Writers & Company

J. M. Coetzee on language, writing and the pleasure of reading

The famously aloof South African novelist talked to Eleanor Wachtel in 2000, shortly after his second Man Booker win.
This file photo dated June 22, 2004, shows writer John M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, posing in Rome during a literary festival. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of England's Man Booker Prize, Writers & Company is airing a special series of Booker Prize winners from our archives all summer. You can see all the episodes here.

South African novelist J.M. Coetzee is an elegant, disturbing and provocative writer. His 1999 novel Disgrace, which won both the Booker — Coetzee's second — and the Commonwealth Prize, is a compulsively readable but also troubling work. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it tells the story of a twice-divorced university professor who becomes embroiled in an affair with a student. When Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, the Swedish Academy praised him for his ability to write fiction that "portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider."

Coetzee also won the Booker Prize in 1983 for his novel Life & Times of Michael K. His books  — including Waiting for the Barbarians and The Master of Petersburg — have won virtually every major literary award in England and internationally. In 2002 Coetzee moved to Australia, where he has lived ever since.

Coetzee is known for his reluctance to do interviews, but he agreed to speak with Eleanor Wachtel when she was in Cape Town for a special series in 2000. He wouldn't talk about himself, his own work, or South African politics; so instead they discussed writing, and Coetzee read from Disgrace.​

On being Afrikaans

"I come from a mixed background, mixed in various ways. My mother's family, although not of British descent, had spoken English at home. My mother's children — my brother and myself — were brought up speaking English at home. But our father and his family spoke Afrikaans, and for a lot of our childhood we lived in an Afrikaans-speaking environment. So although we spoke English at home, very often we were speaking Afrikaans in our public life.

"There is a distinction, or at least I like to maintain a distinction between the terms Afrikaner and Afrikaans. Afrikaans, to me, is a purely linguistic term with linguistic cultural overtones. Whereas Afrikaner, at least in my parlance, has a quite heavy political and ideological content. Being consigned to an Afrikaner life at that time meant, frighteningly, being drawn into the bosom of the Dutch Reformed Church of the National Party, and that whole cultural crusade at that time to erect a distinct and unique white Afrikaner national being. For a rather timid child, this was an alarming prospect."

The allure of English culture

"I was brought up in a family in which books were widely read and I was an avid reader as a child. And the reading culture into which I was drawn was that of England, more specifically of the remnants of late Victorian and imperial England in the colonies. I was surrounded by that ethos and certainly didn't know enough about it to be able to distance myself from it in any way. So indeed, the heroes of Victorian England — 'the boy who stood on the burning deck' and all those people — they all seemed like the heroes most worth imitating.

"It was difficult not to feel marginalized in a country town in South Africa in the early 1950s, simply for the reason that the people running the show were making every effort to make you feel marginalized — and were quite triumphant if they succeeded. The story they tell themselves was that they had spent the years between the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century and the accession of the national government in 1948 feeling marginalized in their own country. And now it was their turn to make everyone else feel marginalized. So yes indeed, I felt marginalized."

Writing's worth, post-millennium

"Speaking now, at the turn of this century, there is a sense in which all writers are underrated, or not read enough or about not to be read enough. We are, dare I say it, moving into or have already moved into a phase of history or post-history where the idea that writers are important has begun to seem a slightly odd or old-fashioned idea.

"So I think that rather than say 'Writer X' or 'Writer Y' is in my opinion underrated, I think that, more seriously, writing in general is becoming underrated."

J. M. Coetzee's comments have been edited and condensed.