Professor Wu's Rulebook

Short stories by J.M. Coetzee you can read for free right now


J.M. Coetzee is the author of sixteen works of fiction, as well as numerous works of criticism and translation. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, he has also received the Man Booker Prize for fiction twice (he was the first author to do so). To say he is one of the ‘big names’ on the literary circuit is probably an understatement.

Coetzee built his literary reputation on the eight novels he published between 1974 and 1999. All of which can be said to be almost unusually good – with one in particular, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), seemingly ready to stand the test of time and remain within the literary canon for years to come, being as it is such a parable for the human condition and our mistrust of ‘the other’ and how it is possible to use our falsely imagined enemies to exert social control over entire societies (substitute “terrorists” for “barbarians” and you have an accurate history of Britain and America since 2001).

This literary master is a master story-teller and writer – every word he chooses is chosen precisely, with Coetzee exerting an extraordinarily tight control over his use of language.

His work therefore offers aspiring writers an invaluable opportunity for study and inspiration. To help bring this directly to you, we’ve combed the internet to uncover four of his short stories that are free to read right now – and provided them below (along with a short excerpt).


  1. Lies

““The real truth”: that was what she demanded, or perhaps implored.

She knows very well what the real truth is, as do I, so it should not have been hard to speak the words. And I was angry enough to do so—angry at having to come all this way to perform a duty for which you or Helen or I will get no thanks, not in this world.

But I could not. I could not say to her face what I have no difficulty in writing here, now, to you: The real truth is that you are dying. The real truth is that you have one foot in the grave. The real truth is that already you are helpless in the world, and tomorrow you will be even more helpless, and so forth day after day, until the day comes when there will be no help at all. The real truth is that you are in no position to negotiate. The real truth is that you cannot say No.

You cannot say No to the ticking of the clock. You cannot say No to death. When death says Come, you must bow your head and come. Therefore accept. Learn to say Yes. When I say, Leave behind the home you have made for yourself in Spain, leave behind your familiar things, come and live in—yes—an institution where a nurse from Guadaloupe will wake you up in the morning with a glass of orange juice and a cheery greeting (Quel beau jour, Madame Costello!), do not frown, do not dig in your heels. Say Yes. Say, I agree. Say, I am in your hands. Make the best of it.”

  1. The Dog

“How does the dog know that, despite her mask of indifference, she fears him? The answer: because she gives off the smell of fear, because she cannot hide it. Every time the dog comes hurtling toward her, a chill runs down her back and a pulse of odor leaves her skin, an odor that the dog picks up at once. It sends him into ecstasies of rage, this whiff of fear coming off the being on the other side of the gate.

She fears him, and he knows it. Twice a day he can look forward to it: the passage of this being who is in fear of him, who cannot mask her fear, who gives off the smell of fear as a bitch gives off the smell of sex.

She has read Augustine. Augustine says that the clearest evidence that we are fallen creatures lies in the fact that we cannot control the movements of our own bodies. Specifically, a man is unable to control the motions of his virile member. That member behaves as though possessed of a will of its own; perhaps it even behaves as though possessed by an alien will.

She thinks of Augustine as she reaches the foot of the hill on which the house sits, the house with the dog. Will she be able to control herself this time? Will she have the will power necessary to save herself from giving off the humiliating smell of fear? And each time she hears the growl deep in the dog’s throat that might be equally a growl of rage or of lust, each time she feels the thud of his body against the gate, she receives her answer: Not today.”

  1. As A Woman Grows Older

““What I find eerie, as I grow older,” she tells her son, “is that I hear issuing from my lips words I once upon a time used to hear old people say and swore I would never say myself. What-is-the-world-coming-to things. For example: no one seems any longer to be aware that the verb ‘may’ has a past tense—what is the world coming to? People walk down the street eating pizza and talking into a telephone—what is the world coming to?”

It is his first day in Nice, her third: a clear, warm June day, the kind of day that brought idle, well-to-do people from England to this stretch of coast in the first place. And behold, here they are, the two of them, strolling down the Promenade des Anglais just as the English did a hundred years ago with their parasols and their boaters, deploring Mr. Hardy’s latest effort, deploring the Boers.

Deplore,” she says: “a word one does not hear much nowadays. No one with any sense deplores, not unless they want to be a figure of fun. An interdicted word, an interdicted activity. So what is one to do? Does one keep them all pent up, one’s deplorations, until one is alone with other old folk and free to spill them?””

  1. Youth

It is late, past midnight. In the faded blue sleeping-bag he has brought from South Africa, he is lying on the sofa in his friend Paul’s bedsitter in Belsize Park. On the other side of the room, in the proper bed, Paul has begun to snore. Through a gap in the curtain glares a night sky of sodium orange tinged with violet. Though he has covered his feet with a cushion, they remain icy. No matter: he is in London.

There are two, perhaps three places in the world where life can be lived at its fullest intensity: London, Paris, perhaps Vienna. Paris comes first: city of love, city of art. But to live in Paris one must have gone to the kind of upper-class school that teaches French. As for Vienna, Vienna is for Jews coming back to reclaim their birthright: logical positivism, twelve-tone music, psychoanalysis. That leaves London, where South Africans do not need to carry papers and where people speak English. London may be stony, labyrinthine, and cold, but behind its forbidding walls men and women are at work writing books, painting paintings, composing music. One passes them every day in the street without guessing their secret, because of the famous and admirable British reserve.

For a half-share of the bedsitter, which consists of a single room and an annex with a gas stove and cold-water sink (the bathroom and toilet upstairs serve the whole house), he pays Paul two pounds a week. His entire savings, which he has brought with him from South Africa, amount to eighty-four pounds. He must find a job at once.”







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