A life in writing

An extract from the first biography of Nobel prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee, written by J. C. Kannemeyer with the full co-operation of Coetzee.

An extract from the first biography of Nobel prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee, written by J. C. Kannemeyer with the full co-operation of Coetzee.


The research for my biography of J.M. Coetzee began in July 2008. I was fully aware that I was dealing with a renowned author, a central figure in English studies at universities worldwide. About 500 M.A. and doctoral dissertations on his work have been completed, while new books on his novels are appearing all the time in various languages.

In March 2009 I visited Coetzee in Adelaide, where I interviewed him extensively for two weeks. From the outset, Coetzee cooperated unstintingly and even enthusiastically. He answered all my questions succinctly, but did not want to be drawn into speculations and opinions, especially not on interpretations of his work. Even when I asked him which critics he felt had most nearly approached saying something fundamental about his work, he adroitly redirected the question, avoiding a reply. Questions on sensitive topics – such as the estrangement and divorce from his wife, Philippa Jubber; the death of their son, Nicolas; and the illness of his daughter, Gisela – he answered in detail, succinctly, directly, and as objectively as possible, however unsettling the facts.

The significance of biographical information in dealing with a writer like J.M. Coetzee is a moot point. In her 1990 introduction to a bibliography of his writings, Teresa Dovey, the author of The Novels of J.M. Coetzee, states that in dealing with somebody like Coetzee, personal biography is of lesser importance. Dovey made this pronouncement before the publication of the triptych of autobiographical works initiated by Boyhood (1997) and followed by Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009). But even before publication of this trilogy, researchers might have discerned autobiographical moments in Coetzee’s work. In his very first novel, Dusklands (1974), for instance, he makes play with his ancestors and with his own history.

Coetzee himself on more than one occasion commented on autobiography as a genre, and chose it as the subject of his inaugural professorial address at the University of Cape Town. According to him, all the writings of an author, including his literary criticism, are autobiographical, since he often comments on traditions with which he aligns himself or from which he consciously diverges, and on writers who have ‘influenced’ him or whose work speaks to him with particular urgency. When a writer commits himself to recording his own life, he selects from a whole reservoir of memories. Autobiography, as Coetzee puts it in one of his interviews with David Attwell, ‘is a kind of self-writing in which you are constrained to respect the facts of your history. But which facts? All the facts? No. All the facts are too many facts. You choose the facts insofar as they fall in with your evolving purpose.’

For Coetzee, then, the question of selection is crucial in autobiographical writing. Even when he is being absolutely faithful to the facts, the author makes a selection from the many facts at his disposal, so that the relation between a true biography and a fictional biography is by no means as clear-cut as one might think. That’s why Coetzee tells Attwell: ‘All autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography.’ It is not the aim of the artist to reproduce reality faithfully, but to use and process reality. Through ordering and selecting, the artist arrives at a more complete truth than the historian, who is bound by facts. An autobiography is, in truth, as Martin van Amerongen says, not a verifiable curriculum vitae, but an interpretation, sometimes even a complete, self-sufficient work of art with its own laws and criteria. Indeed, James Olney claims that ‘the autobiographer half discovers, half creates a deeper design and truth than adherence to historical and factual truth could ever make claim to.’

With the publication of Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, the autobiographical element in Coetzee’s work became more conspicuous, but also in some respects more deceptive. In pronouncements on Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee stressed that the books were fictionalised autobiographies, though he may have exaggerated the fictional aspects of the first two books. The factual details of Coetzee’s life correspond to a large degree with their rendering in Boyhood and Youth, even though the experiences of the boy and the young man are recounted from maturity by a distanced narrator. The most elusive of the autobiographies, from an historical point of view, is Summertime, where the character Sophie rightly says to the prospective biographer: ‘What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record – not because he was a liar, but because he was a fictioneer.’ In Summertime Coetzee rearranges the historical record with a view to arriving at a deeper account of the truth.

Any biographer of Coetzee would have to take careful account of this uncommon relation between fact and fiction, and of his relativising and elusive narrative strategies. He would have to consider the writer’s evident shying away from authorial responsibility, and be wary of appropriating Summertime, in particular, to his project. Even in a work like Diary of a Bad Year, the narrative strategy does not allow the reader invariably to ascribe the pronouncements of the fictionalised writer to the author, J.M. Coetzee. In an essay on Joseph Frank’s comprehensive biography of Dostoevsky, it is clear that Coetzee prizes the Russian writer precisely for his execution of what he calls the dialogical novel. ‘A fully dialogical novel,’ Coetzee writes in Stranger Shores, ‘is one in which there is no dominating central authorial consciousness, and therefore no claim to truth or authority, only competing voices and discourses.’ It is this narrative strategy that Coetzee adopts in a major part of his oeuvre.

Coetzee could thus, with Roland Barthes, assert that the birth of the reader must occur at the cost of the death of the author. Keats’s concept of the chameleon writer, in essence identityless and bereft of fixed opinions or ideas, has never, to my knowledge, been taken to such extremes as in the case of Coetzee. This, too, complicates the task of the biographer, however seductive the challenge of capturing the life of such a writer.

A Coetzee biography, however, need not draw its meaning primarily from the light it sheds on the author’s creative output, or from its relevance to literary criticism. The life story of this writer with his exceptional achievements is valuable in its own right, and his extraordinary novels stimulate an interest in him as a person. That he uses autobiographical elements in his work does not in itself justify a biography, even though the special creative game he plays with the autobiography could lead to an engrossing relation between biographer and author, or between the biographer and the author’s work. The biographer is, of course, peculiarly prone to the perils of the ‘biographical fallacy’, the distortion of the meaning of the novels through biographical projections. He has to guard against being misled by the writer’s creative reworking of the facts of his own life; he must not take fictions for truths, but needs to search for true facts outside or beyond the novels.

If he can do this, he can report on the life in writing, the way through the world that the author, as both a writer and a human being, has made for himself. This is where the biographer’s task differs most from that of the novelist, and from this a biography derives the authority of such truth as is in its power to convey.

This is an edited extract from J. M. Coetzee: A life in writing, by J. C. Kannemeyer. (Scribe, $59.95)


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