Nov. 4, 1999
Vol. 19 No. 4

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    [j.m. coetzee] by miriam berkley
    J.M. Coetzee, a member of the Committee on Social Thought

    J.M. Coetzee honored with Booker Prize, top British fiction award

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    South-African novelist J.M. Coetzee, a member of the Committee on Social Thought who teaches one quarter each year at the University, has been awarded the 1999 Booker Prize, Britain’s top fiction award, for his novel Disgrace. Coetzee was awarded the Booker Prize previously in 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K, making him the first author to win the prestigious award twice in its 31-year history.

    Disgrace tells the story of David Lurie, a 52-year-old professor in Cape Town, South Africa, who seeks refuge at his daughter’s farm after refusing to apologize for an impulsive affair with a student. A savage and disturbing attack brings into relief faults in the relationship between father and daughter. Pitching the moral code of political correctness against the values of romantic poetry, Disgrace examines dichotomies both in personal relationships and in the unaccountability of one culture to another.

    Coetzee’s work has received strong praise on both sides of the Atlantic. In a recent review, the London Sunday Times reported that Disgrace “confirms Coetzee’s claim to be considered one of the best novelists alive.” Although the book is not yet commercially available in the United States (his publishers say it will be on shelves as early as Monday, Nov. 8), Coetzee’s colleagues at the University echo the praise of his reviewers abroad.

    Robert Pippin, the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy and Chairman of the Committee on Social Thought, said he had a chance to read Disgrace during a recent trip to England. “I found it a very powerful book,” he said. “It presents the confusing moral world and dwindling moral alternatives faced by South Africans in ways that are almost unbearably painful to read about, and then helps you realize why such issues are not limited to South Africa.”

    Coetzee is currently in residence at the University, where he is teaching a seminar on autobiography. As both teacher and author, he said he has reconciled the demands of pedagogy with his life as a contemporary writer. “I can’t say there’s really much of a relationship between the two activities that emerges in my work. This book [Disgrace] is the first to have an element of what could be called the academic novel.”

    Americans’ awareness of the award’s prestige has helped to convince Coetzee that the Booker Prize, which only English-language authors outside of the United States are eligible to receive, ought to be a competition open to American authors as well. “One thing that has struck me since getting news of the award is how many Americans know about the Booker Prize and the weight it carries,” he said. “It’s my feeling that the time has come for the artificial restriction that limits consideration to novels written outside of the United States to be lifted. Then the prize will truly be an award for the best novel in the English language in a given year,” he stated.

    Pippin said Coetzee’s second Booker Prize reaffirms for the world what his students and the members of the Committee on Social Thought have been fortunate enough to experience first hand. “The committee has a tradition of inviting writers and artists (and for several years, a musician, Charles Rosen) to teach our students, and we have always been extremely fortunate in the writers who have accepted such invitations––especially in the two now on the committee, Mark Strand and John Coetzee,” he remarked. “John’s Booker Prize certainly confirms his achievements as a writer, and his students and I can just as certainly confirm that he is a marvelous, subtle teacher.”

    Coetzee said the list of books he recently has been reading includes a biography of Daniel Defoe by Richard West; Extinction by Thomas Bernhard; The Emigrants by W. D. Sebald; and a collection of documents on aspects of French history titled Realms of Memory.

    Coetzee serves as a professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where on Jan. 1, he will assume the title of distinguished professor of literature. He is the author of seven previous novels, including The Master of Petersburg and the memoir Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life.

    He also has published three books of criticism, most recently, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (University of Chicago Press).