South African wins Nobel literature prize

For a writer who hates publicity, J.M. Coetzee just got some very bad news. The white South African novelist won the 2003 Nobel Prize for literature Thursday.

The $1.3 million prize raises his already elevated stature to the highest ranks of literary celebrity, though that's never seemed to interest him.

He's one of only two authors ever to win Britain's Booker Prize twice, once in 1983 and again 1999, but he never showed up at the ceremonies to accept.

The Swedish Academy was reportedly unable to immediately reach him at the University of Chicago, where he's currently teaching. His American editor at Viking, Kathryn Court, wasn't surprised. She couldn't reach him either.

"He doesn't enjoy publicity," she says. "The writing is what his life is about."

In its citation, the Academy said Mr. Coetzee's novels are "characterized by their well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue, and analytical brilliance."

A white Afrikaner born in Cape Town in 1940, the author, whose full name is John Maxwell Coetzee, writes in English, and portrays a desolate vision of his racially divided country.

Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Academy says the choice 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 says.

"I think he is a writer ... that will continue to be discussed and analyzed, and we think he should belong to our literary heritage."

Ms. Court, speaking from her office in New York, remembers when she decided to publish his first work in the United States. "Waiting for the Barbarians," Coetzee's second novel, was released in the US in 1980. He was practically unknown in America at the time.

"That book had the most enormous impact on me. I was completely overwhelmed. It was such an emotional experience," Ms. Court says.

His most recent novel, the bestselling "Disgrace" (1999), received rave reviews around the world and demonstrated a masterly ability to dissect tangled motives and allegiances.

The story involves a literature professor who is driven from his job by charges of sexual harassment.

Soon after he moves in with his adult daughter in a small struggling town on South Africa's Eastern Cape, three black men break into the house, set him on fire, and rape his daughter.

The novel's title refracts meaning in a dozen directions as the professor must deal with his failure to protect his daughter, and she begins to consider her rape as justified retribution for centuries of white oppression.

Coetzee's next book, "Elizabeth Costello," will be released in the United States next week. Through a series of eight formal lectures, the novel reveals the life of a distinguished Australian writer. Advance reviews in trade publications have been mixed, but all agree that it is an immensely challenging and difficult work.

This is the second time in recent memory that the academy has given the award to a South African. Nadine Gordimer was tapped for the prize in 1991.

Over the past eight years, the academy has been Eurocentric in its decisions, awarding the prize to Europeans seven times. Since 1980, only four winners have come from Africa, two from Latin America, three from the United States, and one from Asia. It has been 14 years since someone from the Middle East was given the nod - Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz.

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

The 18 lifetime members of the 217-year-old organization make the annual selection in deep secrecy at one of their weekly meetings, not even revealing the date of the announcement until two days beforehand.

The prize is always presented December 10, on the anniversary of Mr. Nobel's death in 1896.

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

Material from the wires was used in this report.

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