Alumnus J.M. Coetzee awarded 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature

Oct. 2, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas—J.M. Coetzee, author of “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “Life and Times of Michael K,” was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature today.

Coetzee, who received his Ph.D. in English in 1969 from The University of Texas at Austin, sets most of his literary work in his native South Africa. The Swedish Academy in Stockholm described his books as being “characterized by their well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance. But at the same time he is a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilization.”

He was recognized in 2001 by the university’s Graduate School with the Outstanding Alumnus Award.

“Both the state of Texas and The University of Texas were welcoming and generous to me from the moment I arrived there in 1965,” Coetzee said in the November/December 2001 issue of The Alcalde magazine. “I learned a great deal during my time as a student, as well as during my two subsequent academic visits. It is a source of much satisfaction to me to have kept up the connection with UT to the present day.”

Dr. Tom Cable, of the Department of English, was a fellow graduate student with Coetzee at the university.

“He was always very smart and an excellent writer, even as a grad student,” Cable said. “I’m probably the first person to have taught his work in a classroom. In 1967 or ’68 he wrote a letter to The Daily Texan about the Vietnam War—it was so subtly ironic I thought he was worth teaching even then.”

Coetzee returned to the university in 1995 as a visiting professor and later participated in literary readings as well.

“A number of his students have gone on to have a great deal of success,” said James Magnuson, director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the university. “He was very generous with all his students, very precise and thorough in his comments. The students were in awe of him—as, frankly, was I. He is a person of great integrity, someone you know will always come through on his promises.”

Coetzee was the first writer to win the prestigious Booker Prize twice, first for “Life and Times of Michael K” in 1983 and again in 1999 for “Disgrace.” His other novels include “The Master of Petersburg,” “Age of Iron” and “Foe.”

“There is a great wealth of variety on Coetzee’s works,” according to the Swedish Academy. “No two books ever follow the same recipe. Extensive reading reveals a recurring pattern, the downward spiraling journeys he considers necessary for the salvation of his characters. His protagonists are overwhelmed by the urge to sink but paradoxically derive strength from being stripped of all external dignity.”

“In the mid-1960s when we were studying Old English grammar with Ruth Lehmann and theoretical phonology with Archibald Hill, I think we believed that these obscure subjects might somehow connect to more timely events,” Cable said. “Coetzee has always been brilliant at making connections. It’s not explicit, but his graduate linguistic studies are clearly a part of his intellectual background.”

In addition to novels, Coetzee has written two autobiographical books, “Boyhood” and “Youth,” and several collections of essays. His most recent work is this year’s “Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons.”

For more information contact: Robin Gerrow, College of Liberal Arts, 512-232-2145.