Sunday, March 31, 2013

USA Africa Dialogue Series - JM Coetzee's official biography to hit shelves this summer

JM Coetzee's official biography to hit shelves this summer
New book explores Coetzee's closely-guarded private life, almost two
years after the death of its author JC Kannemeyer

The first authorised biography of the novelist JM Coetzee, in which
the Nobel laureate discusses personal subjects including his
daughter's illness, will be published in the UK this summer almost two
years after the death of its author, JC Kannemeyer.

An intensely private man, who has twice declined to collect a Booker
prize in person, Coetzee was persuaded to collaborate on the biography
by the late professor of Afrikaans and Dutch at Stellenbosch
University. Kannemeyer, who died on 25 December 2011, was the first
researcher to be given complete access to Coetzee's private documents,
including the manuscripts of his 16 novels. He also spoke at length to
the author, and was put in touch by Coetzee with the author's family,
friends and colleagues. Although Coetzee has said "all autobiography
is storytelling, all writing is autobiography", and has published
three volumes of fictionalised memoir, this is the first time he has
given his full cooperation to a biographer.

"My letter of 9 June 2008 to John Coetzee, in which I asked his
permission to undertake his biography, must have reached him while he
was still writing away at Summertime. My request may have raised a
smile. Here he had been since April 2005 in Adelaide writing about a
fictional English biographer, Mr Vincent, engaged in the preliminaries
for a biography of the dead author JM Coetzee. And here appears a real
biographer applying to write a real biography," writes Kannemeyer in
his book, JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing. "This biographer does not, as
one would expect, emerge from the ranks of the English literary world,
but from the much smaller province of Afrikaans literature. Perhaps
the very fact that the request was coming from outside the sphere of
English literature may have appealed to Coetzee, with his contrarian
take on things."

Kannemeyer travelled to Adelaide in March 2009 to begin interviews
with Coetzee, while the author was hard at work on his second revision
of Summertime. "He answered all my questions meticulously, and
impressed me as a man of integrity," he writes. "From the manuscripts
that I perused in his office in the second week of my stay, I also got
the impression of an incredibly hard worker who had spared no effort
to develop and deploy his talent. The various versions, up to
fourteen, that had been produced of Disgrace provide some measure of
the demands Coetzee makes of himself as a writer."

Kannemeyer covers everything from Coetzee's early years to his time in
Britain and America, the 30 years he spent back in South Africa and
his time in Australia since 2002. Its independent publisher Scribe
promised that the biography would "correct many of the misconceptions
about Coetzee", looking at "aspects of his personal life kept largely
hidden until now, including his son's early death, the collapse of his
marriage and his daughter's illness". The book, translated by Michiel
Heyns, also looks in depth at Coetzee's novels.

"In the course of our conversations I … developed a certain compassion
with this intensely private and reserved man," writes Kannemeyer.
"Even on highly sensitive topics, he kept strictly to the facts. Only
when he spoke of the illness of his daughter, Gisela, was there a
measure of emotion, and, at first, reticence. On this topic I got the
impression – for the only time in our conversations – that he was
withholding certain information from me (which he later provided). Add
to this the sorrow he experienced at his father's dishonesty and
alcoholism, the life and death of Nicolas, and the death from cancer
of Philippa, and one stands amazed that someone could experience so
much unhappiness and yet sustain himself and continue his work."

The biography was published late last year in Coetzee's native South
Africa and in Australia, where the author now lives. It has received a
mixed reception. "It is seldom that one can say that a book approaches
magisterial status, but JC Kannemeyer's biography of JM Coetzee is
such a case," praised the Financial Mail. A review in the Mail and
Guardian was much harsher, finding that the book "suffers from many
problems, including a star-struck author".

Scribe's publisher and founder, Henry Rosenbloom, said the press had
found itself "in a difficult situation for the original Australian
edition in late 2012. The biography was a magisterial work, but the
author had died, the editor had been slaving over a massive
manuscript, and we got the typeset files late from the South African
publisher – they and we were in danger of missing both our print
deadlines. Our production department saw a number of obvious errors
that they tried to correct on the fly, but they knew there'd be others
that they'd had no time to find or fix."

For the UK edition, which will be published on 18 June, there was time
to be "as thorough as possible, without trying to re-edit the
manuscript", said Rosenbloom. "My wife proofread the whole book,
double-checking facts and references, and I went through it as well to
correct grammatical errors, and stylistic inconsistencies or
infelicities. I think we've done justice to the author and his
subject, in unusually difficult circumstances.

Funmi Tofowomo Okelola

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