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Coetzee Wins 2003 Nobel Literature Award

October 2, 2003

In the fall of 1990, before either had won the Nobel literature prize, South Africans J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer visited New York to promote their latest books.

Both were white opponents of the brutal racial system of apartheid, which collapsed over the next few years. But Coetzee, who won the Nobel prize Thursday, and Gordimer, winner in 1991, had very different ideas how a writer should narrate it.

Gordimer, following in the tradition of such politically minded South African writers as Alan Paton and Athol Fugard, spoke of fiction’s subversive power: Imagining a revolution can make it more likely to happen.

Coetzee, following in the tradition of such existential European writers as Dostoevsky and Kafka, questioned whether the novel was an effective way to comment upon current events.

``I don’t think the novel is the most effective way to intervene in the daily processes of political life,″ Coetzee, in a rare interview, told The Associated Press at the time.

``Writing a novel takes too long. Publishing a novel takes too long. Novels are read by too few people. They don’t have that direct kind of involvement with political reality that newspapers have.″

In winning the Nobel, Coetzee was cited Thursday as a ``scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization.″

The Swedish Academy said Coetzee’s novels, which include ``Disgrace,″ ``Waiting for the Barbarians″ and ``Age of Iron,″ are characterized by their ``well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance.″

The 63-year-old Coetzee, currently a visiting professor at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, said in a statement Thursday that the award ``came as a complete surprise _ I was not even aware that the announcement was pending.″ He said he was writing ``new fiction″ and working on a book of translations of Dutch poets.

The prize includes a check for more than $1.3 million; it should also help sales. Viking Penguin, Coetzee’s U.S. publisher, anticipates at least doubling the planned 33,000 first printing for his new novel, ``Elizabeth Costello,″ due Oct. 16.

``He’s a colleague and a friend, and it’s also a wonderful thing that the Nobel Prize has come to South Africa again,″ Gordimer said in an interview with the AP.

She noted that apartheid was still in place when she won and that ``the president at the time (F.W. De Klerk) did not send me a note of congratulations.″ In contrast, President Thabo Mbeki swiftly issued a statement of praise ``on behalf of the South African nation and indeed the continent of Africa.″

Coetzee (pronounced kut-SEE’-uh), is author of eight novels and numerous essays and manifestos covering everything from rugby to censorship. He is a two-time winner of the Booker Prize, in 1983 for ``Life & Times of Michael K,″ and in 1999 for ``Disgrace,″ a best seller that has sold about 200,000 copies in the United States alone.

``Elizabeth Costello,″ his latest book, is the story of an Australian author who finds herself increasingly weary of public life. The novel begins, ironically, with Costello receiving a major literary award.

``It seems a great ordeal to put oneself through, for no good reason,″ Costello confides to her son. ``I should have asked them to forget the ceremony and send the cheque in the mail.″

Coetzee himself is a solitary figure, a quiet, soft-eyed man who rarely communicates with the media and prefers doing so by e-mail. He declined even to show up to collect his Booker prizes and would not speak to reporters Thursday after winning the Nobel.

In a 1990 interview with the AP, he sat on the stairs in the lobby of a New York hotel, leaning in carefully when asked a question and waiting several seconds to respond, in full, well-constructed sentences.

His books are usually brief _ under 300 pages _ and concentrated, emphasizing the private consequences of public injustice. In ``Life & Times of Michael K,″ ``Waiting for the Barbarians″ and others, he writes of men and women doing their best to duck under history or simply float above it.

``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,″ he told AP in 1990. ``I think South Africa in the past 40 years has been a place where people have been faced with really huge, moral debts.″

The son of a sheep farmer, Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940, but left South Africa for a decade after the Sharpeville shootings of 1960, when police fired on demonstrators and killed 70 people. He worked briefly in England as a programmer for IBM and in 1969 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Texas for computer-generated language.

His first novel, ``Dusklands,″ came out in 1974. His other works include the novels ``Foe″ and ``The Master of Petersburg,″ and two memoirs written in the third person, ``Boyhood″ and ``Youth,″ in which he labels his early years in South Africa as ``a bad start. A handicap.″

``If a tidal wave were to sweep in from the Atlantic tomorrow and wash away the southern tip of the African continent, he will not shed a tear,″ Coetzee writes.

A week of Nobel Prizes starts Monday with the medicine award, followed Tuesday with physics and Wednesday with chemistry and economics.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner will be named Oct. 10 in Oslo, Norway, the only Nobel not awarded in Sweden.


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