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JM Coetzee citation

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Today, Monday 10 December 2012, that superb writer JM Coetzee gave the graduation speech at the University of Witswatersrand. Here’s the citation that Wits gave him, for those interested. Can’t help thinking that it’s a little rude having a couple of typos in a citation for a Nobel prizewinner for Literature, not to mention a two times Man Booker prizewinner (or “Booker-Mann” prizewinner, as Wits would have it). Still, awkward typos aside, here’s a reminder of why JM Coetzee is one of the greatest SA writers ever.

Citation for John Maxwell Coetzee

John Maxwell Coetzee’s career as a novelist and cultural critic over almost 40 years has been marked by bold innovation and the highest standards of excellence. In 2003 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Following the award of this prize to Nadine Gordimer in 1991, Coetzee was only the second South Africans to win this most eminent of prizes in the category of literature.In contrast to Gordimer, however, who scrupulously described South African social conditions under apartheid in the mould of social realism, Coetzee explored the discursive undercarriage of fiction under conditions of colonialism and apartheid.

Not only did his work show the devastating effects of colonial raiding on indigenous human subjects, it also explored the politics of writing about such historically momentous events and conditions.In doing this, Coetzee was the first significant exemplar of the postmodern turn in South African fiction. His startling debut, Dusklands (1974), was followed by a series of novels that set South African writing on a wholly new and exhilarating course.

His work quickly began to intrigue and fascinate literary scholars from around the world, and Coetzee remains one of the most written-about novelists in the fields of South African and postcolonial writing. He has the rare distinction of having won the Booker-Mann prize twice, first for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and then for Disgrace in 1999.Other prizes awarded to him include the James Tait Back Memorial Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, the CNA Prize, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, and the French Prix Femina Étranger.

Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940 and held a series of positions at the University of Cape Town between 1972 and 2000, when he retired from the post of Distinguished Professor of Literature. In 2002 he emigrated to Australia, where he holds an honorary position at the University of Adelaide. During his career, Coetzee taught frequently at universities in the United States, including Harvard University, Stanford University, the State University of New York, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Chicago, where for six years he was a member of the Committee on Social Thought.
Apart from his 12 novels, Coetzee has written a trilogy of fictionalised memoirs (Boyhood, Youth and Summertime), five books of criticism and numerous articles in prestigious periodicals such as The New York Review of Books. He has also made several translations from Afrikaans and Dutch.
His novels track both a history of colonial imposition in southern Africa, and relationships of power more generally. In addition, his work deals with the politics of agency in fictional writing about South Africa and similar postcolonies. So, for example, in his third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), the liberal magistrate on the outposts of an unnamed Empire not only tries to understand the otherness of so-called barbarians outside the Empire’s borders, but also struggles in vain to decipher archaeological remains of this ‘Other’, which contain an unreadable alphabet. Critics have read this as a metafictional allegory of the limitations of white settler-writers. Such writers may be able to describe and dramatise frontier conflict, but the uncomfortable question posed by Coetzee is whether they can ‘read’ the subjectivity of the so-called barbarian outside of their own epistemological modes of understanding? The novel Waiting for the Barbarians is therefore not only about frontier conflict, but also about the intractability of ‘writing up’ what lies beyond ideological and discursive borders. In Coetzee’s hands, the novel, a representational medium, then, becomes a meditation on the intricate politics of representation.
In Foe (1986), Coetzee reframes Daniel Defoe’s classic, Robinson Crusoe, in a typical gesture of postmodern exposure. In this allegory of the politics of writing, Coetzee exposes the artifice and limitations of what he calls ‘white writing’.
Indeed, in his seminal collection of essays under that very title (White Writing, 1988), Coetzee broke new ground in critical approaches to South African literature studies. He was one of the first critics to undercut the traditions of unreflective, so-called ‘liberal-humanist’ criticism, which remained blind to discursive and material power-structures while offering condescendingly ‘sympathetic’ views of South African conditions. Instead, Coetzee’s own criticism has always been remorselessly reflexive, theoretically informed and surgically unsentimental. His work has deeply marked an entire generation of literary-cultural scholars, in South Africa and in the literary world at large, not least because of his radical defence of writing as a domain which owes no allegiance to any other. It is not for nothing that he was accorded the ultimate honour of the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his later novels, especially after Disgrace, Coetzee increasingly moved away from overt South African content, writing more metafictional and ethically weighted novels.
Whether in fiction, autobiography, the critical essay, the extended book review or the interview, Coetzee has resolutely defied convention and created alternative modes of seeing and writing. In doing this, his work has resituated the human subject in ways that have drawn the attention of writers, critics and philosopher in almost every corner of a world that he, as writer, has re-imagined in significant and remarkable ways.

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