Shedding light on the life and times of JM Coetzee

04 July 2014 | Text Judith Browne.
Some of Coetzee's manuscript drafts for <i>Life &amp; Times of Michael K </i>are constructed from stacks of UCT exam books bound between a piece of cardboard, and held together with what appears to be a segment clipped from a wire hanger. Photo by Alicia Dietrich, courtesy of the Harry Ransom Centre. <a href="" target="_blank" style="font-weight: normal;">More images of the manuscripts</a>.
Some of Coetzee's manuscript drafts for Life & Times of Michael K are constructed from stacks of UCT exam books bound between a piece of cardboard, and held together with what appears to be a segment clipped from a wire hanger. Photo by Alicia Dietrich, courtesy of the Harry Ransom Centre. More images of the manuscripts.

Professor David Attwell is widely regarded as one of the foremost scholars on Coetzee '“ first having completed an MA at UCT under his supervision; then having written J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, and edited Doubling the Point with Coetzee.

After having spent part of 2013 sifting through the archives in the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas at Austin (where both Attwell and Coetzee completed their PhDs, and where Coetzee's archive sits), Attwell will be giving two public lectures at UCT on the author's creative process, and how his life experiences were written, and re-written, into fiction.

"Coetzee is one of the most written-about of contemporary authors, possibly even the most written-about, in the fields of literary criticism, literary theory, aesthetics, and cultural philosophy," Attwell says.

The forthcoming lectures won't just be for the literary critics, however. Attwell will be drawing on his findings from the Ransom Centre's Coetzee collection (made up of notebooks, manuscripts in various drafts, letters, photo albums, videotapes, as well as audio recordings, spanning some 50 years) to shed light on Coetzee's creative process. The lectures will be of interest to all readers of Coetzee's fiction as well as other writers, who will see their own writing processes and insecurities mirrored in Coetzee's.

"The Coetzee who emerges from an informed reading of his papers is very different from the author of public renown," explains Attwell. "Known to be guarded, even reclusive, a self-conscious and accomplished stylist, an exponent of late modernism, a polemicist against the idea of fiction being a simple expression of selfhood, Coetzee's manuscripts reveal him to be more autobiographical than we would have imagined. The provocations in his work are frequently personal and circumstantial; deriving from family history, from events in South Africa's recent past, from personal losses, and from his returns to and emigrations from his home country."

Hosted as part of the Centre for Open Learning's extended summer school programme, the two lectures on 9 and 14 July will focus in particular on The Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace, and draw in large part from Attwell's critical biography, JM Coetzee & the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, to be published by Jacana Media, Penguin New York and in Dutch translation by Cossee Uitgeverij.

Related links:

  • A visit by David Attwell to UCT some years back prompted the formation of the Coetzee Collective, a leading international research group based at UCT, headed up by Professor Carrol Clarkson, another eminent Coetzee scholar, and the author of JM Coetzee: Countervoices.
  • Senior lecturer in English literature Hedley Twidle (who completed his PhD at the University of York under Attwell's supervision) won the 2012 Bodley Head/Financial Times Essay Prize for Getting Past Coetzee '“ about the influence on the Booker-winning novelist on his life and work in Cape Town.
  • The first film adaptation of Coetzee's work, Disgrace, featuring John Malkovich, was filmed in part in UCT's Arts Block. If you watch it carefully, you'll spot Professor Carrol Clarkson passing by an arguing David Lurie and Melanie Isaacs (John Malkovich and Antoinette Engel) with a first edition copy of Disgrace (signed by Malkovich and others on the film set) in hand.
  • UCT Press recently published screenplay versions of In the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians, original and as yet unproduced cinematic adaptations of Coetzee's novels.
  • In December 2012, Coetzee returned to UCT to read from The Childhood of Jesus, unpublished at the time.

Prof David Attwell will present his public lectures on Wednesday 9 July 18h00 (The Life & Times of Michael K) and Monday 14 July 18h00 (Disgrace) at Kramer Building on Middle Campus.

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