Queen's University

The power of friendship

What was it that brought reclusive Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee to Kingston this fall and even prompted him to issue a rare public statement?

Prof. Rosemary Jolly’s long-term, long-distance friendship with Nobel Laureate in Literature, J.M. Coetzee, was instrumental in bringing the notoriously reclusive writer to town for both a local writers' festival and an international writers’ workshop that was held at Queen’s.

That friendship between Jolly and Coetzee, a man who is widely considered to be amongst the greatest writers of our time, has changed Jolly’s life. “Since reading and getting to know him, I never actually feel alone intellectually. He’s always with me,” says Jolly, in a remarkable testimony to the power of a friendship now entering its third decade.

[photo of Rosemary Jolly and JM Coetzee]Fellow South Africans Rosemary Jolly and author J.M.
Coetzee have been friends since the late 1980s.
(Christopher Canning photo)

Jolly, who is cross-appointed in the Departments of English, and Kinesiology and Health Studies, came to Queen’s in 1991. Her family immigrated in 1980 from South Africa to the town of Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, 300 km northwest of Saskatoon, when she was 17 years old. The family were told by a neighbour on arrival, “You’ll like it here. The Indians [meaning the First Nations Peoples] stay at the lake and there are no Jews.”

“Well, there are now,” quipped Jolly’s older sister, acknowledging the family’s Jewish roots. It was a harsh reality check for a family that thought they had left racism behind.

Jolly studied English and political science at University of Saskatchewan, before going on to the U of T for her Master’s egree and PhD, both of which were heavily influenced by her years in apartheid South Africa. She was interested in English, politics, African studies, and the treatment of women, minorities, and Indigenous communities. “I was after something profoundly interdisciplinary,” she says.

Jolly first met J.M. Coetzee, a man notorious for his staggering intellect, his brilliant and insightful writing, and his propensity to shun publicity, in the late ‘80s. She was doing her PhD research on the works of three South African writers – one of them being Coetzee, when she learned he was coming to Toronto for a reading. She decided to ask Coetzee for a lunch at Hart House along with some of her professors and fellow students. Surprisingly, he agreed to come.

To keep the other guests at lunch from quizzing Coetzee about his writing, a subject about which he is intensely private, she invited the lunch guests to play a game. They started by naming famous writers in history who would be the most difficult house guests. They moved on to imagining teaching courses about the most offensive books in history. Coetzee played right along, pondering aloud who might pay the security costs if such courses were really to be taught.

Coetzee is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke, or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit.

Jolly and Coetzee left that lunch and headed towards Harbourfront for Coetzee’s reading. Along the route he turned to Jolly and asked, “Do you happen to have a copy of The Age of Iron?” This was the very book he was supposed to reading from.

Almost embarrassed to admit that she did in fact, happen to have a copy, and further, that she had it with her, Jolly pulled the book from her bag and handed it over to him. She stayed for the reading and then got in the line-up of those waiting to have their books signed. “I really wanted my book back,” she confessed. When it was her turn in the queue, Coetzee came out from behind the desk and presented her with her signed book and a unique personal inscription. It is amongst her most treasured possessions.Thus began the cross-continent friendship between the two South Africans.

The Age of IronJ.M. Coezee's 1990 novel The Age of Iron is one of his most popular.

“I was careful not to get in touch immediately afterwards,” says Jolly, “Coetzee’s need for privacy is legendary.”

A two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, he did not show up in person to receive either honour. In an article profiling Coetzee in the British magazine New Statesman, (October 25, 1999), writer Jason Cowley wrote, “Coetzee is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke, or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”

After Jolly’s first book, Cultured Violence, Colonization, Violence and Narration in White South African Writing: Breyten Breytenbach, André Brink and J. M Coetzee, was published in 1996, she returned to South Africa for a sabbatical at the University of Cape Town. She purposefully did not bring a copy of her book for Coetzee knowing he would be loath to read about himself, but she did connect with him again, to have dinner with Coetzee and his wife, Dorothy Driver.

In 2003, when Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Jolly told him, “In moments of great delight and great stress and even in times of unmitigated boredom – the words from your novels support me.”
She did not see him again until 2009, when she was visiting the Australian National University on a fellowship. She flew to Adelaide to visit Coetzee and Driver who by then had immigrated to Australia. “Our friendship is spiritually enriching,” says Jolly, “It does not require too many physical meetings to make it work.”

When Jolly returned from that 2009 trip, she asked Merilyn Simonds, the artistic director of Kingston WritersFest, if she might be interested in having Coetzee on stage at an upcoming festival. Jolly set up the introductions, and Simonds invited Coetzee. Thus began preparations for Coetzee’s appearance at the 2011 Kingston WritersFest. On opening night, a full-house at a downtown theatre sat transfixed as Coetzee and New York writer Paul Auster, took to the stage reading aloud their surprisingly intimate and thought provoking letters to each other – letters that often both reflected on the need and instinct for friendship, while also simultaneously documenting the growth of their own developing friendship cultivated in part, by their letters.

While he was in Kingston, Coetzee also took part in an international writers’ workshop on Queen’s campus. The workshop focused on literature, criticism, politics and the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.

Coetzee summed up his Kingston visit with an unexpected public statement that continued on the theme of friendship, “This has been a moving occasion. Old friends and new friends gathered together to celebrate a variety of writing,” he said.

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Last updated at 5:55 am EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
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