LEON DE KOCK
The death of noted literary biographer John Kannemeyer has created something of a publishing conundrum around Kannemyer’s eagerly awaited biography of J.M. Coetzee.
Sources close to the writer report that Kannemeyer had completed the biography, and that he himself was happy with the work as it stood, but that publishers might have wanted to negotiate further revisions with the author, who died of a stroke on Christmas Eve.
Retired publisher and philanthropist Hannes van Zyl, who has acted as a go-between in the production and translation of the biography, says “there is no uncertainty at all” about the book’s publication.
“The contracts have been signed with Jonathan Ball, the South African publisher, and with the overseas agents for the book.”
Pressed on the matter of who would negotiate possible changes arising from readers’ reports – matters not yet fully dealt with – Van Zyl said he would handle such matters, with great care and in consultation with all parties involved, including a possible literary executor named in Kannemeyer’s will. He had not yet seen the will, Van Zyl said.
It is understood that three international experts on Coetzee were asked to act as readers for the publisher.
If a literary executor has been nominated in Kannemeyer’s will, then matters will be simplified, as such a person will have the authority to deal with outstanding literary matters on behalf of Kannemeyer’s estate.
The situation also raises the question of authorship and revision when a writer dies before production of a book is finalised. (Many authors report having nightmares about just such a possibility.) Even Roland Barthes could not have foreseen such a literal exemplum of his theory when he penned his famous essay, “The Death of the Author”, in 1967.
Approached for comment, author Michiel Heyns, who has translated Kannemeyer’s biography into English, said: “John [Kannemeyer] did finish the biography. I gave him the translation to check. I have since revised the translation, and he also saw that. He seemed happy with that. There were three reports. I’m not sure that John saw all of them.
“Obviously they would have been taken into account in the final edit, subject to negotiation with John. I suspect it depends on who the literary executor of the estate is.
“The most direct effect of John’s death is that it will make us very uncertain as to where we stand. Certainly, the biography will go ahead, in whatever form. At issue here is to what extent it will be edited, because it stands in a form that John was happy with, but I think publishers might ask for changes.”
Asked about what changes he thought might be required, Heyns said that overseas publishers especially might want the strong referencing of Afrikaans literary history in the biography to be toned down.
Van Zyl said that he expected few problems from Jonathan Ball, the South African publisher. Should overseas publishers want changes, then that would necessitate a process about which he did not want, now, to speculate.
Heyns commented: “It’s almost uncanny. Kannemeyer had said to Hannes [van Zyl] that he wanted the whole thing done by Christmas, and at Christmas he dies. He will have died thinking he had done what he could do. I think he didn’t want very many more revisions.”
Writing on LitNet, Coetzee expert David Attwell comments: “Though I didn’t know John Kannemeyer well, or for very long (we first met in April, 2010 and corresponded after that), I suspect that only he could have done it. The book is exactly what is needed for the first biography of Coetzee: it is empirical, secure in what it does best, avoids being lured into pyrotechnics by the power of the writing (a failing of much Coetzee criticism); it is thorough, factually reliable, informative and sensitive in its handling of difficult episodes; respectful of its subject. It rises to the challenge. There will be many books, including books of a biographical kind, on Coetzee, perhaps as many one day as there are currently on a figure like Beckett, but Kannemeyer’s will put the enterprise on a sound footing.
“It seems premature to signal a book’s strengths so far in advance of its appearance. But it is right to do so, because the completion of the Coetzee biography is very much part of the context around the author’s shockingly sudden passing. Kannemeyer was fond of saying that by comparison his earlier biographies were ‘kinderspeletjies’ (child’s play). The comment did not belittle his earlier subjects; the point was that the task proved to be even bigger than he had anticipated. He was on the verge of taking a long vacation to Europe, though he was to meet with his publisher in the Netherlands to discuss the international editions.”