Southern Crossings: J.M. Coetzee at 80

By Wasafiri Editor on November 9, 2020 in Articles

9 February 1940, John Maxwell Coetzee, Mowbray Nursing Home, Cape Town

He enters the world on his mother Vera’s own birthday. It is just weeks before the first of many moves. With their infant son, Vera and Jack return to the still small town of Victoria West in the Great Karoo. They had met here. Vera Wehmeyer was working as a primary schoolteacher and Jack Coetzee as an attorney. Before they married in Claremont, back in Cape Town, she and her brother Norman, a tennis champion who had famously played the Australian Lew Hoad, went on a European tour. She fell in love with Scotland, especially the heather; also reading and visiting sites related to Robert Louis Stevenson.

From Victoria West they soon relocate to Warrenton in the northern Cape. There is a short stay back in Cape Town after Warrenton, but the family do not actually make their home here until after the war. Although in the family albums we see the first photographs of John Coetzee by the sea in Muizenberg on the Cape Peninsula and celebrating his first birthday back in the southern suburbs with Aunt Annie, when they move from the country to the city, it is not to Cape Town but Johannesburg – a city no reader would associate with Coetzee – but where he must have taken his first steps, uttered his first sentences, posed for street photographers. It is also in Johannesburg that – we can infer this from the archival evidence available – he took the first of his many photographs of his mother. Aged only two, not only was he a photographer, he was also already a geographer and soon-to-be cartographer, identifying countries whose names he heard on the wartime radio broadcasts. He could pinpoint them on the map on the kitchen wall.

How do we know these facts – what we must imagine to be facts, not memories – of such a young boy? It is of course thanks to Vera, who must be credited as co-curator of the Coetzee archive of family history and his juvenilia. To begin with, she documented and recorded these earliest years with her Kodak Brownie box camera, diligently pasting black-and-white snapshots of her first-born in a dark blue photograph album. Black pages. White chalk captions. 

Vera Wehmeyer Coetzee. Blue Exercise Book. Victoria West. 1933- Johannesburg 1943. J. M. Coetzee Papers. Box 103_4_001. Harry Ransom Center.

Then there is a remarkable notebook. In June 1941, Vera takes her 1930s blue exercise book (heretofore dedicated to household finances – first her brothers’ spending, then her husband’s) and opens it to a clean new page. Her son is 16 months old when she begins this new task, writing almost daily diary entries, a sentence or two each time, concisely archiving life on the home front, quoting highlights of her conversations with John, his adventures, geography lessons.

We read, for example, in February 1942:

9th: Two years old today.

25th: Daddy showed him where the Japanese, Churchill, Roosevelt and we live on the big map in the kitchen. The following morning when he awoke he asked Mother to ‘show him where the Japanese lived’. Mother held him up to the map and he pointed out each place correctly.

The next day Vera notes that her young son could also ‘point out Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar on the map’.

The lessons continue into March:

19th: Heard the announcement on the wireless saying something about China. Then, running to the kitchen said, ‘I know where China is’ and standing on his table, pointed it out on the map.

Vera Wehmeyer Coetzee. Blue Exercise Book. Johannesburg, February 1942. J. M. Coetzee Papers. Box 103_4_034. Harry Ransom Center.

A similar entry reads for 14th April 1942.

What we read is quite literally a record of domestic life, a mother caring for and teaching her young son during the Second World War, alone after Jack enlists in the armed forces in 1942.

* * *

Jack Coetzee, WWII photo album. North Africa, the Middle East, Italy. J. M. Coetzee Papers. Box 107__001. Harry Ransom Center.

Jack serves first in North Africa and the Middle East, then in Italy. He is a gunner. In his free time he takes photographs, visits pyramids, documenting his wartime travels in a brown leather-bound album, brightly decorated with a coloured Egyptian design. He writes to Vera. Like John, he calls her ‘Dinny’. By 1943, David, John’s younger brother, is born – after which the photo albums show Vera and her two sons variously in Prince Albert, on the farm at Voëlfontein, by the seaside summer huts in Plettenberg Bay.

Figure 3: John Coetzee. Muizenberg, January 1941. Dark blue photo album. J. M. Coetzee Papers. Box 106_059. Harry Ransom Center.

Thousands of miles away, Jack begins a short diary in Rome – which he sends to Vera. It includes his account of arriving at Prato (where, in 2016, his son would be celebrated at a conference hosted by the Italian campus of Monash University). The Prato entry is heralded in green pen.

In Italy, of course, Jack discovers opera. He pencils a drawing of a village near Siena. He writes a poem to grieve the loss of a fallen soldier friend.

There are other army souvenirs, medals, badges, stripes, a great red map of Italy, propaganda, news cuttings. We have read about Jack’s wartime service in Boyhood, and these archives are now amongst the artefacts and papers in his son’s collection at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas. They expand the itinerary of his family during wartime, beyond South Africa’s borders, from the Cape and Karoo and the Highveld to the North African desert, the Mediterranean.

When at last the war is over, the Coetzees return to the Cape, staying first on an estate for ex-servicemen in Pollsmoor – it’s too soon for Nelson Mandela and his comrades, fellow political prisoners, to be there – but this is where young John first attends primary school. This gets us as far as 1946.

What happens next is that history turns a devastating corner. It is the end of the Second World War, but it is not the end of conflict and carnage. It is the beginning of a new, increasingly segregationist, political age, but Jan Smuts is still in power and he is hosting the King and Queen for their Royal Tour of 1947, Princess Elizabeth’s first trip overseas. She celebrates her twenty-first birthday in Cape Town. John is now seven, at school in the leafy suburb of Rosebank. At his junior school, the Royal family drive by. The children stand watch and wave flags.

Exercise Book: Sentences. John Coetzee. Rosebank Junior School, 7th April 1948. J. M. Coetzee Papers. Box 104.6__043. Harry Ransom Center.

Like his mother, John is about to make his mark in a light blue notebook of a historical nature, for it opens just before the Nationalist Party wins the 1948 elections. This is a significant school notebook. Some of his first crafted ‘English Sentences’ are written at Rosebank Junior School that year. 

With his birthday money and pocket money, he buys his first bicycle – a Smiths. He knew what it meant to say that his protagonist, Bob, was leaving the quiet streets of Rondebosch and was now riding into the depths of Woodstock. Entitled, ‘Bob’s Accident’, this story is situated amongst other grammatical exercises, but it is a creative exposition, clearly done in a carefully allotted time. This short story is in the same exercise book as his first attempt to rewrite the story of Robinson Crusoe. It is true that the story is only two sentences long, but the title is clearly written in italics: Robinson Crusoe. There is no mention of Daniel Defoe. So this makes for a nice link – a leap – to his Nobel Prize speech in 2003. It is a story that has not left him yet, as we know not only from Foe and ‘He and His Man’, but from various essays too. Robinson Crusoe, and his author Daniel Defoe have, like Don Quixote and Cervantes, provided the Nobel Prizewinner with a lifetime of fictional encounters and critical conversations on questions of realism, and the nature of truth, memory and auto/biography. So it is no accident that we should find in the middle of the page on that April day, let us say it is an afternoon in 1948, a beautiful cursive hand writing Robinson Crusoe.

* * *

We have every reason to think of South Africa’s second Nobel-Prize-winning writer as being from the metropolis of Cape Town. That is how we think we know him, locating him in the southern suburbs just a stone’s throw from where he was born in Mowbray – Rosebank, Rondebosch, also Plumstead, Wynberg, Tokai and even Glencairn, on the eastern peninsula as you drive south to Simon’s Town. These are all, more or less, neighbouring areas where he has lived, as a child or as an adult, in the Western Cape. Ancestrally too, he has ‘roots’ here – and it is because of this, since they date straight back to the seventeenth century and the Dutch East India Company’s establishment at the Cape of Good Hope, that his biography is so intermeshed with the Cape – genealogically, geographically spreading north and east from this most southwestern tip of the continent. We see this in his first fictional debut, Dusklands (1974) an indictment, from the beginning, of the colonising project which, in real life, gave his ancestors their share of substantial property: Coetzenberg, Assegaibosch, Jonkershoek, Kweekvallei.

He has lived a provincial life, whilst also traversing the world. He is at different times either very local or very cosmopolitan, but this is shifting ground. He has been on the global literary scene since, at least, his breakthrough novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, published in 1980, forty years ago. The film adaptation, based on his own screenplay, has had over a 25-year gestation, and premiered at the Venice Biennale, and has been released in this anniversary year of 2020. Initially set to be filmed in Chile, it was ultimately shot in Morocco and Italy. It stars a Mongolian actress, speaking to the unspecified backdrop of the novel which at times, we know from the archives, was Central Asia, at other times South America, and which originally opened in Robben Island and Cape Town.

But we are moving back to too distant a time and place, for we must think about where he is now. Follow the southern coast from the Cape and sail in a more or less direct line east along the Indian Ocean until you reach Adelaide, Australia, his home since 2002. Go west from Cape Town to Buenos Aires, along the same 34th parallel, and you will find one of the inspirations behind his most recent Jesus trilogy, situated as it is in an undefined Spanish-speaking country, published as it is first in Spanish translation (in Argentina), and subsequently in Australia (in Melbourne), before making its way to his longtime British publishers in London.

This Spanish South we have seen before – we have known about it since In the Heart of the Country and, as it happens, a film adaptation of his second novel was shot in Spain. But where did this Spanish interest come from?

Consider the origins: by the time his second novel was published internationally by Secker & Warburg, it was 1977. Coetzee was back in South Africa, not long gone from Texas, Spanish-speaking country on the border of Mexico. We can see the extraordinary linguistic trajectory since his days as a doctoral student in Austin circling back. Coetzee’s lifelong exploration and engagement with other languages is tangibly evident in his university transcripts, his essays, his translations. There is also his collection of handmade vocabulary cards and charts, which now reside at Amazwi South African Museum of Literature in Makhanda, Eastern Cape. Some are even in their original packaging (from Ohio, a red, yellow, and blue long matchbox), recording the multiple voices and histories of Coetzee’s southern crossings.

– Kai Easton

This is an extract from an essay originally published in the catalogue for Scenes from the South (Makhanda: Amazwi South African Museum of Literature, 2020), an international travelling exhibition curated by Kai Easton (SOAS University of London) and David Attwell (York) in collaboration with Amazwi and the Harry Ransom Center (HRC), University of Texas at Austin. The exhibition launch and a two-day programme of events of readings and music was held at Amazwi to mark Coetzee’s 80th birthday on 9 February 2020. Due to the restrictions of Covid-19 for global travel, the exhibition run has been extended until both Amazwi and the HRC can safely re-open. A 3-D tour was created for South Africa’s first ever virtual National Arts Festival, which can be accessed on their site here

Scenes from the exhibition will be shown as a prelude to a further celebration for Coetzee’s 80th, which will be livestreamed from Elder Hall, University of Adelaide, South Australia, on 9 November 2020

Images (five archival images and the passages from Boxes 103, 106 & 107) are courtesy of J. M. Coetzee and the Harry Ransom Center. See the finding aid for Coetzee’s full collection here

This essay is published as part of the online coverage for Wasafiri 103 – featuring a special section, Writing Whiteness – which you can purchase here

Kai Easton (SOAS University of London) is co-curator of the exhibition Scenes from the South (with David Attwell) to mark J. M. Coetzee’s 80th birthday, in collaboration with Amazwi South African Museum of Literature and the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. She is also engaged in an essay film project with John Coetzee and Rick Barney, Roads of France. Recent work includes: Zoë Wicomb & the Translocal (co-edited with Derek Attridge, Routledge, 2017) and the exhibition, Navigating the War (Georgetown University Library, 2017). J. M. Coetzee & the Archive: fiction, theory & autobiography (co-edited with Marc Farrant and Hermann Wittenberg) is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in early 2021.