Boyhood by JM Coetzee

Make note to learn something about South African history and culture. It does the reader no favours to be as ignorant as I while reading this.

Underline note of some years ago to read Disgrace. Watched twice, but still not read. Boyhood has given me an idea as to how one might understand the odd scenario of that book, woman raped by black men and consequently pregnant, determines to become the 3rd wife of one of the rapists. Perhaps this will afford her some degree of safety and the possibility of staying in her home…though it will no longer be her home. We are given to believe that the woman is doing this as penance for being white. It is her necessary apology.

Here in Boyhood, there is much discussion of the difference between groups, including the Coloured people who are part of his life in a mysterious and  uncomfortable way.  Clearly Coetzee was a child disturbed by the racism that was part of his life. I wonder if, as an adult writer, he assuages his own guilt by this story. What can white men really give up, compared with white women? The total humiliation of the woman in Disgrace, perhaps that’s the sacrifice he can make. The author makes amends.

The more I read of fictionalised memoir, the more I come to the realisation that it is free to be truthful when factual memoir is not. Coetzee is ruthless in his descriptions of all in this account, including himself. Nobody is nice, his childhood is horrible but when I could imagine myself whining as I told such a story, he is merely dispassionately descriptive.

I hope that doesn’t make the book sound cold or uninviting. It is utterly gripping for its brief life in the hand. Having read his two memoirs back to front, starting with Youth – heaven knows why since they were both on the shelves – I don’t know what topsy turvy way to continue with his work, but no doubt I shall. Coetzee  may be a Nobel Prize winner, but he is still a great writer.

Noting that Coetzee is an Australian citizen who moved from South Africa to Adelaide quite some years ago, I am tempted to speculate that it was this Boyhood, which sounds so horrible, that made him fall in love with Adelaide’s niceness. This edited extract has been snipped from The Australian, which took it from his biography. I thought it was worth preserving in full, as it also shows the qualities in his real adult life that he attributes to his fictional young self.  AND it says nice things about Adelaide.

MY letter of June 9, 2008, to John Coetzee, in which I asked his permission to undertake his biography, must have reached him while he was still writing away at Summertime. My request may have raised a smile.

Here he had been since April 2005 in Adelaide writing about a fictional English biographer, Mr Vincent, engaged in the preliminaries for a biography of the dead author J. M. Coetzee. And here appears a real biographer applying to write a real biography.

This biographer does not, as one would expect, emerge from the ranks of the English literary world but from the much smaller province of Afrikaans literature. Perhaps the very fact the request was coming from outside the sphere of English literature may have appealed to Coetzee, with his contrarian take on things.

When I was in Adelaide in March 2009 to conduct interviews with Coetzee, he was on his second revision of Summertime. He answered all my questions meticulously and impressed me as a man of integrity.

From the manuscripts that I perused in his office in the second week of my stay, I also got the impression of an incredibly hard worker who had spared no effort to develop and deploy his talent.

The various versions, up to 14, that had been produced of Disgrace provide some measure of the demands Coetzee makes of himself as a writer. A student interested in the genesis of his novels would find wonderful material here.

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.

On this topic I got the impression – for the only time in our conversations – that he was withholding certain information from me (which he later provided).

Add to this the sorrow he experienced at his father’s dishonesty and alcoholism, the life and death of his son Nicolas, in an accident at 23, and the death from cancer of his first wife Philippa, and one stands amazed that someone could experience so much unhappiness and yet sustain himself and continue his work.

IT is commonly believed that Coetzee’s decision to leave South Africa for good in 2002 and settle in Australia was in direct reaction to the African National Congress’s negative comments about Disgrace, which won the Booker Prize in 1999. Although this could have tipped the balance, it would be an oversimplification to ascribe his departure exclusively to that.

Coetzee had experienced often enough incomprehension of and negative reactions to his work. During the State of Emergency of the 1980s, he said in a letter that he would like to remain in South Africa as long as it was possible for him to do some good, in whatever way. “As a writer,” he continued, “I don’t want to go into exile, if only because I have seen what exile does to writers.”

In any case, the preamble to his change of country and especially the chronology of events tell a different story.

As long ago as November 1989, Coetzee had been invited to act as writer-in-residence at the University of Queensland. This visit took place in 1990. Coetzee was accompanied by his partner, academic Dorothy Driver, and they used the opportunity to explore the country. In 1991 Driver was on an academic visit to Adelaide, and she was impressed with the city and the warmth with which she was received.

In August 1991 they were in Australia again, this time as guests of the department of English at the University of Melbourne, where they stayed in Ormond College.

They travelled around, spent some time at the artists’ colony on Arthur Boyd’s former estate, took part in arts festivals and visited Adelaide, whose setting and layout made a strong impression on Coetzee. On a later visit, Coetzee attended a writers colloquium in Canberra, and in 1996 he and Driver visited Adelaide for a Writers Week in which they both took part.

From his very first visit, Coetzee was charmed by Australia.

“[F]rom the beginning, in a way that is hard to explain,” he said in August 2001 in an interview with Anne Susskind, the South African-born Sydney-based literary critic, “I have felt a strong pull toward the land and the landscape. I come from Africa, where the land tends to have a similarly mysterious, dwarfing power over people.”

Australia appealed so strongly to Coetzee on his repeated visits in the 90s that he decided it might be an “adventure” to settle there. In an email to a friend, he wrote that, sitting on a bench at Whale Beach in northern Sydney, he had to admire the idyllic scene before him: the families with their picnic baskets, the green bay with its orange sand, and the absence of danger.

Furthermore, as he said to Susskind in their interview, he was impressed with Australian egalitarianism, “the way in which Australians relate to each other, spontaneously as far as I can see, as equals. You might say that anyone from South Africa, with its huge social and racial divisions, would have that reaction. But egalitarianism in Australia is, in my experience, quite unique in the world. Obviously it is a consequence of a particular social history. Nevertheless I find it profoundly admirable”.

On March 29, 1995, more than four years before the publication of Disgrace, Coetzee was asked by Robin McMullan of Canberra to submit his CV to the Australian embassy for consideration. So he was already considering a move, with Adelaide as his preferred destination and Melbourne as a second choice. It was, however, only in October 1999 that he approached various contacts to support his application for immigration. On December 13, 1999, he appealed also to David Malouf, the prominent Australian author, to support his application.

On February 1, 2001, Coetzee wrote to Wayne Purcell, the Sydney lawyer handling their immigration applications:

I have good news. 
If I can get to the Australian High Commission in Pretoria before closing time tomorrow, Friday 2 February, bearing Dorothy’s passport and my own, I can get immigration visas stamped into them. We will then catch a flight on Saturday 3 February and present ourselves to the immigration officials at Perth airport on Sunday 4 February, and we will be landed as immigrants. 
I can’t tell you how happy I am.

By early 2001, some newspapers were already referring to Coetzee’s imminent departure, and journalists were trying to get confirmation from him of his intention and the reason for his move. He was not, however, willing to discuss his emigration with journalists intent on sensation. The story of his and Driver’s imminent move had reached the Australian press the week before and had been taken over by the South African papers.

“My motives,” he writes, “are what I would consider to be personal, and nobody’s business but my own and those of a few people close to me; but of course journalists prefer to give the move a political spin. I have thought it best not to get drawn into a haggle.”

That Coetzee’s decision to leave South Africa had not been taken lightly is evident from his reply to a further question by Susskind: “An interview is perhaps not the best medium in which to explore moral or intellectual complexities. And leaving a country is, in some respects, like the breakup of a marriage. It is an intimate matter.”

Although Coetzee nowhere commits himself as to the reasons for his emigration, it may be possible to draw certain conclusions from his life and his work. When he left South Africa at the end of 1961 and settled in England, he was appalled at the political course his country was steering with apartheid and he intended never to return. When, in 1966, he was studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Texas, and later lecturing at State University of New York in Buffalo, he wanted to settle permanently in the US.

However, his participation in Buffalo in a peaceful protest at the time of the Vietnam War against the presence of police on campus, and his arrest with 44 other members of staff, led to his visa not being renewed, even though he and his co-accused were acquitted at the subsequent trial.

There was for a while the possibility of a permanent position in Canada or Hong Kong, but he preferred to return to South Africa, perhaps even feeling intuitively that his real task as a writer and as a human being lay in the South Africa that he was trying to escape.

Whatever the case, his decision to return led to a series of novels giving unique form to problems of the country and its people, while at the same time being prime contributions to contemporary literature.

With the dismantling of apartheid, the “disgrace” that he had resisted in his own way was considered something of the past, yet residues of conflict remained.

In his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 1987, Coetzee had suggested that the racial conflict in South Africa usurped the writer’s psyche to such an extent as to leave no scope for other themes. In the apartheid years he had not been a political activist; he would now still not want to intervene actively but would continue to make his contribution of words, even from another country. Having for much of his life written books in which South Africa featured centrally, he realised that he had never really succeeded in escaping the country. This was why he repeatedly told people that he had not left South Africa but come to Australia.

When, in February 2004, Coetzee symbolically received the keys of the city from a cheering multitude of its citizens, he described Adelaide as a paradise on earth. For the 2004 Adelaide Writers Week, thousands of people gathered on the lawns in the centre of the city to listen to their favourite writers from Australia and elsewhere. An unusual guest that year was a writer straddling the divide: the South African John Coetzee, who had settled in South Australia.

Taking his cue from At the Gate, the last section of his 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee read from an unpublished text, in characteristic tribute to the city of Adelaide:

It was March, it was hot, but there were shaded walks to be had along the Torrens River, where black swans glided serenely.
What kind of place is this, I asked myself – is this paradise on earth?
What does one have to do to live here?
Does one have to die first?

After signing a number of books for admirers, Coetzee vanished, happy to let his books speak on his behalf.

On March 6, 2006, on the opening day of the Adelaide Writers Week, Coetzee officially received Australian citizenship at a special ceremony in a tent. Festivalgoers watched the new citizen take his oath of allegiance to Australia and heard him address the crowd:

“In becoming a citizen one undertakes certain duties and responsibilities. One of the more intangible of those duties and responsibilities is, no matter what one’s birth and background, to accept the historical past of the new country as one’s own.”

Coetzee, however, kept his South African nationality and he reiterated the sentiment he had repeatedly expressed before:

“I did not so much leave South Africa, a country with which I retain strong emotional ties, but come to Australia. I came because from the time of my first visit in 1991, I was attracted by the free and generous spirit of the people, by the beauty of the land itself and – when I first saw Adelaide – by the grace of the city that I now have the honour of calling my home.”

This is an edited extract from J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, by J. C. Kannemeyer, published by Scribe on Monday ($39.99), The Australian

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