Mr Coetzee is run to earth through cyberspace

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The Independent Culture

A DAY after winning the Booker Prize for his novel, Disgrace - and declining to appear at the awards ceremony at Guildhall - JM Coetzee was not doing interviews yesterday. But, at least, for this reporter - who travelled to the University of Chicago where Mr Coetzee is teaching for a term - a concession was negotiated. There was no question of a meeting but a conversation via e-mail would be acceptable.

A DAY after winning the Booker Prize for his novel, Disgrace - and declining to appear at the awards ceremony at Guildhall - JM Coetzee was not doing interviews yesterday. But, at least, for this reporter - who travelled to the University of Chicago where Mr Coetzee is teaching for a term - a concession was negotiated. There was no question of a meeting but a conversation via e-mail would be acceptable.

A rum arrangement, for sure. Does Mr Coetzee actually exist, I politely inquired? Certainly, the university's press department replied. So why not accept the invitation and communicate with the great author in cyberspace? Well, fine. Never mind that I am sitting in a building on one side of the main quadrangle and he is in a building on the other side. If I peer through the chestnuts I can see it.

Heavens. He is there (unless this a very elaborate ruse indeed). As I write this, answers are suddenly streaming back.

I skip to the end of our virtual discussion for the answer I want to hear (read) the most. What are his reasons for not seeing me? "Responding to you via the written word allows me time to think," comes the reply. That seems fair enough. Mr Coetzee, a South African, is a writer, after all.

But what about his decision to eschew the glitter and glamour at Guildhall on Monday night? Fans, not to mention the people who run Booker, will surely have been disappointed. Cheekily, perhaps, I put it to him that he risked being accused of pulling a Salinger or Pynchon on his readers.

Mr Coetzee did not rise to the provocation. The explanation was much more simple.

He would not have enjoyed himself in front of the lights. There was no reason for his absence, he said, "beyond a perfectly reasonable dislike for public appearances and a perfectly justifiable distaste for media hype".

It may also have been out of deference to the University of Chicago. He has responsibilities here, including teaching (attempts by The Independent to sit in on a seminar were quashed). The official reason for his sojourn on campus - a rather beautiful evocation of Christ's College, Cambridge, is more baffling. He is attached to something called the Committee on Social Thought. It was described by Time in 1964 as a "generalist's elysium, a haven for eccentrics commanded to 'think in new areas'."

Mr Coetzee did, of course, express delight at having won the Booker Prize. Nor was he shy about the double satisfaction of becoming the first writer to have won it twice. His first Booker triumph was in 1983 for The Life and Times of Michael K. He was absent from thatawards ceremony, too.) "There has been a convention hitherto that it is not awarded to the same writer twice," he said. "To break that convention, the judges must have been persuaded that the case for Disgrace was a strong one."

He has something more to say, however, about another Booker convention - the one that says only authors from Britain and the Commonwealth can be entered. Most of his answers last night were one-sentence affairs. On this, however, he spent more time.

"One thing has struck me since getting the news of the award is how many Americans know about the Booker Prize and the weight that it carries," he said.

"It's my feeling that the time has come for the artificial restriction that limits consideration to novels written outside of the United States to be lifted. The prize will truly be an award for the best novel in the English language given in any year."

Will winning the Booker a second time change his life or the direction of his writing?

Of course not, he replied with a touch of self-deprecation. "I doubt the award will have much of an impact on my professional life, "which is now in its twilight years." He is 59.

Basking in glory, clearly, is not Mr Coetzee's style, or he would not be teaching this afternoon. He has given just one face-to-face interview since the announcement, to BBC radio.

Not seeing him is not the least bit important, you might protest, because we can all meet Mr Coetzee in the way that he means us to - by reading Disgrace.

Oh, but I am stymied again. Disgrace is not yet on sale in the US. E-mail really was my only option.

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