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Inside the Mind of J. M. Coetzee…and Others

South African novelist, essayist, linguist, and translator J. M. Coetzee is one of the most decorated authors of the English language, with, among others, two Booker Prizes, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. However, despite his numerous accolades, the author himself is reclusive and shy, and not a particular fan of giving interviews.

So, instead, Coetzee has taken to presenting different minds to the public, using Elizabeth Costello (his main alter ego) in the occasional speech, writing Summertime from four different perspectives, each a different one of his own personas, and, most notably, delivering his Nobel lecture as none other than Robinson Crusoe.

In his speech, “He and His Man”, Coetzee tells a story from the perspective of an old and weary Crusoe, who has lost his taste for society and speech, preferring instead a life of quiet solitude, as he enjoyed on the island. Meanwhile, “his man” (none other than Daniel Defoe himself) is racing across England, sending letters back to Crusoe about every new adventure he finds. From duck hunting in Lincolnshire, to death machines in Halifax, to the plague in London, Crusoe receives news of it all.

In essence, Coetzee has given a speech where Crusoe has written Defoe into existence, turning the typical on its head. He explores the relationship between author and character, wondering “How are they to be figured, this man and he? As master and slave? As brothers, twin brothers? As comrades in arms? Or as enemies, foes?” Can authors ever distance themselves from their characters? Can characters ever break free of their authors?

Eventually, Crusoe comes to a conclusion. “They are deckhands toiling in the rigging, the one on a ship sailing west, the other on a ship sailing east. Their ships pass close, close enough to hail. But the seas are rough, the weather is stormy: their eyes lashed by the spray, their hands burned by the cordage, they pass each other by, too busy even to wave.”


Check out Coetzee’s full lecture here and Coetzee’s book Disgrace here

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