October 3, 2003

Coetzee wins Nobel Prize

John Maxwell Coetzee, a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the esteemed author of several award-winning novels, received the Nobel Prize in literature yesterday.

Coetzee's award increased the number of Nobel prizes given to members of the University community to 75. It also served as a reminder of the caliber of Chicago's scholarship in the humanities—a field often overshadowed by the juggernaut economics department.

The award is one of many for Coetzee, 63, whose acid prose draws on his upbringing in the apartheid environment of South Africa. Many of his works develop torn characters, weaving them in, in some way, into the backdrop of South Africa and creating personal windows into the country's painful past.

The result is a compelling, intense style of literature that has twice earned Coetzee Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize—in 1983 for Life and Times of Michael K and in 1999 for Disgrace. He is the only person to receive the award twice.

"He is a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization," the Swedish Academy said in its award citation. "Even when his own convictions emerge to view, he elucidates the premises on which they are based rather than argues."

The citation also mentioned specifically Coetzee's expression of the political through his writing. "A fundamental theme in Coetzee's novels involves the values and conduct resulting from South Africa's apartheid system, which, in his view, could arise anywhere," the citation said.

From Cape Town to Chicago and writing in between

Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940, the son of a sheep farmer. After graduating from college, Coetzee left South Africa following the politically charged Sharpeville shootings. He briefly pursued a career in computer programming, working for IBM in England and then pursuing a Ph. D. from the University of Texas for computer-generated language.

Coetzee began teaching English at the University of Texas and continued his career at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

In 1974, Coetzee published his first novel, Dusklands, the story of an American working on creating a campaign of psychological warfare during the Vietnam era, haunted by tales of the 18th century Boer explorations into Africa.

He returned to South Africa in 1983 to teach at the University of Cape Town. This was the same year that Coetzee won his first Booker prize, for Life and Times of Michael K. Overall, he has written eight books, as well as essays on topics ranging from rugby to censorship, spending his time teaching in South Africa and also at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University before coming to Chicago in 1996. He was appointed as full professor in 2001.

During this time he published Disgrace, the novel chronicling the unraveling career of a South African professor in a new, post-apartheid era. "The novel deals with a question that is central to his works: Is it possible to evade history?" according to the citation.

His latest book Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, is the story of a writer from Australia and his falling out with public life. The book comes out later this month.

On campus

Jonathan Lear, a professor in the Committee on Social Thought, has taught several classes alongside Coetzee. They are currently co-teaching Plato's Phaedrus, and in the past, they have taught seminars on Tolstoy's War and Peace, Proust's In Search of Lost Time and Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

Lear described his colleague as one of the great writers of our times, but also as one of the world's great teachers. "In the tradition of the exemplar, and the witness, he teaches us all what is really involved in reading a great book," Lear said. "He has taught me to look with greater clarity at the human soul, and his remarks in and out of class are lifetime memories, reverberating away."

Lear said that when he met Coetzee they hit it off. "We both just liked talking to each other and we have been having a conversation for years." Lear said that they choose to teach together because they have "great chemistry, great books and great University of Chicago students. It's one of the most exciting things you could do. I'm delighted but not surprised, as long as I have known him I have thought he deserved it."

Mark Strand, another professor in the Committee on Social Thought, used similar terms to describe Coetzee. Strand, currently teaching a course with Coetzee on Walt Whitman, emphasized Coetzee in terms of his writing. "His books have tremendous moral weight and they are beautifully written," Strand said. "They are books that matter."

"I am particularly happy that the announcement has come during this autumn quarter, which is the time of year that I spend at the University of Chicago," Coetzee said in a press release. "The University of Chicago, and in particular the Committee on Social Thought, has been my intellectual home for the past seven years."

Coetzee did not respond to a request for further comment.

Nobel Notes

Coetzee is the fourth African writer to win the Nobel prize in literature, following Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt in 1988, and Nadine Gordimer of South Africa in 1991.

He is the 75th laureate at the University of Chicago, seven of whom are currently members of the faculty.

Coetzee is the University's third laureate in literature. The last Chicago laureate in Literature was Saul Bellow, who won the award in 1976. Bellow was Coetzee's literary predecessor on the Committee of Social Thought.

The award carries with it a stipend of over 1.3 million dollars, and the awards in Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Economics, and Peace will be announced next week.

With reporting by Andrew Moesel and Anna Vinnik