Rob Gaylard - 2011-11-04 Untitled Document
JM Coetzee in Texas
Isn’t it rather dismaying to learn that our (are we right to think of him as “our”?) foremost writer has sold his literary papers to the University of Texas in Austin?
Of course Coetzee is free to choose what to do with his papers, and of course he belongs to the world, not just to South Africa, and yes, he did receive a doctorate from the University of Texas in 1965 – so this is not a criticism, just an expression of regret.
Whatever he has achieved in the world of letters, whatever awards he has won, Coetzee’s South African experience remains foundational. For better or for worse, South Africa (and more specifically the Western Cape) has made him the person and the writer that he is. His unique mode of oppositional writing was forged in the South African crucible. This is not to deny the influence of wider intellectual currents, and this is not to say that his writing must be viewed through an exclusively South African lens. But one does feel a sense of loss.
In the Harry Ransom Research Centre Coetzee will be rubbing shoulders with some very illustrious writers. And it will be very convenient for American and European scholars to have him on their doorstep, so to speak. And no doubt NELM would not have been able to compete with the $1,5 paid by the University of Texas. But one can’t help thinking that international scholars might have benefited from making the trek to the small, parochial Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown to study Coetzee’s manuscripts in some place less alien than Austin, Texas. (One can learn a lot about South Africa in Grahamstown if one keeps one’s eyes open.) What a shot in the arm it would have been, for NELM, and for South African scholars and postgraduate students, to have had these documents located more proximately.
Coetzee may well have had a relationship with the University of Texas, but for the thirty most productive and important years of his working life (as a writer and academic) he was employed by the University of Cape Town, which must have provided him with some kind of intellectual and creative space.
Clearly Coetzee had every right to make the choice he made. But one cannot help but wonder what it was that tipped the scales in favour of Austin, Texas.