JM Coetzee in York
We were at a reading by JM Coetzee at the University this afternoon.
Coetzee’s early life was in South Africa. In the early sixties he lived in England, working as a computer programmer while doing research for a thesis on the English novelist Ford Madox Ford.
Later in that decade he was in Texas studying for a PhD in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages. His doctoral dissertation was on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.
He was denied permission to stay in the USA and returned to South Africa, where he worked as a novelist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, and is now a resident of Australia.
In his Nobel acceptance speech he fantasized at length about Robinson Crusoe and his man, suggesting that perhaps we are all cast upon our individual islands. Expanding upon the metaphor, intimating the necessity of finding that footprint of hope on the sandy beach. He had finished that day with a depiction of the two of them, Crusoe and Friday, as deckhands toiling in the rigging, the one on a ship sailing west, the other on a ship sailing east. Their ships pass close enough to hail. But the seas are rough and stormy: their eyes lashed by the spray and their hands burned by the cordage, they pass each other by, too busy even to wave.
Today he read us a short-story narrated by a South African boy who tries to understand the place of his birth, only to come to the realization that the country has been turned into a theme-park.
He followed that with a sequence of dated journal entries, almost like a blog, which gave him the chance to discourse on international politics, the Iraqi war, Machiavelli, the teaching of English, Harold Pinter, the origins of the State and Tolstoy.
He was rather distant and ironic throughout the reading, but with a keen mind that kept you engaged at every stage of the proceedings.
JM Coetzee as a speaker is no less provocative than he is as a writer and I had to remember his riposte to the publisher who asked him, about the manuscript of his prose piece, Boyhood:
“Is this fiction or memoir?”
Coetzee answered, “Do I have to choose?”
The question and answer underscoring the ways that we, as readers, depend on categories to shape our understanding of texts.