5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Yet another Coetzee novel evokes mixed-feelings...,
This review is from: Summertime (Hardcover)
The tour de force that is 'Disgrace' was my first foray into Coetzee's work and I am yet to be as impressed by anything of his I've read since then. It had a restraint and subtlety that I have found missing from Coetzee's other work, `Summertime' included. There's something I find a bit too smug and self-indulgent about JMC as an author that manifests itself somehow in everything of his I've read bar `Disgrace'.
As has been noted `Summertime' is a fictionalised biography of Coetzee's namesake which might or might not be a thinly veiled replica of his own life during his `wilderness' years as a 30-something aspiring writer. Eventually I cared less about whether it was genuinely about him than how brazenly Coetzee was manipulating his reader. Some of the accounts of the `fictional' JM Coetzee are so unsympathetic and riddled with self-interest (for instance that of Julia a former lover and Adriana, the Brazilian refugee for which he harbours an obsession) that they lack credibility. I was left wondering if Coetzee wished to convey that his alter ego was misunderstood. Perhaps he was not the impersonal, machine-like pseudo-misanthrope that these women portrayed and tried to achieve this by making their accounts so devoid of balance as to turn him into a one-dimensional character in which no intelligent person could believe. Some consider this a clever literary device but for me this was more unwelcome naval-gazing by Coetzee...the recurring theme of interest in a younger woman, his alleged froideur towards the opposite sex, critique of his writing style etc. Some of these themes are present in `Disgrace' but they never threaten to eclipse the more outward looking nature of the narrative which sought to get to grips with a newly post-Apartheid South Africa.
A lot of the dialogue in Coetzee's books particularly that of the more intellectual protagonists, has a grandiosity about it that I doubt even the most pompous character is capable of spouting in real life. This is embodied in Julia- the ludicrously obnoxious and self-important married woman with whom `fictional' Coetzee has an affair. Much like in `Slow Man' and `Elizabeth Costello' I object to the harridan default mode to which Coetzee often reverts in his depiction of women. If they are not these impressionable waif-like young things they are often arrogant, unreasonably demanding and self-centred which to me says a lot more about the author's binary perception of women than anything else.
Apart from the two chapters written by the alter-ego Coetzee the most enlightening passages of the book were the accounts given by two of his colleagues one of which is a Frenchwoman with whom he had a relationship. The narrators differ quite a bit in how they believe Coetzee perceived his nationality but even in this the reader is able to get a clearer a picture by perhaps the way the two accounts meet in the middle. Apart from that the narrators seem more aware of the limitations of their own perspective acknowledging that they cannot give a comprehensive view of a man that they only knew in a certain context. In turn these sections of `Summertime' are a bit more fair and charitable to the subject although there is this lingering (and tiresome) idea of his emotional detachment even in his writing.
Coetzee no doubt has a gift for language and when he does employ an understated, slightly poetic tone then he's at his best - as in the first and last chapter of `Summertime'. Coetzee has been known to suffer from `novel fatigue' and I believe in his attempt to re-invent the wheel he sacrifices too much of the story and doesn't always do himself justice. It's a shame I stumbled on `Disgrace', Coetzee's best work so early on; as far as my quest goes to read something of his to equal it, it's been downhill all the way.