On the Idea of a Handbook to the Works of J. M. Coetzee: ‘Preposterous [?]’

By | October 2, 2023

Guest post by Andrew van der Vlies and Lucy Valerie Graham

If assembling a collection purporting to be a readers’ companion to the work of any author is a difficult undertaking – will it be up to date on publication? for how long afterwards? how comprehensive can one reasonably suggest the contents will be? – initiating the reader into the idea of a Handbook to the work of J. M. Coetzee feels especially fraught. Indeed, it would be difficult to find another author whose writing warns the reader as repeatedly against searching for definitive interpretation or portrays so powerfully the fruitlessness of any search for a hermeneutic key. A reader might recall the scene in the opening pages of The Childhood of Jesus (2013), for example, in which there is some confusion about access to the room allocated to Simón and David, a settlement for new arrivals in Novilla, a place where everyone appears to speak Spanish. ‘Do you not have a – what do you call it? – a llave universal to open our room?’, Simon asks. His interlocutor, Ana, responds that the term is ‘Llave maestra’, master key. ‘There is no such thing as a llave universal’, she continues; ‘[i]f we had a llave universal all our troubles would be over’.[1] There are only ever local ‘master’ keys, and they are not always to hand.

Such admonitions to be wary of any desire for a universal explanation – or any position of final authority – recur throughout Coetzee’s work. When the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) is instructed by an agent of the state to interpret ‘slips’ found at an archeological site, he offers various interpretations, noting that ‘[t]here is no agreement among scholars about how to interpret these relics of the ancient barbarians’.[2] In Life & Times of Michael K, a well-intentioned Medical Officer, seeking to understand the circumstances that have brought the eponymous protagonist into his orbit, can only interpolate his subject in terms that reflect his own desired answers. Similar processes of presumptuous speaking for recur in Foe (1986). Indeed, if the word ‘guide’ appears many times in the fiction, the promise of insight, direction, or instruction promised is invariably disappointed, subverted, or foreclosed upon. In Disgrace (1999), Lucy Lurie informs her father, David, dismissed from his position as a university lecturer for inappropriate conduct and seemingly unable to accommodate himself to his loss of authority, ‘you are not the guide I need, not at this time’.[3] In Age of Iron (1990), the enigmatic Vercueil is an unreliable guide for the narrator, Mrs Curren, as she prepares to cross the threshold from life to death. Similarly, in Diary of a Bad Year (2007), a young Filipina named Anya becomes an unlikely chaperon for the man she calls Señor C, the distinguished author whose ‘Strong Opinions’ she is enlisted to prepare for publication and which she punctures with doses of irony, irreverence, and common sense. In Summertime (2009), the authority of the author is rendered doubly ironic in an outrageously provocative – and entertaining – literalization of Roland Barthes’s ‘death of the author’: we follow a biographer seeking in vain an edifying account of the life of the late ‘J. M. Coetzee’ from a series of bemused and disappointed acquaintances or lovers.

Coetzee’s novels repeatedly suggest that published guides are not to be trusted either: the idea of a handbook is staged in Disgrace, via the novel’s focaliser David Lurie, as instrumentalist to the point of being utterly ridiculous. Redeployed to teach a less academic subject than his training prepared him for, Lurie finds the accommodation frustrating: ‘Although he devotes hours to his new discipline, he finds its premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous’.[4]

The concept of a ‘handbook’ has, however, moved on in meaning since the late 1990s, when Coetzee was writing Disgrace. Rather than signifying a ‘manual’ on ‘how to read’, the Bloomsbury Handbooks series aims to offer ‘state-of-the-art’ research and ‘cutting-edge perspectives’,[5] presenting itself as a more adventurous and avant-garde complement to other collections of criticism on J. M. Coetzee, of which there are by now an impressive number. It is not contentious to describe this South African-born writer – novelist, academic, essayist, and public intellectual – as one of the most celebrated living Anglophone writers. Recipient of a host of awards and honours, not least the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, Coetzee has produced work that has attracted interest from scholars across a wide range of disciplines, from literary studies to philosophy, animal ethics and ecology to anthropology, gender studies and education.

No previous anthology of scholarship on Coetzee competes in amplitude or scope with the Bloomsbury Handbook to J. M. Coetzee, however, which follows in the footsteps of its antecedents but takes a syncretic approach that synthesizes the key insights of extant scholarship and seeks to pay attention to the whole range of Coetzee’s life and works, as well as their afterlives, in a manner not attempted hitherto. Furthermore, while the Handbook has contributions from established critics of Coetzee’s work, it draws together contributions from many more early- and mid-career scholars, from a wider range of disciplines, backgrounds, and geographical locations than ever before.

The Handbook is arranged into seven parts: PART ONE collects engagements with the life, context, and reception, while TWO, THREE, and FOUR offer chapters on the published works (poetry, fiction, criticism) under the headings ‘Early’, ‘Late- and Post-Apartheid’, and ‘Late-Style’. Parts FIVE, SIX, and SEVEN turn to questions of context, interpretation, and mediation, under the headings ‘Form, Politics, and Interpretation’, ‘Sources and Influences’, and ‘Inter/Mediation and Inter/Discipline’. Collectively, the thirty-eight chapters bring together insights by the most diverse cohort of scholars yet to be published in one collection on this author. Expect fresh perspectives from a wide range of commentators from around the world, as well as rigorous scholarly interventions.


[1] Coetzee, Childhood of Jesus, 5.

[2] Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 122.

[3] Coetzee, Disgrace, 161

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Bloomsbury, online.


Lucy Valerie Graham, editor of of The Bloomsbury Handbook to J. M. Coetzee, is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Andrew van der Vlies, editor of of The Bloomsbury Handbook to J. M. Coetzee, is a Professor in the School of Humanities at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa

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