One of South Africa's most renowned writers, J.M. Coetzee is known for his portrayal of his native country both during and after apartheid. His postcolonial orientation draws upon myth and allegory as freely as it does realism. Coetzee is further distinguished by his acute awareness of marginalization, his affinity for rural settings, and his unique take on ethnolinguistic identity.
John Maxwell Coetzee (pronounced "kut-see") was born to Zacharias and Vera Wehmeyer Coetzee on February 9, 1940, the first of two sons. Although Zacharias grew up on a farm in Worchester, a rural Afrikaans community in Cape Town, he took advantage of the educational resources available to him and became a lawyer for the city government while Vera worked as a teacher. The rise of the Nationalist party in 1948 brought grave consequences for the Coetzee family. Because of his opposition to apartheid, Zacharias was dismissed as a government lawyer. At this time, John Maxwell was eight, and the family moved back to the Coetzee family farm in Worchester. There, Zacharias farmed sheep and kept books for the local fruit-canning factory. Although the young boy developed a fond affinity for the farm, it was during his time in Worchester that John came to understand what it was like to be marginalized.
Zacharias's family were Afrikaners, people of Dutch South African descent. For the most part, Afrikaners were Protestants belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church and spoke Afrikaans, a Dutch South African dialect. Because of the political dissent between the English and the Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans, the school systems for whites were segregated along linguistic lines. John, however, did not fit neatly into Afrikaans culture. He attended English classes and claimed to be Catholic. He loved reading English literature and never fully identified with rural Afrikaans children, whom he found to be rough, coarse, and poor. Although Afrikaans nationalism was at its height, the people were in the midst of an agricultural depression.
The family moved back to Cape Town in 1951 and Zacharias opened up a law firm, which failed because of Zacharias's inability to manage money. The family became more and more dependent on Vera's humble earnings as a teacher. As a young child, John Maxwell was very close to his mother, but he had trouble understanding the nuanced racism of South Africa. Coetzee says in his autobiography Boyhood, which is written in the third person:
[John Maxwell] is always trying to make sense of his mother. Jews are exploiters, she says; yet she prefers Jewish doctors because they know what they are doing. Colored people are the salt of the earth, she says, yet she and her sisters are always gossiping about pretend-whites with secret Colored backgrounds. He cannot understand how she can hold so many contradictory beliefs at the same time.
Young Coetzee struggled to make sense of his world. On the farm, he had been told that the Colored laborers belonged on the land their ancestors had inhabited, yet he did not understand their unchanging subservient position. In Cape Town, Coetzee observed how the laws increasingly restricted these people to these low-paying jobs.
For high school, Coetzee attended St. Joseph's and continued to the University of Cape Town, where he received a B.A. in English in 1960 and a B.A. in Mathematics in 1961. He worked as a computer programmer in England from 1962 to 1965. While in England, Coetzee completed a thesis on the novelist Ford Maddox Ford and earned his master's degree from the University of Cape Town. Coetzee moved to America in pursuit of a Ph.D.; he enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Texas at Austin, where he completed a doctoral thesis on Samuel Beckett's English-language fiction. During his studies, Coetzee came across a 1760 account of explorations into South Africa written by one of his remote ancestors, Jacobus Coetzee. The account later became a seed for his first published work of fiction. In 1968, Coetzee moved to the State University in New York at Buffalo to pursue a job in academia; the campus, meanwhile, was consumed by the Vietnam anti-war movement. Coetzee returned to the University of Cape Town as a professor of literature in 1972 after being refused permanent residence in the United States.
J.M. Coetzee then embarked on a rich literary career. Drawing both on both his experience living in America during the Vietnam war and on his ancestor's exploration accounts, Coetzee wrote his first novel, Dusklands (1974). He followed this with In the Heart of the Country (1977) and Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), in which Coetzee explored the themes of colonialism. In 1983, Coetzee won his first Booker Prize for The Life and Times of Michael K, a tale of a simple gardener imprisoned in a civil war from which he seeks liberation. The work also received the C.N.A. Literary Award and the Prix Étranger Literary Award. In Foe (1986), Coetzee turned to Robinson Crusoe for inspiration, writing the narrative from the perspective of the mute Friday, Crusoe's slave whose tongue has been cut out. In 1990, he wrote Age of Iron, the story of an old South African woman dying of cancer, and in 1994, he wrote Master of Petersburg, a fictionalized account of the Russian author Dostoevsky. Coetzee became the first author to receive the esteemed Booker Prize twice with Disgrace in 1999. He continues to publish novels, the most recent of which is The Death of Jesus (2019). Coetzee has received recognition for his non-fiction as well, including Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1996) and The Lives of Animals (1999). In 1997, he also wrote Boyhood, a memoir written in the third person. In 2003, J.M. Coetzee received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Coetzee met and married his wife, Philippa Jubber, in 1963. While in America, they had a son in 1966 and a daughter in 1968. He and his wife divorced in 1980, and they later lost their son in a car accident. Coetzee held several positions at the University of Cape Town from 1972 until 2000, and he has been a visiting professor at several prominent universities such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. In 2002, Coetzee emigrated to Australia, where he lives today.