J.M. Coetzee grabbed England's grandest literary award, the Booker Prize, yesterday for "Disgrace," his novel of post-apartheid South Africa. The book was not slated to be published in this country until next year, but given the victorious news, its publisher is hoping to have copies in stores before Nov. 15.
"We're enormously pleased," said Paul Slovak of Viking. The award "is thrilling news and confirms his status as one of the greatest writers of our time."
"Disgrace" tells the story of a professor in the midst of a midlife crisis. He has an affair with a student, loses his job and is ostracized by his friends. By visiting his daughter in the Eastern Cape, he comes face to face with violence and the changing racial climate of his country.
Coetzee, pronounced kut-ZAY-ah, could not be reached for comment. He is the first author to win the $33,000 prize twice in its 31-year history (he won in 1983 for "The Life and Times of Michael K."). The award is bestowed annually by Booker Cash & Carry, a large British grocery wholesaler.
One of the literary world's most prestigious trophies, the Booker can also mean bonus bucks for the writer and the publisher. For instance, Ian McEwan's "Amsterdam," winner of last year's prize, has now sold nearly 300,000 copies in hardback and paperback. "Schindler's Ark" by Thomas Keneally, which won in 1982 and was made into the movie "Schindler's List," has sold more than 920,000.
"We actually have copies of 'Disgrace' printed," said Viking spokesman Slovak. "We're putting stickers on them now." Company muckety-mucks will be meeting today to determine how many more copies to print, Slovak said, and "sales reps are checking with some of the bigger accounts."
In the past, Americans usually have had to wait several months for books that were first published in Europe to be printed in the United States. But with multinational conglomerates gobbling up American publishing houses and the advent of the Internet and global retailers such as Amazon.com--with its aggressive division in England--the industry is moving toward simultaneous release dates. Some of this year's nominees are already available in America.
In the run for the Booker, the popular favorite among the 129 entries was Michael Frayn for "Headlong," his novel about a Bruegel painting. Another smart-money choice was "Our Fathers" by Andrew O'Hagan. But when Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the five-judge panel, made the announcement on British TV last night, he mentioned still another book from the short list. "It was a very difficult decision for the judges to make," Kaufman said. "There was huge admiration for Anita Desai's 'Fasting, Feasting,' but in the end the consensus decision was in favor of J.M. Coetzee's 'Disgrace.' "
The Booker Prize has gained so much clout that even the runners-up sometimes get a little sales bump. Houghton Mifflin is rushing Desai's book into print in January.
CAPTION: South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, 1999 Booker-winner for "Disgrace."