A literary biography illuminating the development of the Nobel Prize–winning author’s work.
Identity is a crucial issue in the writing of Coetzee (The Childhood of Jesus, 2013, etc.), a literary master for whom the central question is not “who I am, as much as…what I am.” He was born in South Africa; he received his doctorate and started his academic career in the United States, from which he was exiled for a political protest; and he has been a naturalized Australian citizen for more than a decade. He writes fiction, nonfiction, and criticism, and his career as an academic has deeply informed his novels. He was a family man, though the wife from whom he was divorced in 1980 figures little in his work or this biography. “Aspects of Coetzee’s life that have little bearing on his authorship have little relevance to this book,” writes Attwell (English/Univ. of York), who was once his subject’s student and has remained a scholar of his work. Complicating the identity question is Coetzee’s “strong desire for self-masking.” He has written a series of memoirs in the third person, as if writing about another character, while in his fiction, he has frequently employed characters with some variation on his name. Rather than serving as an introduction to his work, this book will enrich the understanding of those already well-versed in the literature—it requires close reading of Coetzee, and it rewards it. The study untangles the threads of a creative process that always involves multiple drafts and often finds him juggling multiple projects, with passages put aside only to appear years or decades later in a new work. Though Coetzee is often considered more of a philosophical novelist or novelist of ideas, Attwell shows just how deeply the life and work are intertwined. The author quotes his subject: “All writing is autobiography…[and] all autobiography is storytelling.”
Recent work receives comparatively short shrift, but Attwell provides a solid foundation for a literary appreciation.