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Weekly Roundup: Sad passing of Chinua Achebe, Roth's 80th birthday and the life of J.M Coetzee

Weekly Roundup: Sad passing of Chinua Achebe, Roth's 80th birthday and the life of J.M Coetzee

Chinua Achebe, who won the 2007 Man Booker International Prize, died this week at the age of 82. The Nigerian author was instrumental in opening Western eyes to African literature and was best known for his novel Things Fall Apart which was published in 1958 and has subsequently sold some 12 million copies worldwide and been translated into 50 languages. Having had a hiatus from writing prior to winning the Man Booker International the prize inspired him to pick up the pen again publishing Chike and the River (2011) and There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012). He died in hospital in Boston, America where he taught at Brown University.

To mark the 80th birthday of Philip Roth, grand old man of American letters and the Man Booker International Prize winner in 2011, a film of interviews with him has just been released. With his frank treatments of sex and often less than reverent depictions of women, Roth has long been a controversial figure. Now, by his own admission, retired from writing what he fears are not critics but something far worse: “In the coming years I have two great calamities to face: death and a biography. Let’s hope the first comes first.”

Another novelist with tight control of his private life has already let the enemy in at the gate. J.M. Coetzee, double (Man) Booker winner for Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999), gave the South African academic J.C. Kannemeyer full access to his private papers and manuscripts. The result is J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, to be published in June by the new Australian imprint Scribe. The book apparently clears up not just how to pronounce his name (Coatzeeee or Coatzeeah?) but sheds light on some of the more troubled and hidden aspects of his life such as his son's early death, the collapse of his marriage and his daughter's illness. Since Coetzee's writing blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, the book will be searched minutely for clues to unlock this complicated man and his complicated books. Kannemeyer died on Christmas Day 2011 but put his success in getting Coetzee's agreement down to an accident of timing: “My letter … must have reached him while he was still writing away at Summertime. My request may have raised a smile. Here he had been since April 2005 in Adelaide writing about a fictional English biographer, Mr Vincent, engaged in the preliminaries for a biography of the dead author J.M. Coetzee. And here appears a real biographer applying to write a real biography.”

In 1983 Granta magazine produced an issue containing its list of the 20 Best Young British Novelists. Among those it selected then  were a clutch of future Man Booker winners, including Ian McEwan, Pat Barker, Graham Swift, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. A bumper crop. The magazine updates its list every 10 years and on 15th April every novelist worth their salt under 40 will be rushing to buy a copy and see if they have made the cut. Among recent Man Booker shortlisted novelists who are eligible are Zadie Smith (37), Adam Foulds (39), and Stephen Kelman (37). If this list is as prescient as the 1983, version the names of numerous ManBooker prizewinners-in-waiting will be there to jot down.