on 7 June 2012
Slowly paced, introspective and disconcertingly downbeat, J.M. Coetzee's 'Youth' is a sometimes powerful, but flawed novel. The narrative focuses on John, a disillusioned mathematics student from Cape Town, who flees South Africa (which he sees as backwards and dangerous) to move to London, with aspirations of being a poet. John's struggle is a largely unhappy one, and whilst this is in keeping with the theme of alienation, which Coetzee has consistently proved himself a master of, this is a novel which sometimes becomes too much a diatribe about the misery of life; something which Coetzee thankfully avoids in most of his novels. The novel's premise is an interesting one, and Coetzee's depictions of the landscapes and histories of South Africa, and of London, are both commendably realistic, and invitingly poetic. Coetzee's use of language is also characteristically excellent, and 'Youth' is a novel which shows a particular knack for complex metaphors, and reveals some both deeply personal and also universal truths about its protagonist, John.
John, however, is the main problem with 'Youth' as a novel. Whilst it is understandable of Coetzee to depict the frustrations and anger of the thwarted intellectual, in 'Youth', his protagonist is a frustrating, contradictory, annoyingly hyperbolic, and worse than all of that - downright dull, narrator. Coetzee's incessant channeling of the book's major themes, through the arrogant John, is not simply a case of giving us an unreliable narrator, it is a case of giving us a largely useless one; a narrator whom constantly divulges into in-depth analyses of Ezra Pound's poetry, whilst he unrealistically (and perhaps misogyny can be leveled at Coetzee, here) seems, without possessing any charm, to be able to bed all manner of women, at ease. It's a real shame, because with its rich use of language and imagery, its fascinating look back at the early concerns and excitement over the bond between man and computer, and superb evocations of its two key landscapes, 'Youth' could be a masterful novel. It is, however, a book which frustrates as much as it delights.
on 23 February 2003
This is the first Coetzee book that I've read, recommended to me by a friend. After reading this over the weekend, I will certainly be eager to look out for some of his other novels.
The story is about a man in this early twenties, who is trying to identify the best way of expressing himself - to do this is searching for his destiny. The difficulty is that he doesn't know if he has the key to his destiny, or if someone will be give him the key to unlock his talents as a poet.
Deciding what to do with ones life, and how to make the impact on society without disappearing in the masses is a theme that I can relate to. The questions the narrator asks echo the thoughts and questions that I'm sure many readers will have asked themselves in the process of ending a romanticised university life and entering the cold realities of daily work.
The story is a short but an easy and absorbing read. The style is clean and crisp - each question and sentence effortlessly leads onto the next, which results in a novel that richly describes the journey that John, the protagonist, goes through.
on 22 August 2010
This is the story: upon finishing university in Cape Town, wanting to escape the tensions in South Africa (it's 1960 or thereabouts) the youth of the title moves to London, where he gets a job as a computer programmer with IBM. Unhappy and lonely, he spends most of his free time reading. After a while he quits his job and does very little for a few weeks, until, without a work visa, he is threatened with expulsion back to South Africa. This spurs him to get another job, also as a computer programmer, but with a different company. Throw in a few unsuccessful relationships, and that's about it.
Although this novel is written in the third person, the protagonist (referred to as 'He' throughout the book) is a thinly-disguised portrayal of the author in his youth. In other words it is autobiographical. I wondered at first why Coetzee didn't write the story as a first-person narrative. Wouldn't this have given it more feeling, more life? It would also eliminate the awkwardness that comes from calling himself 'He' all the time. The following sentence highlights the problem of having no name (as well as giving an example of the tedious nature of the subject matter): 'Bill Briggs seems to have a grasp of the larger goals of IBM and of the Newman Street data-processing centre, which is more than can be said of him.'
Coming at the end of a paragraph describing his colleague Bill Briggs, this 'him' sits awkwardly, and this is a problem throughout the book. Perhaps the author felt the need to distance himself from the rather boring 'prude' (his own word) that he is writing about; a young man who wishes to be a poet but who seems too dull to live the poet's life; a man who isn't sure of his sexuality (he sleeps with women but doesn't enjoy it, tries homosexuality but doesn't enjoy that either). Most of the time he is, perhaps not surprisingly, lonely and miserable.
But if Coetzee didn't want to write in the first person, surely he could at least have given his alter ego a name. In fact, about two-thirds of the way through the book, we learn that he is indeed called John (as is the author).
I've always found Coetzee's writing rather cold and humorless, and this is no exception. In fact it's probably the least enjoyable book of his that I've read; not only is the writing dry, the subject matter is also quite dull. At one point our protagonist reads a novel 'so tedious that he has to fight to stay awake'. I wouldn't be so uncharitable as to suggest that this could apply to this book, but it's a risky thing to include in a novel that isn't exactly a thriller.
But to be fair, the book does have some merit. Although one can't help thinking that John is really an incredibly boring young man (he doesn't drink; he prefers the Third Programme to the pop music that is rapidly sweeping across the airwaves) there are some thoughtful insights into the nature of love and art, and the writing is of the usual Coetzee high standard. There is also an underlying sense of time and place, plus a few interesting (and mostly incidental) facts about South Africa and London circa 1960. Enough, in fact, to make it worth reading, just about.
on 20 December 2002
This was my first book by Coetzee, and so I cannot compare this to his previous work. I found the style cold, distant and sparse, which in a way leant itself to parts of the story, moments of dark poigniant crystaline beauty where wintry text only served to emphasise the bleakness of our protaganists existance.
The story, which seems a familiar post-colonial theme (in fact this book is not too dissimilar to Naipaul's, Half a Life), is that of the narrators escape from his native South Africa, and stifling family in the 50's and his subsequent exploits in London and provincial life in the England.
It was a short and easy read and one I neither enjoyed nor really dispised, and that is where my problem lies with Youth - too distant - it could have been depressing (that would have been at least something), what with all the failure and ineptitude, but instead it left me void of feeling.
I like to finish books I start, but if this had been longer I may have decieded to spend my time reading someting else.
on 9 August 2004
No question that this book brings out the melancholy in all of us with literary pretensions who have sat typing numbers into computers for years. It also encapsulates so much truth about living in London: the claustrophobia and the alienation. But away from my identification and the chance I was given to dream that I too will eventually win the Nobel prize for literature (yeah, right!), this book is written beautifully and readably and it is certainly easier than Disgrace, which I read as a consequence afterwards.
on 8 August 2006
This is not my Top pick when it comes to Coetzee, although I am very happy to have read it. It's apparant total lack of climax makes the small events seem so much bigger and somehow the story becomes a 200 page meditative read. If you haven't read anything from Coetzee before - start with Slow Man or Disgrace, both being master pieces!
on 10 December 2007
Just a lazy few words to describe this book: Joyless, tedious, depressing, bleak, humorless...climaxing with the statement I wish I hadn't bothered to read it. Then again, if reading of a depressing life going nowhere but downwards is your thing you might love it.
on 7 August 2002
Youth is quite a letdown of sorts. A sequel to Boyhood, it lacks the latter's refreshing feel, simple yet poignant prose and joyful reflections of one's childhood in all its fullness. The chapters there bring to life the many simple pleasures and ramblings of the young. A life not yet exposed to limitations, not yet hardened but malleable and open to experiences. In short a celebration of life. Youth starts off being a pleasureable read down memory lane, but lapses into a lamenation of personal angst and searching. The vast literary references and phrases are somewhat presumptious. Rather than treating the reader to sharp witty observations, the novel becomes agonising in its self-absorbption. Ultimately it gets depressing and you feel the heaviness of the novel. Quite a pity really as J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace by contrast had an economy of prose and measured reflections that gave it much character and very good narrative flow. This appears to be a work where Coetzee is writing for himself . Not one of his better efforts and certainly not a piece of work that you should start off with, if you're reading Coetzee for the first time.
on 20 May 2002
After reading Boyhood, which I really enjoyed, (it brought back my experiences of a childhood in Africa) I couldn't resist splashing out to buy Youth in hardback. I was disappointed. Perhaps because that period of his life was singularly unexciting he dragged out the story of those years with too many pages devoted to his studies of other writers. His saving grace is his honesty regarding his abilities, despite having shone at school he stuggles with applied maths at university, once in the UK feels he is less able than his computer programming colleagues, and details his lack of success with women and his social ineptness in being unable to form friendships at work or with his neighbours.
on 8 May 2002
The prose that is mined from the English language by JM Coetzee is as hard and incisive as a diamond;it sparkles when shown up to the light. Whatever the subject the aesthetic pleasure to be gained from his writing is reliable and genuine. In this case the subject matter is the author's reminiscence of what he was like in his own rough unmined state; fictionalised of course -in order that he can get as close as he can to the truth.