Novelist who wields prose like an ice axe

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The Independent Culture

The books that make us happy we could write ourselves, said Franz Kafka, one of John Maxwell Coetzee's main literary ancestors. Instead, the prophet of Prague added in a famous letter, a book should be the axe that breaks the frozen seas within us.

It's an unsettling image of fiction: a glacial assault followed by shock and liberation. But it absolutely fits the work of J M Coetzee, who won the Nobel prize for literature yesterday.

As a judge of the 1999 Booker prize, I remember my ice-axe moment with Disgrace. Severe, ruthless, exquisitely written, Coetzee's novel tells of a humiliated liberal academic, hammered by the new South Africa into dog-like abjection. Instantly, it set the competition bar. Here was a novel that tested not just the limits of love, sex and politics, but the limits of humanity itself. (Coetzee, by the way, takes animal rights with the utmost seriousness.) Its victory made Coetzee the first writer to take the Booker twice.

The judges chose him knowing that the award would mean an empty chair at the dinner. No living author guards his privacy more jealously. Now this most elusive of writers will face all the glare of the planet's most celebrated honour.

Chilly, fastidious, delphic in his ironies: the idea of John Coetzee sounds intimidating. Yet he remains not just the most uncompromising writer of our time, but one of the clearest and bravest. You may dispute the implications of his work - its cheerless reports on political change, for example - but the bad news always comes couched in formidably lucid and well-crafted prose.

Always intensely aware of social conflict, the South African master mixes this perspective with an interrogation of the novel itself: how it stages its stories, what it hides, and what it misses. Coetzee, raised near the Karoo desert in the early years of apartheid, explores historical reality but, in doing so, often scorns mere realism. In a series of landmark novels from Waiting for the Barbarians through Life and Times of Michael K to Age of Iron and Disgrace itself, he blends a singular view of the collapse of the colonial age with a continuous master-class in the forms and aims of fiction itself.