Nobel puts Coetzee in spotlight

December 08, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

STOCKHOLM — "Attend to the writing, not to me."

- Age of Iron (1990)

STOCKHOLM - The South African novelist J. M. Coetzee last night spun his childhood experience reading Robinson Crusoe into a Nobel Prize lecture that should certainly reinforce his reputation as a writer who shuns easy celebrity.

When Coetzee finished reading his cryptic and whimsical meditation on the mystery of literary creation to a rapt audience beneath the glittering chandeliers of the Swedish Academy, there was a prolonged silence. It was as if the crowd were waiting to see whether the 2003 Nobel laureate for literature just might explain exactly what his eight-page story-essay meant.

But Coetzee, 63, a gaunt figure with a trim white beard, wasn't about to give the Cliff's Notes version of his account of Crusoe, the shipwrecked sailor of Defoe's masterpiece, and his man Friday, complete with bits about 18th-century duck hunting, an English variation on the guillotine and the devastation of London by plague in 1665.

So the audience, about 300 members of Sweden's cultural elite, went ahead and exploded into sustained applause. They seemed grateful simply to be in the presence of one of the giants of contemporary literature, whose compact novels have used the dilemmas of race in South Africa to wrestle with the moral meaning of human existence.

After all, the reclusive novelist had shown up. He had twice won Britain's top award for fiction, the Booker Prize, and twice declined to collect it in person. And there was another bad omen: Samuel Beckett, who won the literature Nobel in 1969, the year Coetzee completed his doctoral dissertation on Beckett at the University of Texas, chose not to come to Stockholm to speak and be feted.

Introducing Coetzee, Horace Engdahl, secretary of the Swedish Academy, referred apologetically to "a certain irony" to the lecture, "given the author's tendency to reclusion."

But the Nobel has won a considerable bout of public accessibility from Coetzee. Perhaps he has been charmed by the quiet beauty of Stockholm's old city, where electric candles burn in the windows of the stone buildings for Advent and the streets have just been frosted with the winter's first snow. Perhaps he wanted to take no chances on losing the $1.3 million check.

He gave an interview to Swedish television that aired Friday - albeit after negotiating for weeks over its terms and putting his books off limit. And after last night's lecture, Coetzee stood for half an hour and signed copies of his lecture, listening tolerantly as admirers told him which of his books was their favorite or how they knew one of his former academic colleagues.

One autograph-seeker summoned the courage to ask which character in his lecture - Crusoe or the author Defoe - represented Coetzee himself.

"I'm not sure," Coetzee amiably replied.

Though his South African roots are deep - he grew up speaking Afrikaans - Coetzee has become a peripatetic figure. In addition to earning that Ph.D. in Austin, he taught from 1968 to 1971 at the University of Buffalo. If he hadn't been arrested during an anti-Vietnam War protest and thus been denied his green card, he has said he might not have returned to South Africa, potentially at some cost to literature.

He taught at the University of Cape Town until 2002, when he moved to Australia, splitting his time between the University of Adelaide and the University of Chicago. He has based several of his nine novels on his native country's experience of racial apartheid and the struggles that have followed its demise, notably Disgrace (1999), which deftly parallels an aging white professor's seduction of a student with his daughter's rape by three black men.

In a rare 1990 interview with the Associated Press, he remarked on how South Africa's wrenching politics have served his work: "Our history is such that all of a sudden ordinary people are confronted with major decisions in a way that ordinary people are usually not faced by. I think South Africa in the past 40 years has been a place where people have been faced with really huge moral debts."

But not all his work deals with South Africa. The Master of St. Petersburg (1994) is a reworking of Dostoevsky, while Foe (1987) is based on Robinson Crusoe.

He introduced his lecture last night by briefly and humorously recalling that after he read Defoe's novel at the age of 8 or 9, he was baffled to discover that someone else appeared to have written Crusoe's first-person story.

"Robinson Crusoe became a figure in my imagination," he said. "So I was somewhat puzzled when I came across a piece in the Children's Encyclopedia that there was someone else involved - a man in a wig called Daniel Defoe. Who was Daniel Defoe?"

His lecture appeared to be a set of variations on the relation between author and character, concluding with the suggestion that they are "like two ships sailing in contrary directions, one west, the other east. Or better, that they are deckhands toiling in the rigging, one on a ship sailing west, the other on a ship sailing east. Their ships pass close, close enough to hail. But the seas are rough, the weather is stormy: their eyes lashed by the spray, their hands burned by the cordage, they pass each other by, too busy even to wave."

The text of J.M. Coetzee's Nobel lectureisavailableat literature/laureates/2003/coetzee-lecture.html.

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