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Novelist Coetzee wins Nobel Prize

South African cited as ‘scrupulous doubter’ by academy

South Africa’s J.M. Coetzee, whose stories tell of innocents and outcasts oppressed by the cruel weight of history, won the 2003 Nobel Prize for literature Thursday.

THE 63-YEAR-OLD writer, long a favorite for the book world’s most prestigious prize, was cited as a “scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization.”

The Swedish Academy said Coetzee’s novels, which include “Disgrace,” “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “Age of Iron,” are also characterized by their “well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance.”

The prize includes a check for more than 10 million kronor, or $1.3 million, but it can also bestow the added advantage of increased sales, celebrity and admiration.

Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the academy, said the decision 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 said. “I think he is a writer ... that will continue to be discussed and analyzed and we think he should belong to our literary heritage.”

Coetzee, pronounced kut-SEE’-uh, is one of the world’s most respected writers, author of eight novels and numerous essays and manifestos covering everything from rugby to censorship.

“There is a great wealth of variety in Coetzee’s works,” the academy citation said. “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.”


Coetzee is a two-time winner of the Booker Prize, in 1983 for “Life & Times of Michael K.,” and in 1999 for “Disgrace.” He has a new novel out this fall, “Elizabeth Costello,” the story of a famous Australian author who finds herself increasingly weary of public life and drawn instead toward philosophical contemplation.

Coetzee himself is a solitary figure, a quiet, soft-eyed man who rarely communicates with the media, and prefers doing so by e-mail, and declined even to show up to collect his Booker prizes. He is currently a visiting professor at the University of Chicago.

In a 1990 interview with The Associated Press, he sat on the stairs in the lobby of a downtown Manhattan hotel, leaning in carefully when asked a question and waiting several seconds to respond, in full, well-constructed sentences.

His books are usually brief — under 300 pages — and concentrated, focusing on the personal consequences of apartheid, the system of racial separation that brutalized South Africa’s black majority. In “Life & Times of Michael K,” “Waiting for the Barbarians” and others, he writes of men and women doing their best to duck under history or simply float above it.

“Our history is such that all of a sudden ordinary people are confronted with major decisions in a way that ordinary people are usually not faced by,” he told AP in 1990. “I think South Africa in the past 40 years has been a place where people have been faced with really huge, moral debts.”


The son of a sheep farmer, Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940, but left South Africa for a decade after the Sharpeville shootings of 1960, when police fired on demonstrators and 70 people were killed. He worked briefly in England as a programmer for IBM and in 1969 he received a Ph.D from the University of Texas for computer-generated language.

Like the previous Nobel winner from South Africa, Nadine Gordimer, cited in 1991, Coetzee is a white writer from this predominantly black country.

The academy has given the award to Europeans for the last eight years. Since 1980, three winners have come from sub-Saharan Africa, three from South America, two from the United States and one from Asia.

The 18 lifetime members of the 217-year-old Swedish Academy make the annual selection in deep secrecy at one of their weekly meetings and do not even reveal the date of the announcement until two days beforehand.

Nominees are not revealed publicly for 50 years, leaving the literary world to only guess about who was in the running. However, many of the same critically acclaimed authors are believed to be on the short list every year.

Last year’s award went to Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz, whose fiction drew on his experience as a teenager in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

A week of Nobel Prizes starts Monday with the medicine award, followed Tuesday by physics and Wednesday by chemistry and economics.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner will be named Oct. 10 in Oslo, Norway, the only Nobel not awarded in Sweden.

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, specified in his will endowing the awards that nationality should not be a consideration, but many believe the Swedish Academy tries to spread the honor over different geographical areas.

Nobel otherwise gave only vague guidance about the prize, saying that it should go to those who “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” and “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

The prizes always are presented Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896.

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