Ostensibly, J.M. Coetzee's Summertime is a third instalment of autobiography, succeeding Boyhood
(1998) and Youth
(2002) (both of which, incidentally, are excellent). But this description belies the book's true nature in two ways. First, Summertime is so far from being a conventional autobiography it's essentially a work of fiction. Second, it's a terrific book in its own right, and can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of its forerunners.
The book begins in a style resembling Boyhood and Youth. Brief scenes from the life of Coetzee, now a thirtysomething in 1970s apartheid South Africa, are narrated in crisp third-person prose. Coetzee, we learn, is a down-and-out, unemployed and living with his elderly father, disgusted by apartheid but stuck in a rut of inaction verging on paralysis. But each scene stops abruptly, clearly unfinished, and after 15 pages the narrative stops altogether. What's going on? Here emerges the book's central conceit: Coetzee has died, leaving behind notebooks of assorted scraps. A would-be biographer, seeking to reconstruct "the story" of Coetzee's life, interviews a number of people who knew Coetzee at that time, and transcripts of these (fictional) interviews occupy most of the book's remainder.
The interviewees give us little vignettes in which Coetzee is a ghostly figure, a barely-there anonynimity, content to be manipulated and exploited by stronger characters: a man defined by his fleeting and unsatisfying connections to others. He is a supporting character. "I am perfectly aware it is John you want to hear about, not me," says Julia, Coetzee's one-time lover. "But the only story involving John that I can tell, or the only one I am prepared to tell, is this one, namely the story of my life and his part in it, which is quite different, quite another matter, from the story of his life and my part in it."
What a wonderful antidote to most autobiographies, in which the author is the protagonist in "My Story", steering a course through life like a Greek hero at the helm of a ship. Lives aren't like that. And what a remarkable fictional achievement, since, after all, the "interviews" are pure fiction. Coetzee imagines himself as he must have been viewed by others (scruffy, shy, maladroit, and not a bestselling-author-in-waiting), and does so with great perceptiveness and self-effacement, through a skilfully crafted range of utterly convincing other-voices.
John Berger famously wrote that "never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one". In this rich and intelligent work, Coetzee emphasizes that this goes for life stories too.