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Shy Nobel winner dedicates prize to mother

J.M. Coetzee of South Africa, left, receives the Nobel Prize in literature from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden.
J.M. Coetzee of South Africa, left, receives the Nobel Prize in literature from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden.

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start quoteAnd for whom, anyway, do we do the things that lead to Nobel prizes if not for our mothers?end quote
-- J.M. Coetzee
South Africa
Cape Town (South Africa)

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (Reuters) -- South African novelist J.M. Coetzee on Wednesday dedicated his Nobel literature prize to his mother and lamented she did not live to see him win.

"And for whom, anyway, do we do the things that lead to Nobel prizes if not for our mothers?" Coetzee asked an audience of 1,300 dignitaries at a glittering Nobel banquet.

"Mommy, mommy, I won a prize! That's wonderful my dear. Now eat your carrots before they get cold."

"Why must our mothers be 99 and long in the grave before we can come running home with a prize that will make up for all the trouble we have been to them," the usually shy Coetzee said.

Prior to his banquet speech, which received loud applause, Coetzee had uttered barely a whisper in public outside formal readings.

"He was very distant," said a tailor at Dahlquist outfitters who kitted out the Nobel winner with white tie and tails.

The white South African, twice winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, was hailed by Nobel peace laureate Nelson Mandela as an intellectual hero for tackling colonialism and apartheid in such novels as "Disgrace" and "Age of Iron."

A soft-spoken academic, he writes in English despite his Afrikaans and Dutch parentage and now divides his time between Australia and the University of Chicago.

But his low-key lifestyle will now be harder to maintain.

"Celebrity status is something I have managed to dodge quite successfully all my life," he said after winning a second Booker prize in 1999 for "Disgrace," a dark allegorical tale of the new South Africa.

Ill at ease with the hype of modern publishing, the former University of Cape Town professor preferred a quiet life in the South Africa where he was born and spent most of his time before emigrating to Australia in 2001.

Going home

Born in Cape Town on February 9, 1940, he studied first at Cape Town and later earned a doctorate in literature from the University of Texas at Austin but was forced to return home when his application for a green card work permit was rejected.

He began his first novel, Dusklands, while teaching in the United States and took up a post at his old university, where he taught until 2001.

He was appointed professor of general literature at the university in 1983, a post he relinquished at the end of 2001, when he also quit the country of his birth.

His publishers said the intensely private Coetzee and his partner Dorothy Driver went to Australia for personal reasons.

Coetzee himself gave no real explanation for the decision but in an e-mail interview with a former student, he once said he looked forward to getting out of the big city.

"Adelaide strikes me as a city about the right size... I like the climate, I like the architecture. If Adelaide is slow, I like the slowness."

While dodging the media spotlight himself, it was rarely off his books and he became one of South Africa's best known authors along with fellow Nobel literature laureate Nadine Gordimer.

"The Life and Times of Michael K," his fourth novel, won him a Booker prize in 1983, with the story of a young gardener abandoned after his mother's death in a South Africa whose administration is collapsing after years of civil strife.

He made Booker prize history in 1999 when he became the first author to win the award twice. The self-effacing author did not attend the award ceremony on either occasion.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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