Writer and friend, Jack Harris, reviews J.M. Coetzee's Booker shortlisted novel, Summertime.
Anyone who despises the genre of the celebrity confessional, this work, which Coetzee himself has described as ‘autre-biography’, will meet with their solid approval. As self-deprecatory as any 15th century flagellant, Coetzee uses a unique blend of metafictive devices to explore the ‘summer’ (or at least part of it) of his life. Two previous volumes ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Youth’ describe earlier periods using a far less tricksy approach. (Indeed ‘Boyhood’ is described as a memoir.) In Summertime he presents a researcher, Vincent, who is investigating the life of a John Coetzee, recently dead in Australia. He has fragments of Coetzee’s notebooks at his disposal and he has also tracked down two of his lovers, a parent of a former pupil, an academic colleague and a cousin of the period. Their reminisces of him are divulged in a series of interviews with the researcher. The notebooks, which compared to the revelations of these individuals are relatively bland and cursory, envelop transcripts of the interviews. Simple you say. But it takes the talent of a Nobel Laureate (2003) and twice Booker Prize winner (1983 and 1999) to discover such simplicity in a conceit and use it so effectively. The prose is also exceptionally straightforward but meaningful. You will not find one big word or expansive phrase in the piece and nowhere do you get the sense that this writer is deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which to me is the mark of great writing.
For those unfamiliar with Coetzee’s work, he has written several of the finest contemporary novels, including Life Times of Michael K (1983), Foe (1986), Age of Iron (1990), The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Disgrace (1999). He is an artist; his prose is elegant, it has acres of sincerity and an unswerving logic. They are frank, informed, and are dominated by the relationship between art and life. Few writers have explored human fear, anger, shame and failure as sensitively and nevertheless with such humour. One of the interviewed:
In appearance he was not what most people would call attractive. He was scrawny, he had a beard, he wore horn-rimmed glasses and sandals. He looked out of place, like a bird, one of those flightless birds; or like an abstracted scientist who had wandered by mistake out of his laboratory. There was an air of seediness about him too, an air of failure.
This man was disembodied. He was divorced from his body. To him, the body was like one of those wooden puppets that you move with strings. You pull this string and the left arm moves, you pull that string and the right leg moves. And the real self sits up above, where you cannot see him, like the puppet-master pulling the strings.
Since the Nobel Prize in 2003 he has exclusively used a variety of metafictive, postmodern devices in his work. Too numerous to detail all the ploys but there is an increasing suspicion that he is embarked upon a careful evaluation of himself and his life through his personal beliefs, politics, his relationship with family, friends, lovers and indeed his own work or literary legacy. He is particularly hard on himself in the latter (albeit mouthed through one of the interviewees) suggesting:
In general his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in precision.
The niggardly have suggested he is leaving little for the biographer; one even suggesting that in his next novel he’ll probably write the reviews of it and somehow incorporate them into the work. End of.
Neither of his lovers, or would be lovers, have much good to say of him or his sexuality. ‘Spineless, sexless and bookish’ is one opinion. Julia, probably the most sympathetic of those interviewed remembers an occasion when he attempted to synchronise his love making with Schubert’s String Quintet which prompted her to categorise him as an ‘autistic’ lover one who ‘mistook his wife for a violin’.
He has previously been accused of not being forthright about the politics of South Africa. Patently these people have not read his work. Along with his pitiable record of gregariousness (one academic colleague who sat through a number of dinner parties with him said on some occasions he failed to utter one word all night; another that in the ten years he had worked with him he heard him laugh only once), which he freely admits in Summertime, politics has been the major theme of his work but in a subtle, allusive way. He loathes the bland language of contemporary politics so he appears to have never fully engaged, but nearly all of his books set in South Africa are marinated in the bleak atmosphere of apartheid catching ‘the undertow of suspicion within South Africa's claustrophobic, unpoetic, overtly macho society’ to perfection. Through the notebook fragments and interviews, we see Coetzee take on two problems: how to reconcile his cultural, intellectual and ethical attitudes with the reality of living in apartheid-era, in a country that seems emphatically philistine and ideologically bankrupt. Significantly, we find the John Coetzee of Summertime identifying himself not with the broader South Africa, but the beleaguered Afrikaner minority of the Cape. The African majority is forever inaccessible to him and his inner world. It’s another courageous admission. I imagine he now lives in Australia, among other reasons, so he doesn’t have to subscribe to empty sloganising about the Rainbow Nation.
Unlike his failure to appear on both occasions when awarded the Booker Prize, he did manage to show up for the Nobel ceremony in 2003, but instead of giving the customary lecture read a story about Robinson Crusoe (albeit a profound allegory which still eludes me). I wonder if he had won this year’s Booker (he made the short-list), whether the judges were concerned about a third no-show or perhaps more importantly whether they considered this a proper novel. In an interview with David Attridge in 2002, Coetzee asserted that “all autobiography is autre-biography”, or the biography of another. “Genre definitions”, he said, "– at least those definitions employed by ordinary readers – are quite crude. What if the writer wants to trouble the boundaries of the genre? Does the autobiographical pact between writer and reader – the pact that says that, at the very least, the reader will be told no outright, deliberate lies – trump the disquiet one may feel about the quite crude definition of lying that many readers may hold?” He uses his Summertime interviewees to further expound on this thesis, having the audacity to remind Julia what she said of his first (real) novel. “Is it fiction?" Julia asks of Coetzee’s Dusklands. "Sort of" comes the reply.
The work of a ‘fictioneer’, to use a word he uses to describe his craft, is a form of art that cannot have a simple relationship to truth. Sophie, herself a literary critic, tells Vincent in the course of their interview, ‘He believed our life-stories are ours to construct as we wish, within or even against the constraints imposed by the real world’.