J M Coetzee opens up about his life in letters to Paul Auster

Reclusive South African writer reveals admiration for tennis star Roger Federer

J M Coetzee, the notoriously publicity-shy Nobel Prize-winning author, has made an art of revealing almost nothing about his life.

But now the South African novelist has surprised critics by revealing his profound, almost obsessive respect for an unlikely figure – the Swiss tennis star Roger Federer.

One of literature’s great recluses, the South African writer rarely submits to being interviewed but has granted a glimpse into his daily musings in an exchange of correspondence with the American author Paul Auster, to be published as a book in the UK in May.

Revealing himself as an armchair sports fan, Coetzee describes Federer’s best tennis as “something like the human ideal made visible” and says the experience of watching him play is “very much like my response to masterworks of art”.

The two authors, who met in February 2008 and decided to embark on an epistolary friendship to “strike sparks off each other”, corresponded via post and fax for three years, covering topics as diverse as philosophy, friendship, the financial crisis and their shared love for the “guilty pleasure” of watching sport.

In one letter, dated 19 March 2009, Coetzee writes: “Like you, I think that watching sport on television is mostly a waste of time. But there are moments that are not a waste of time, as would, for example, crop up now and again in the glory days of Roger Federer.

“I scrutinise such moments, revisiting them in memory – Federer playing a crosscourt backhand volley, for instance.”

Explaining that he would go through three phases of thought when watching Federer play, Coetzee writes: “One starts by envying Federer, one moves from there to admiring him and one ends up neither envying him or admiring him but exalted at the revelation of what a human being – a being like oneself – can do.” Coetzee, the author of Dusklands and Disgrace, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 and has twice won the Booker Prize. He failed to collect either of his Bookers and is a jealous guardian of his private life – making the details revealed in the new book Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011, all the more tantalising for critics.

Few, however, would have expected Coetzee – described by one fellow writer as having laughed only once in a decade of acquaintance – to have displayed such powerful feelings for a tennis player.

His correspondence with Auster, the author of the absurdist novel The Book of Illusions, also reveals an admiration for cricket. “I was absorbed, I was emotionally involved, I tore myself away only reluctantly,” he writes of a five-day game between Australia and South Africa. But Coetzee, who now lives in Adelaide, Australia, is also affected by pangs of guilt at watching sport: “Why waste my time slumped in front of the television screen watching young men at play? For, I concede, it is a waste of time. I have an experience... but it does me no good that I can detect. I learn nothing. I come away with nothing.”

He suggests to Auster that the appeal of sport has to do with a human “need for heroes”.

The two authors had been reading each other’s works for years but only met in February 2008, when Coetzee suggested the letter-writing exercise. Although outwardly different in their writing – Auster is known for his dark, philosophical texts and enthusiastic embrace of public life, while Coetzee has been described as a “sceptic… and uncompromising moralist” – the pair found common ground on many topics. On Federer, especially, they are in perfect alignment. “I am in total accord with you,” Auster writes of the seven-time Wimbledon champion. “Awe at the fact that a fellow human being is accomplishing such things.”

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