In Boyhood and Youth, the Nobel Prize-winning South African writer J.M. Coetzee gave memoir the freedom of fiction by employing a third-person narrator and the oddly distancing present tense. The results were unforgettably vivid, evoking with equal sharpness a tense, alienated childhood in Cape Town and floundering post-college years as a computer programmer and would-be poet in London.
Summertime continues the story into the early 1970s, with the methods reversed: Although most readers will assume the book is autobiographical, it’s clearly labeled fiction, and the author, both as “John Coetzee” the character, and as omniscient narrator of that character’s story, is dead. Literally. The intriguing book we have in our hands is a collage. Fragments from Coetzee’s (or “John’s”) notebooks bookend five interviews conducted some time in the future by a young biographer, whose name is given only as Mr Vincent, with five people who knew Coetzee (or “John”) around the time he was living with his retired father in a Capetown suburb, teaching English, and writing, unbeknownst to most who knew him, his first two novels.
So what kind of a man was the secretive young writer? To his former lover Julia, he was “not fully human,” “like a glass ball,” sexually “autistic” — creepily, he insists that they make love by acting out the instrumental lines of Schubert’s string quintet. His earth-motherly cousin Margot, with whom he shared an intense childhood bond, describes him as cold, possessing a “Mister Know-All smile” and uses an Afrikaner vulgarism meaning lacking in determination.
Adriana, a fiery Brazilian dancer, is still irritated to have been pursued by this “soft,” unmanly man. Sophie, his colleague and lover at the university, is similarly underwhelmed: “I never had the feeling I was with an exceptional person, a truly exceptional human being.”
Another colleague, Martin, says of him that as a teacher, as a friend, “Something was always being held back.”
Readers of Coetzee’s books know what that something was: the fierce, bleak, imaginative life running in his head. The notebook fragments with which the book begins and ends give us the man the interviewees didn’t know, the one who writes in the third-person voice, at once flat and intense and remorseful, of Boyhood and Youth. There, he portrays South Africa pitilessly: the staggering violence, the aridity and complacency of Afrikaner culture, the moral corruption of apartheid.
He tries to understand his inexpressive, dying father, who had so little satisfaction even in his prime — rugby, drinking, a record of Renata Tebaldi — and now has none at all. He makes notes for stories: “In the back page of his diary he makes lists. One of them is headed ‘Ways of Doing Away with Oneself.’ In the left-hand column he lists ‘Methods,’ in the right-hand column ‘Drawbacks.’”
The barbed joke of Summertime is that the four women not only found the John they knew lacking as a person, they are also only mildly interested in his work. “I prefer my books to have proper heroes and heroines, characters you can admire,” Julia says.
“Yes, send it,” Adriana tells Mr Vincent with a laugh when he offers to mail her a copy of Foe, whose heroine he thinks she inspired. She adds, “I am interested to see what this man of wood made of me.”
Even when he was involved with the women, they had other preoccupations. Julia and Sophie had their bad marriages to deal with. Adriana was mourning her husband, gruesomely murdered in a break-in, and trying to keep her teenage daughters on the straight and narrow. Margot was struggling to keep her farm going as South Africa imploded.
John’s insistence on laying his own concrete, badly, rather than hire a laborer contrasts tellingly with the simple humanity of Margot, who works all week as a hotel bookkeeper to pay her farm workers a decent wage. The human connections he finds unbearable — “My difficulty consists in not wanting to live with other people,” he confesses at one point — are what life for these women is all about. In different ways he failed them all.
It’s tempting to see Summertime as Coetzee’s attempt to answer critics’ charges of misogyny by offering a quartet of humorous, mature, strong female characters who haven’t much use for their gloomy, self-absorbed author. One can also see them as resistant muses who upstage the writer by putting themselves at the center of a story that is supposed to be, after all, about him. Readers alert to writerly games about art and reality, however, will note that even if they are modeled after actual people, Julia and the rest are literary characters, the inventions of the novelist, who imagined for them the very qualities they think he does not possess.
So who, in the end, is pulling the rug out from under whom? Perhaps it is the mysterious Mr Vincent, who will take his research — “women’s gossip,” as the rather stuffy Martin calls it — and make yet another book, with yet another partial, provisional truth.
Does it matter that few readers will realize that the supposedly autobiographical stratum on which Summertime is based is itself a fiction? Coetzee did not actually spend the early 1970s living with his widowed father in a tumbledown shack: He was a married man with two children and a mother still very much alive. I’m not sure why Coetzee gives us an invented past. Perhaps he is warning us against lazy assumptions about the connections between books and life, fiction and autobiography. After all, the book is obviously a novel, so why should the reader assume it accurately depicts the writer’s life? Or does he assume that we know his biography as well as he does and are in on the game all along?
In any case, it’s a mark of Coetzee’s power as a storyteller that he makes a compelling, indeed, racing, narrative out of these hidden wheels within wheels. Even those who miss the intensity of Boyhood and Youth will find themselves turning pages as fast as they can.
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