JM Coetzee is a difficult subject for a biography. As a giant of world literature – a Nobel laureate and twice Booker winner – he has the credentials that might make him a biographer’s gift. However, Coetzee is a writer renowned for guarding his privacy jealously and for his distaste for interviews (and dinterviewers).
The problem of the inscrutable subject is compounded in Coetzee’s later books, where he has fictionalised his own life repeatedly, deliberately blurring the line between fact and fiction, making the task of any biographer perilous.
JC Kannemeyer, who died suddenly after completing the manuscript for this substantial book, has negotiated these difficulties surprisingly well, and has left behind a scrupulous and impressive first biography of his subject.
Another surprise is the extent to which Coetzee co-operated with his biographer, through interviews and email correspondence, and by making available an “enormous number” of documents. He stipulated the need for factual accuracy, but apparently made no attempt to police this: he did not ask to see the manuscript, and did not intervene in “the interpretation of the data”.
This assistance, combined with Kannemeyer’s access to Coetzee’s friends and relatives, has produced some genuinely fresh insights about the life, and some authoritative corrections to common misperceptions. One such is the myth that Coetzee’s son Nicolas, who died in 1989 at the age of 22, was killed in a car crash. In fact, he fell from the balcony of his 11th-floor Johannesburg flat, leaving finger-marks as evidence of his frantic attempts to save himself, apparently scotching the theory of suicide.
The account of Coetzee's "devastating grief" at Nicolas's death is the most moving moment in this book; and Kannemeyer's sensitive demonstration of how this grief might affect reception of the fiction is finely handled. Coetzee had a difficult relationship with his son, and they were not reconciled; yet he was consoled, pitifully, tragically, by the simple fact that Nicolas had a postcard from him in his possession when he died: evidence that he could still reach his son. Future readers of The Master of Petersburg will find the poignancy of the grieving Dostoevsky intensified where he is presented with the last letter he wrote to his dead stepson, who has fallen to his death from a tall building.
A central paradox in Coetzee's life and work, admirably caught by Kannemeyer, is his response to rural life. His second novel, In the Heart of the Country, is an antipastoral riposte to the tradition of the South African plaasroman, or farm novel, revealing its colonial underpinning manifested in a love for the land rather than the people. At the same time, there is a tortured lyricism in Coetzee's novel, which expresses a persisting love of the Karoo landscape, and this kind of ambivalence in the treatment of the rural occurs in many of his books.
The profound at-oneness Coetzee felt with the Karoo, from childhood days at his uncle's farm, had already been revealed in Boyhood; the biography emphasises how his love of a particular place marked his subsequent engagements with the rural. The fundamental importance of the rural may be the great hidden theme of modernity, as Coetzee seems to know.
Significant contemporaneous themes in the oeuvre intersect repeatedly with Coetzee's life. The "strong opinions" about the erosion of academic life expressed in Diary of a Bad Year (and earlier in Elizabeth Costello), chime with views expressed in the correspondence. The broader history of the changing role of the academic is illustrated in Coetzee's career, from the idealistic high point of the late 1960s/ early 1970s (he was arrested for his involvement in a Vietnam-related protest at Buffalo in 1970), through to the situation lamented in Diary of a Bad Year, where the university is seen merely to serve the neo-liberal economy. From this perspective, the earnest responsibility of the 1970s – when academics could pass resolutions of conscience concerning their freedom of thought and action – seems fanciful indeed.
Coetzee’s occasional political outrage is revealing. His contempt for the US administration following the second war in Iraq is palpable, even if it often supplied an excuse to decline unwanted invitations to lecture in the US. His political commentary over the years has also proved to be prescient: his thoughts on Vietnam as a TV war anticipate much of the analysis of the first Iraq war. Such details begin to qualify the abiding impression of Coetzee as disengaged from politics and averse to political activism.
Kannemeyer’s biography is not, however, a psychological portrait of the author; nor is there any attempt to speculate much on personal matters. This is entirely in keeping with the brief to stick to the “facts”; but it can make the treatment of key life moments curiously anodyne.
The prime example is Coetzee’s marriage to and relationship with Philippa Jubber, entirely absent from his autobiographical works. Kannemeyer has an uphill task to write Philippa back into the story, and he records some affecting episodes, especially concerning her death. But there is no sense of what drew them together, or what drove them apart.
The major weakness is that the manuscript did not receive the final edit it needed. I assume this has to do with Kannemeyer’s untimely death, and the fact that he had not read the final “comprehensive reader’s report”.
Whatever the reason, the published book has long sections of quoted material that needed pruning and blending with commentary: there are hefty chunks of university course materials written by Coetzee, for example. There are also lengthy quotations from orations given when Coetzee has received honorary doctorates, left to speak for themselves. The real focus and success of this book, however, is as an old-style literary-critical biography. Kannemeyer has been scrupulous in his reading of different versions of the novels in manuscript form, and produces a series of fascinating comparisons, which will intrigue all of Coetzee’s readers (even though these details are sometimes buried in the footnotes).
In earlier drafts of Age of Iron, for example (there were 12 in total), the enigmatic Vercueil acts as an occasional first-person narrator; and in the manuscript of that novel, but not the final text, there is a passage where Mrs Curren talks about Nadine Gordimer, "who writes about people like us", implying a provocative writer's subtext.
One of the most intriguing textual revelations concerns the manuscript of Disgrace, which remains in the author's possession: the opening alone was rewritten 13 times. Future critics of Disgrace, Coetzee's most studied novel, may find rich pickings.