Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of J. M. Coetzee’s 1981 novel Waiting for the Barbarians is the setting—an imaginary empire, one lacking a specified place and time. Yet, when Coetzee penned the first draft of the novel, it was set in Cape Town, South Africa.
David Attwell, a Professor of English at the University of York in the U.K., provides an in-depth look at the development of Coetzee’s third novel. He visited the Ransom Center this year to explore Coetzee’s archive.
Coetzee, who was born in Cape Town and graduated from the University of Cape Town, enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages.
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J. M. Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940 and graduated from the University of Cape Town. After working three years as a computer programmer in England, he enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics and Germanic languages, which he earned in 1969. While at the University, he conducted research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.
Coetzee’s archive now resides in the Ransom Center and is available for research.
Below, Coetzee writes of his association with The University of Texas at Austin.
Somewhere among the boxes of letters included in this collection is one from the Chair of the Department of English at the University of Texas to John M. Coetzee at an address in Surrey, England. It is dated April, 1965; it thanks young John for his application to come and study in Austin and is pleased to offer him a teaching assistantship at a salary of $2,000 per annum while he works toward a graduate degree.
Thus was initiated my association with The University of Texas, an association by now nearly half a century old. In the 1960s the Ransom Center already had a certain fame, worldwide, for having struck out into a new field for collectors, the field of living authors and their manuscripts. The word “brash” tended to find its way into comments on the Ransom Center and its activities, as did the phrase “oil money.”
I am not sure that such supercilious attitudes would find much traction nowadays. The present-day Ransom Center has custody of one of the world’s great collections of twentieth-century manuscripts, a collection that will bring scholars to Texas for many years to come.
It is a privilege to have graduated from being a teaching assistant at The University of Texas to being one of the authors whose papers are conserved here.
I write these words from my home on the south coast of the Australian mainland, an area prone to destructive bushfires. It is a secondary source of satisfaction to me that, even if this house itself goes up in flames, the work of my hands will have been whisked away to a place of safety in the vaults of the Ransom Center.
The day-to-day work of a special-collections curator does not leave much time for actually reading manuscripts, despite assumptions to the contrary on the part of outsiders. I sometimes look with envy at researchers who sit with one document for hours at a time. So it was with great anticipation that I set aside time to survey a shipping carton containing drafts of J. M. Coetzee’s 1983 novel Life & Times of Michael K. I chose it because I was halfway through my first reading of this, the writer’s fourth novel and the recipient of his first Booker Prize. After my brief encounter with this novel’s drafts, I could only imagine the rich research potential of the Coetzee archive as a whole.
The novel concerns Michael K, a gardener of unidentified race who may or may not be mentally challenged. When his mother, Anna, becomes ill, he leaves work to care for her. Anna works as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple and lives in a tiny room beneath their expensive apartment in Cape Town. When the city erupts into violent unrest, the wealthy couple flee, and Michael and Anna briefly inhabit their apartment and then begin a long trek to escape the war-ravaged city for the countryside where Anna once lived; I won’t give away the remainder of the story. The portion of the story described above is told in a flat third-person voice, the distanced narration contrasting dramatically with the appalling physical and emotional conditions of the two main characters.
Like the remainder of the Coetzee papers, the drafts of Michael K arrived at the Ransom Center in remarkably good order, carefully arranged by Coetzee (my pleasure in perusing these materials was enhanced by Coetzee’s elegant, eminently legible handwriting—a rare boon for archival researchers). The novel’s nine drafts are held in five hand-bound volumes, and all but the last are titled simply “#4.” Each draft is numbered and bound in sequence. All of the drafts are written (and in one case typed) in one or more yellow or blue University of Cape Town examination books; each of these is likewise carefully numbered and marked with the appropriate version number. Coetzee appears to have bound the volumes together himself, using whatever materials were near at hand: while some are anchored in large file folders using brads, others are bound in large sheets cut from heavy cardboard shipping boxes, held together by hand-cut pieces of thick metal wire bent and pushed through the hole-punched manuscripts. The resulting artifacts have a charm that belies the novelist’s very serious and explicit intent to preserve a linear record of the novel’s composition.
This compositional record is indeed replete with opportunities for scholars of Michael K. The earliest versions of the novel reveal that Coetzee settled upon several foundational elements of the finished novel early on: the characters are named Anna (or Annie) and Michael. They are related. Anna lives in a room on the ground floor of an expensive apartment complex, and her employers flee. She is ill, and Michael comes to help her. Even some wordings in the earliest drafts appear in the finished novel.
But these similarities are accompanied by profound differences. The first five versions are perhaps best described as windows into alternate realities for the characters of Michael and Anna K, who are reimagined anew by Coetzee as he seeks to determine the nature of the novel’s central relationship. In the first version, Michael is Anna’s son, but he is a brilliant poet, not a gardener who is perceived as dimwitted. In the second, Michael is again her son, but is married and has a child; his wife is killed, and his child taken away before he comes to stay with his mother. In the third, Michael is Anna’s young grandson and worships his absent father (notably, this draft is told entirely in the first person by the child). In the fourth, he is her adult grandson who works as a gardener. In the fifth version, he is Anna’s common-law husband.
Only in the sixth version does Coetzee settle upon the published relationship; this heavily annotated draft is much longer than the ones that precede it and appears to mark a major shift in the compositional process. I skimmed through the later drafts and found further interesting changes too numerous to mention here, but found myself repeatedly returning to the variant Michaels and Annas, wondering how many further variations Coetzee may have considered, and wondering, too, at the elements that he apparently never doubted. For instance, he knew from the beginning that Anna’s legs would be swollen—this detail is described in grim detail in the published novel and appears often in the early drafts—but did not know whether the woman’s son, grandson, or husband would cope with this ailment.
The Annas and Michaels have stayed with me, and I have already started reading the novel again from the first page, seeking traces of those lost characters and viewing the swollen legs, the room beneath the apartment, and the names “Anna” and “Michael” with fresh attention.
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Coetzee enrolled in the University in 1965, and he earned his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages in 1968. While at the University, he conducted research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.
In a 1984 essay for the New York Times titled “How I Learned About America—and Africa—in Texas,” Coetzee writes about working in the collections at the Ransom Center:
“In the Manuscripts Room of the library, I found the exercise books in which Samuel Beckett had written “Watt” on a farm in the south of France, hiding out from the Germans. I spent weeks perusing them, pondering the sketches and numbers and doodles in the margins, disconcerted to find the well-attested agony of composing a masterpiece had left no other traces than these flippancies. Was the pain perhaps all in the waiting, I asked myself, in the sitting and staring at the empty page?”
Once the Coetzee archive is cataloged, students will have access to Coetzee’s own papers for scholarly work and perhaps will explore some of these same questions about the writer’s process.
Coetzee was on campus during the Charles Whitman shooting in 1966, and in the same essay, he recalls hiding under a desk during the ordeal. He also recalls happier times on campus spent with cricket teammates and traveling to College Station to play the Aggie team, also composed mostly of students from colonial countries. Coetzee lived in Austin with his wife during those three years, and their son Nicholas was born here.
Coetzee returned to the University as a guest of the linguistics department and again in 1995 to teach students in the MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers. Student evaluations from his time at the Michener Center are included among his papers, and the anonymous responses are almost unanimous in their praise.
“John Coetzee has an astonishing mind,” wrote one student.
“I feel very fortunate to have had him as a teacher,” wrote another. “His intellect is world-class. I admire his writing as well as his teaching. He parses meaning with rather exquisite precision, displays humor, never loses the larger sense. He has high standards but was always approachable. He guided classroom discussions with a light hand—they were spontaneous but not chaotic. He was, in short, very great—interesting and interested.”
The Texas Exes, the alumni organization for The University of Texas at Austin, awarded Coetzee the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2004.
Coetzee returned to the University once more in May 2010 to give a talk as part of the Graduate School‘s 1910 Society Lecture Series, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the school.
In his talk, Coetzee said of his time in Austin: “My free hours I spent in the library, which I cannot praise more highly than to say it did not know all the treasures it contained.”
Scholars, researchers, and students will no doubt be mining the Coetzee archive in the coming years in search of the many treasures that it contains.
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The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Nobel Prize-winning writer and University of Texas at Austin alumnus J. M. Coetzee. Spanning more than 50 years, the archive traces the author’s life and career from 1956 through the present.
“My association with The University of Texas goes back almost half a century,” said Coetzee. “It is very satisfying to me to know that my papers will find a home at the Ransom Center, one of the world’s great research collections.”
Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940 and graduated from the University of Cape Town. After working three years as a computer programmer in England, he enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages, which he earned in 1969. While at the university, he conducted research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.
Coetzee is an acclaimed novelist, academic, and literary critic. Influenced by his personal history of growing up in South Africa, he writes with strong anti-imperialist feelings. He has published 13 books, including Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999. Both novels received the Man Booker Prize, awarded each year for best full-length novel, making Coetzee the first author to receive the award twice.