South African Wins Nobel Literature Prize

Article excerpt

For a writer who hates publicity, J.M. Coetzee just got some very bad news. The white South African novelist won the 2003 Nobel Prize for literature Thursday.

The $1.3 million prize raises his already elevated stature to the highest ranks of literary celebrity, though that's never seemed to interest him.

He's one of only two authors ever to win Britain's Booker Prize twice, once in 1983 and again 1999, but he never showed up at the ceremonies to accept.

The Swedish Academy was reportedly unable to immediately reach him at the University of Chicago, where he's currently teaching. His American editor at Viking, Kathryn Court, wasn't surprised. She couldn't reach him either.

"He doesn't enjoy publicity," she says. "The writing is what his life is about."

In its citation, the Academy said Mr. Coetzee's novels are "characterized by their well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue, and analytical brilliance."

A white Afrikaner born in Cape Town in 1940, the author, whose full name is John Maxwell Coetzee, writes in English, and portrays a desolate vision of his racially divided country.

Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Academy says the choice was an easy one.

"We were very much convinced of the lasting value of his contribution to literature. I'm not speaking of the number of books, but the variety, and the very high average quality," he says.

"I think he is a writer ... that will continue to be discussed and analyzed, and we think he should belong to our literary heritage."

Ms. Court, speaking from her office in New York, remembers when she decided to publish his first work in the United States. "Waiting for the Barbarians," Coetzee's second novel, was released in the US in 1980. He was practically unknown in America at the time.

"That book had the most enormous impact on me. I was completely overwhelmed. It was such an emotional experience," Ms. Court says.

His most recent novel, the bestselling "Disgrace" (1999), received rave reviews around the world and demonstrated a masterly ability to dissect tangled motives and allegiances.

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