Illustration: John Spooner.
J.M. COETZEE: A LIFE IN WRITING
J.C. KANNEMEYER, South Africa's most distinguished Afrikaans biographer, died suddenly on Christmas Day 2011. In 2009 he had contacted novelist John Maxwell Coetzee about a biography, and (surprisingly) found him very receptive to the idea: Coetzee, an international celebrity and Nobel prize winner living in Adelaide, welcomed a visit from Kannemeyer and supplied him with copies of thousands of personal documents as well as answering his many questions, refusing only analysis of Coetzee's works.
In the astonishingly short space of three years, Kannemeyer wrote this revealing and thorough volume in Afrikaans: the English translation is by Michiel Heyns. Coetzee's fame and his reclusiveness guarantee the book will attract extraordinary interest.
In 1991, my wife and I dined with Coetzee and his partner Dorothy Driver in Sydney, in preparation for a talk Coetzee delivered to my students. It was his first visit to Australia, and he was greatly taken by the country and its people. During the meal, he was relaxed and talkative until I introduced the subject of his writing, and asked him about the construction of his first novel, Dusklands.
He fell silent and stared at me across the table. His silence, and his gaze, grew more marked and more uncomfortable, until all three of us were mutely watching him. After what seemed an interminable pause, he leaned forward towards me and with the intensity of a sniper said, ''I will not submit''. The evening never quite recovered from this point.
As the reader of this magisterial first biography soon grasps, Coetzee early realised that silence can be an overwhelming assertion of power. Characters in his novels often reveal their power not through communication, but through silence. Coetzee uses the same technique to evade questions.
Yet with Coetzee, we are in particular need of accurate biographical information. As he told scholar David Atwell: ''All autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography.''
This is not merely because most of his novels seem to contain an autobiographical component, but because he has produced three volumes of what could be called pseudo-autobiography. Even though Coetzee follows Christopher Isherwood in referring to himself in the third person, as if refusing authority and preparing to deny responsibility for his utterances and actions, Kannemeyer's detailed biography suggests that at least the first two volumes, Boyhood and Youth, are very close to reality. Summertime dallies much more with fiction.
This biography is very much what the subtitle announces, ''A life in writing'': Kannemeyer's focus is on Coetzee the writer rather than Coetzee the man. There is excuse for this: most writers lead lives duller than that of the average greengrocer, and Coetzee's closest relationships are with his desk and his writing pad. ''My life has been completely uneventful,'' he remarked when refusing to collaborate on a documentary.
Kannemeyer seems embarrassed to pry into Coetzee's private life, and supplies only minimal insights into his marriage to Philippa Jubber in 1963: what drew them together; why did they marry so quickly after his return to South Africa from England, where Coetzee had ''slept with a succession of women, but gained at most physical relief, routine without passion''; what drove them apart? After 17 years of marriage, divorce followed: Coetzee blamed himself, but Kannemeyer does not attempt an explanation other than to hint that Coetzee considered himself partly autistic, and that he accused himself of ''stinginess at various levels''.
Coetzee's private life has been deeply touched with tragedy: ranging from Philippa's terrible death of cancer, to their son Nicolas' fall from a high-rise balcony, which may have been accident, to the epilepsy and depression of Coetzee's daughter Gisela. But Kannemeyer deals with such matters in the sparsest language and as unemotionally as is possible.
By way of compensation, he supplies insights into the 16 novels, and he is good on Coetzee's use of autobiographical elements in his fiction. He focuses on Coetzee's narrative strategy, which he describes as one in which there is no dominating central authorial consciousness, and shows that this is largely an illusion: Coetzee maintains throughout the power of the one who holds the pen.
Coetzee is a modernist figure in his alienation from his feckless father, Jack, and from his extended Afrikaans family and their culture. Kannemeyer notes that his ancestors included a missionary and author whose book addresses themes central to the Coetzee oeuvre: the transgressions of a forebear are visited upon the children, who have to live with a disgrace. Coetzee seems to have decided early that the sin of his people was apartheid, and that he would have nothing to do with it.
Kannemeyer has insights to offer, such as that Coetzee tried to publish the South African section of Dusklands before he had written the Vietnam narrative of Eugene Dawn. Kannemeyer finds overarching themes: ''In much of his work, leading up to Disgrace, Coetzee would exploit his position as a writer with European intellectual allegiances, writing from a place of cruel indifference, where European cultural and intellectual expansion largely failed.''
He describes Coetzee's relentless hard work (he produced no fewer than 25 drafts of Slow Man), his mastery of literary theory, his incorporation of autobiography in his fiction; we gain insights into, for example, the impact of Coetzee's son's death on The Master of Petersburg (1994), and the way Coetzee manipulated details of the death of Dostoevsky's son, Pavel, to allow him to compare it to the death of Nicolas.
This is a story of literary triumph, and its trajectory is consistently upward. Coetzee's novels were generally well received from the start, and his reputation grew rapidly with each new book. Recognition came in the form of mostly respectful reviews, and literary prizes: Waiting for the Barbarians was the ''breakthrough novel'' in 1979, drawing a very good review from Bernard Levin (in Britain's Sunday Times), and Coetzee was quickly being widely talked about outside South Africa. Life & Times of Michael K won the Booker prize in 1983.
Two years later, Foe cemented his now dominant position in South African letters: Coetzee took his place in a network of writers, academics and critics. He travelled repeatedly to the US, where he lectured and taught.
Named visiting chairs and honorary doctorates became part of his life. The Nobel, when it came in 2003, looked inevitable. Yet he continued to preserve his privacy: critics likened him to Joyce and Beckett, and he seemed deliberately to follow Joyce's self-concealing strategies of ''silence, exile and cunning''. Exile became literal when Coetzee migrated to Australia in 2002: though he claimed that he did not leave South Africa, but merely came to Australia, he suffered attacks from the African National Congress government.
Australia changed him into a happier and more relaxed man, whose Australian novels reveal his work is still rapidly developing. This important biography, though marred by occasional clunky writing and an inadequate index, sheds more light on a great writer than anything that has appeared previously.
■ Peter F. Alexander is emeritus professor in the school of arts and media at UNSW. He is the author of Les Murray: A Life in Progress and five other literary biographies including Alan Paton.