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.
on 6 January 2010
Summertime by J M Coetzee
Summertime (2009) is the third of South African John Coetzee's fictionalised autobiographies following Boyhood (1997) and youth (2002). The inspired novel centres around a young English biographer who is working on a book about the late writer, John Coetzee, focusing on the years 1972-1977 when Coetzee was in his thirties.
Following the premature end to his six years in America, John returned to South Africa to live in the outskirts of Cape Town with his widowed father. This period is emphasised by the biographer as an era when Coetzee was `finding his feet as a writer'.
Never having met Coetzee, he embarks on an exciting journey of interviewing a number of characters who were physically and emotionally involved with him.
The Coetzee that we are introduced to, through a series of interviews, is lonely and uncomfortable with almost every aspect of his life. Further on in the novel, a more humuorous side is developed as Coetzee becomes sexually involved with a number of female characters. He takes up dancing in attempt to woo a woman, only to make a fool of himself. Coetzee continues to place himself in awkward situations throughout the novel creating an ongoing theme of comedy for the reader to enjoy.
Within the novel, he is regarded with mistrust by his family as he engages in manual labour in penitence for his country's long history of `making other people do our work for us as we sit in the shade and watch'. His love for the Coetzee family estate in the Karoo remains as passionate as ever it was in Boyhood but everywhere else he is lost. South Africa has become a `loud angry place'.
Summertime is a captivating portrait of life, and like most lives it is full of dichotomy and everyday moral struggles. It is biographical in most of its elegant content, yet largely fictional in the manner of its telling. It is meant to be about one man, however it spends most of the time exploring the lives of the characters John was involved with. This unpredictable period of John's life is presented by women who John believed he had a significant relationship with. Unfortunately, it was unrequited love, and from the female side of the story, their relationships held no passion.
Dominating the Man Booker Prize Summertime is said to be his most popular work since Youth was published seven years ago, also another enticing read.
In style and character, one gets the feeling that this portrayal is true to the man Coetzee feels himself to be. It is an exercise in self awareness and honesty which makes his autobiographies such a joy to read, exploring the life of one of our greatest esteemed writers.
By Amanda Bennett
Summertime was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize, but didn't win. I'm not surprised because it is a mostly unsatisfactory read. Not a novel, more like notes for one. Yet it is harrowingly readable, melancholy, puzzling, a story of a man who feels he has failed at life. It consists of several interviews ostensibly conducted by an unnamed researcher, who has gained access to a number of people who knew his subject, John Coetzee, in his early writing life in the 1970s. These are Julia, a married woman he had an affair with, Margot, his cousin, Adriana, a woman he was attracted to who refused all his approaches, Martin, a man who got the job he had been interviewed for and who subsequently became a friend for a short while, and Sophie, a fellow teacher at his university, with whom he also had a short affair.
John Coetzee (in this incarnation at least) never married. Nor is he deceased in real life. The interviewer is writing an unathorised biography. Who is John Coetzee? Many of the people who discuss him with the interviewer have found him difficult to get close to. There are several undated fragments rounding off the account of his life, and these mainly concentrate on his relationship with his father with whom he has had a somewhat attenuated and uneasy relationship. All of this is utterly fascinating, and none of it comes to a firm conclusion.
This book teases at the truth behind fact, mentioning some of his real life books, such as the Booker winner, 'Disgrace' and the early book 'Boyhood'. But is it a tease, or is it a faithful recounting of a life? If so, it is a life so far, and no further. His sexual life has been varied, but also rather arid, by this account. He does not seem to have had many passions. Indeed passion seems foreign to his nature, except in the account of his pursuing of Adriana, which ended unsuccessfully. Of course, one must remember, this is a book written by Coetzee himself - a man writing about himself, or some version of himself. It is fascinating, bleak, ironic, politically charged, but with the opposite of political passion. He does not reveal so much as pose as himself, but the pose shrinks away from us. Turns us away too. It is all sadness, all withdrawal, but in a form that can only bring curiosity. What is the final truth, is there one? And who is J M Coetzee?
on 6 October 2009
Focusing on a five-year period in the seventies, a biographer in 2008/9 has conducted interviews with a handful of people who knew a now-dead writer named 'John Coetzee.' Summertime is made up of transcripts of these interviews and fragments of the dead man's diary-notebooks.
When I think of the phrase 'fictionalised autobiography,' I think of a book in which the story is basically true but utilises some literary devices in order to better tell the tale and perhaps includes a large degree of self-serving embellishment. With this endlessly fascinating new novel, Coetzee twists this so much it is inside out.
He has taken the idea of semi-autobiographical fiction and switched the two halves around, so to speak: he obscures the fiction beneath a veil of fact. He gives his central character his own name, aspects of his history, his nationality and his literary career but other crucial details are not accurate. For example, it is hugely important throughout the novel that the character is unmarried, a loner bordering on asexual, but in fact during the period covered in the book - 1972-77 - he was married and had two young children (according to Wonkipedia anyway (I know, I know.)) The usual question of "how much of the author is in the character?" becomes here "how much of the character is not in the author?" After reading this playful, fertile and surprisingly swift little book your mind will be pregnant with questions: to what extent does the truth behind fiction matter? To what extent can fiction illuminate truth while obscuring it? Can one write one's own life? How much of us is left behind in the minds of others after our physical demise? How truthful would that picture be, and how much would that matter? And on and on. (Of course maybe he just wanted to write his ex-wife out of existence!)
While Coetzee is constructing his playground of dualities - fiction/fact, art/artist, public/private (dichotomizing around, you might say) - it is surely no accident how blackly funny it all is: instead of massaging the reality into a more flattering shape, the version Coetzee creates of 'himself' is certainly not a self-serving one. He uses every opportunity to humiliate 'himself' in the most excruciatingly personal ways, to the point of over-kill. It's as if Charlie Kaufman remade Rashomon. Also interesting is Coetzee's depiction of the time and place (seventies South Africa, as apartheid was itself coming apart though long before it was finally dismantled), but of course the book forces us to question how truthful one man's perspective can be, on himself, his companions and his times.
on 12 February 2010
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.
on 24 August 2009
Summertime is an intriguing, revealing book that triggers questions. It's a book that gives insights into life in South Africa during a certain time, a time of flux and uncertainty. It is a book about the writer as outsider but there's so much to it than that, so forget that and see it as a book about the writer as human, almost failing but somehow able to love, bewilder and infuriate. The central 'character', is revealed by those that 'knew him'. He is to some a mediocre academic - not quite brilliant enough to be a good academic, not able enough to flourish and make something of himself beyond writing a certain book that won't get wide coverage. He is not embraced by anyone or anything, for any length of time. He cannot seem to engage, so people say, he doesn't seem to be able to open himself up. He's grown up having to protect himself from a certain attitude, a small-mindedness that he wishes to reject but at the same time feels a certain loyalty toward. I read this book as it is on this year's Booker longlist and this has been my introduction to Coetzee. I'd like to read more.
Coetzee is a literary titan, a giant among writers. His work has a tendency to make other writers' look unambitious (despite what this book claims) and small, their sentences meagre or unsightly flabby. That's my view of his work, anyway. In terms of writing quality, in terms of vision, in terms of sheer cold unwavering focus, Coetzee comes out on top every single time. As does he, recently, in turns of narrative innovation and form. His recent novels have twisted traditional narrative out of shape, reformed the novel. Diary of a Bad Year, in particular, is a completely unique piece, a complete reimagination of the structure of writing a novel. And Summertime, again, is at pains to be perverse: it claims to be a fictionalised autobiography, in which a researcher carries out interviews with acquaintances of the deceased John Coetzee.
Summertime is a strange book. As fictionalised autobiography, it is therefore neither fiction nor biography. And as fiction it lacks narrative, and as biography it is patently incomplete. It is more like a literary artefact, a collection from the archives. It may even be as close to painting a literarture can get. I loved it of course. But if there's one thing Coetzee can do it is make you think.
The picture he creates of the nascent writer Coetzee is a fascinating one. The interviews with his acquaintances make him out to be incompetent with women (though, juding from this and the previous two volumes, he also has surprisingly many for someone so deficient in social nous), awkward at sex, somewhat lacking as a son, and remote as both a friend and relative. And, of course, one never knows if any of these impressions are correct, if any of these people truly existed. This entire exercise may just be a device to get Coetzee to think what he wants us to. Indeed, I got the impression that Coetzee was going a bit far with the cold negativity about himself. After all, he can not know what these characters truly thought of him (or can not, if the relationships he depicts are accurate ones). It seemed a little disingenuous to me. Almost as if Coetzee thinks the idea of a remote, awkward, solitary and socially incompetent writerly soul is romantic, and therefore wrote himself up into this image through his mouthpieces. But, of course, the nagging at your sleeve through every sentence, paragraph, and chapter, must be the thought: "is this really true?" When every episode, spoken word, and thought is in doubt, it leaves you in a very strange relationship with the book you are reading. And never before have I read a book where everything is on such uncertain ground. I felt like I was in uncharted waters (a feeling I've had before with Coetzee, and not often with anyone else).
But what of the whole thing? Coetzee writing is exemplary. His sentence-writing is better than anyone alive. No one can be so hard, cold and clear. The entire book is a complete pleasure from start to end. It's fascinating. And yet because of the fact that you don't know where you are with it, if viewed in a certain way it is quite unsatisfying. And that might well be the relentlessly private Coetzee's message: Try and get to know me, and i'll run rings around you and leave you no better off.
Nonetheless, a wonderful book. It is unquestionably the most accomplished, most intelligent, and best novel on the Booker shortlist. However, that doesn't mean it should or will win (otherwise nearly all Coetzee's novels should have won it). But I'm sure Coetzee doesn't really care.
Set in the future after his death, Coetzee imagines a biographer interviewing a handful of people who figured in his life.( Are they fictional creations or based on real individuals?)
We get an insight into their own lives - the young housewife who has a fling with him to get even with a cheating husband; the cousin living a tough life in the Karroo; the Brazilian mother whose daughter he tutors.
The picture they give of Coetzee is of a melancholy, solitary and gauche character, not outstanding at his teaching work; one is even dismissive of his writing.
The interviews are supplemented by extracts supposedly from Coetzee's own notebooks. There is a gradual build-up, layer on layer, of negative experiences - never loved by Julia; criticized by his favourite cousin for wanting to live apart from his father and for not being married (and soon she forgets his problems altogether when more pressing concerns arise); rejected by Adriana who feels he's stalking her; ex-colleague and lover Sophie says she didn't read all his works ('I lost interest')
By the end when he's living with his sick, elderly father and contemplating methods of suicide, one sees how life has brought him to this.
I didn't ENJOY this book, but it's well written and has an interesting and unique construction.
on 27 September 2009
Much as I enjoyed this new autobiography, just as I loved 'Boy' and 'Youth', with this one I found the going tough by the chapter on Martin and the academic colleague and if you're not Coetzee fan, I could see you not liking this at all. A review in the Singapore Times condemned it wholeheartedly. It's extremely clever the way it gets under Coetzee's skin through interviews with people I'm convinced are real. That says a lot.
on 20 December 2009
Coetzee seeks to make his readers uncomfortable, putting one on edge so one is never sure about one's emotional response. The fact that we all respond differently, and any response is fine, simply highlights Coetzee's ability to put us on the spot, making us feel as though we alone are experiencing a totally inappropriate reaction.
That edge is somewhat missing here as Coetzee commutes some of his usual forthright, no-holds-barred style in favour of a little navel gazing and self-certification. He recounts this period in his pseudo-autobiographical series by deploying a fictional writer, a biographer, who interviews a number of people who knew Coetzee, lover, cousin, colleague that sort of thing, in an effort to understand a little of the now deceased "great writer". Coetzee throws in these little judgements just to try and self-effacedly knock them down, metaphorically, but he never quite manages it. I was left with the sense that Coetzee wanted to appear even-handed, his fictional biographer would suggest he was a great writer but then fictional interviewee would say Coetzee would have laughed at the suggestion. Oh no he wouldn't, one comes away with the distinct impression that that's exactly what Coetzee feels, Nobel and double-Booker prize winner.
Meanwhile the interviews themselves are written as if in real time, moments of bracketed [silence] punctuating the transcript, the interviewer occasionally checking the interviewees meaning and whether it is alright to include that particular interlude in the book itself. Except it is a clunky device that doesn't ring true, it does not depict a likely exchange.
The stories the interviewees tell are insightful. His personal circumstances, relationship with his father, views of his own sexuality and social success and the political landscape paint a very definite picture of the man in the 1970s, albeit he is asking questions in retrospect that suggest he believes he does not really know himself after all. And that is the essence of this volume, it is Coetzee exploring just what he believes himself to be and coming up short of an answer.
It's not Booker material and some way from high standard.