Nobel-winning author J. M. Coetzee to give talk at UChicago

Author’s Oct. 9 discussion and Q&A with Neubauer Collegium to be webcast live

J. M. Coetzee, one of the most critically acclaimed authors of his era, will visit the University of Chicago for an Oct. 9 talk—the former faculty member’s first return to campus since receiving the Nobel Prize in 2003.

Previously a professor in UChicago’s Committee on Social Thought, Coetzee will speak at 5 p.m. at Regenstein Library as part of a lecture series organized by the Neubauer Collegium. Coetzee will read a selection of his unpublished work during the lecture and discussion, which will be webcast live.

“I think when John was here, he found the intellectual life of this university special,” said Prof. Jonathan Lear, the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought. “I think he was glad to be here while he was here. I do think it’s right to think of him as coming back to a place that, for a while, worked as his intellectual home.”

Added Coetzee, who taught at UChicago from 1996 to 2003: “The Committee seemed to me, at its best, to be an ideal intellectual community. During my years on the Committee, I made a number of deep and lasting friendships.”

Lear and Coetzee grew close at UChicago, where they co-taught classes on subjects such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Plato’s Phaedrus. The two had dinner the night before Coetzee won the Nobel, and still plan a weeklong trip together almost every summer. Last year, Coetzee was invited to a lecture series for the Neubauer Collegium, which Lear leads as the Roman Family Director.

The event represents a rare public appearance in the United States by the famously private Coetzee, a South African native who now resides in Australia.

The 78-year-old Coetzee, who was the first two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize, may be best known for the novels Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999). When it awarded Coetzee the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy lauded him as “a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization.”

“My own view is that he’s the greatest living writer of English prose,” said Robert Pippin, the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought. “He’s an intensely serious thinker and writer. Some people, I think, are surprised that there is such a quiet intensity about him.”

Pippin was responsible for bringing the author to the University more than two decades ago. As chair of the Committee on Social Thought, Pippin invited Coetzee to give a lecture before eventually convincing him to become a visiting professor in 1996. Coetzee was later named a distinguished service professor and was part of the UChicago faculty until 2003.

That partnership, Pippin said, was a fruitful one for both Coetzee and the University. Coetzee brought unique credentials not only as a writer and essayist, but also as a scholar well-versed in literature across numerous languages.

Lear remembered Coetzee as a dedicated teacher who was always diligent in providing feedback and evaluations to his students: “He wanted to talk with them about ideas and books and how writing works.”

Of Coetzee’s upcoming visit, Lear said: “We have the opportunity to share the company of one of the great thinkers, writers, novelists of our time. What I’m interested in is: Can we give John a format in which to express himself? One that will provoke others in our community to think and to engage in conversation with him?”