge but is it a novel, they ask. For if you open the pages of the book, you find that it is called Elizabeth Costello Eight Lessons; and they are lessons, ranging from such concerns as you might reasonably expect a novelist to be preoccupied with, such as "Realism" and "Eros", even "The Novel in Africa"; but there are also to be found here such essays as "The Philosophers and the Animals", and "The Poets and the Animals".
Wherever she is invited to speak and to be felicitated, Costello voices her concerns about the Western obsession with reason as a way of understanding the world, at the expense of any other way; and the human enterprise of enslaving nature. She does not tell people what they want to hear: "I am an old woman. I do not have the time any longer to say things I do not mean." And she goes on to talk of the holocaust that our world is involved in every day, "an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of ... an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them."
This is typical of Coetzee's writing. It has always pushed the boundaries of what might be considered the appropriate concerns of literary fiction, and certainly beyond the expected theme of apartheid and racial politics.
Even Disgrace, Coetzee's 1999 Booker Prize-winning novel and widely considered his best, has not only been an unsparing view of the present-day South African crisis, but also of the ways in which oppression, power struggles and sexual aggression continue to manifest themselves in our society. Disgrace ends with a bleak vision of the disgraced teacher David Lurie, unable to save his daughter from assault and victimhood, working at an animal shelter where unwanted animals are given lethal injections and then cremated in an incinerator.
Coetzee's vision has never been easy. In his earlier Booker Prize-winning novel, the fable-like Life and Times of Michael K he became the first writer to win the Booker twice he tells of the only protest that can never be quenched that of passivity. After all, Coetzee is widely considered as following in the line of Kafka and Beckett. If "I can't go on, I'll go on" is the theme of Beckett's writing, it is the theme of Coetzee's David Lurie as well, of Lurie's daughter Lucy as she awaits the birth of her rapist's child, and of Elizabeth Costello as she stands at the gate, seeking admittance to what lies beyond.
English-speaking, of Afrikaaner descent, South African but based in Australia since 2001, having studied mathematics and linguistics, having worked as a computer programmer; not having attended the Booker award ceremonies on both occasions many curious details are being dredged up about this reclusive writer. In an age where publicists' hype tells us more than we want to know about mediocre writers, Coetzee rarely gives interviews. Indeed, it is reported that the Swedish Academy could not contact the writer before the Prize was announced.
But the greatest mysteries are inside the pages of his novels, essays and memoirs. Coetzee has rarely written directly, even about apartheid: his gaze goes deeper, slantingly, piercing into the darkness that lies embedded within the human condition.
I am drawn back to the last pages of Disgrace, to these terrible, beautiful moments at the animal shelter: "One gets used to things getting harder; one ceases to be surprised that what used to be as hard as hard can be grows harder yet ... " Updike has lauded the writer for his "brainy, taut prose" and his language that is "inventive, austere and penetrating". The Nobel Prize is a tribute to Coetzee's searching gaze and integrity.
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