Author of his own solitude
FICTION: Summertime,. By JM Coetzee, Harvill Secker, 266pp, £17.99
ONLY THE GREAT JM Coetzee would write an autobiography such as this; only the great Coetzee would continue his autobiography- as-fiction like this, with a book written in the form of a biography being researched about him after his death. This is the third instalment of a life so reserved, so repressed, so seething with polite rage and restrained despair that it could only be approached through a third-person voice, and here that voice is further distanced by the services of an earnest biographer complete with tape recorder. Coetzee is writing the story of a man who has lived his life in his head and at a distance from people. It is wonderful stuff. But then, Coetzee is wonderful; edgy, black, remorselessly human, witty, and often outright funny.
Summertime– the title alone is rife with ironies and may refer to the summertime of his life – introduces the biographer, a young English academic, researching the years 1972-77, when his subject, “the late writer John Coetzee”, is in his thirties and living with his elderly father in organised squalor. Having taught at university level in the US, the writer has returned to South Africa and, when not teaching English, is pouring concrete to reinforce the walls of the collapsing house he and his father inhabit.
Coetzee emerges as a man on the edge. He has no friends, nor does his father. In attempting to piece together the life, the biographer conducts a series of long interviews with people who knew Coetzee during this period.
It is an interesting ploy. After the end of apartheid, and six years after winning the Nobel Prize, Coetzee continues to reinvent himself. Boyhoodwas published in 1997 and came as a mystery. Was it a memoir? Or was it a novel? It was certainly as funny, as terrifying and as cruel as life itself. Written in the continuous present tense, it exudes a vivid urgency. In it, young John is both tyrant and coward: “He is a liar and he is cold-hearted too; a liar to the world in general, cold-hearted to his mother.”
He is also an exam machine who suffers the shame of being overly protected by his mother, a woman who compensates for her disappointing life by treating motherhood as martyrdom. An unhappy, bookish little prince at home, where “he has never worked out the position of his father in the household”, the boy is “an irascible despot” who, though failing to shine on the sports field, achieves anxious triumphs in the classroom. The narrative follows the boy from the age of 10 to 13 and leaves no doubt as to the direction his life will take. The family moves to Capetown, where John no longer dominates exams. He has a rival, Oliver, a clever Swiss boy. Luckily for the young John, Oliver dies (“The threat has receded . . . but the old pleasure in coming first is spoiled”).
Youth(2002) has a slight shift: if Boyhoodseems more novel than memoir, Youth is more memoir than novel. It continues the story in the sense that it takes up Coetzee’s preferred theme: unhappiness. Young John, the boy who favoured the Russians over the Americans when he was a child, is now a student, living in a room and still a prisoner of his misery. It is the early 1960s and in post-Sharpeville South Africa an aspiring artist has no choice but flight to Europe:
There are two, perhaps three, places where life can be lived at its fullest intensity: London, Paris, perhaps Vienna. Paris comes first: city of love, city of art. But to live in Paris one must have gone to the kind of upper-class school that teaches French. As for Vienna, Vienna is for Jews coming back to reclaim their birthright; logical positivism, 12-tone music, psychoanalysis. That leaves London, where South Africans do not need to carry papers and where people speak English.
So the quest begins for art and love; well, really, beauty and perfection. It all begins badly with a job teaching social studies and swimming. But John can’t swim.
COETZEE HAS WRITTENseveral of the finest contemporary novels, including Life Times of Michael K(1983), Foe(1986), Age of Iron(1990), The Master of Petersburg(1994), Disgrace(1999) and Slow Man(2005). He is an artist; his prose is elegant, it shimmers with unsettling logic. His novels are candid, informed, and investigate the complex relationship between art and life.
Few writers have explored human fear, anger, shame and failure as cohesively. For all the intensity and scorching honesty, there is also humour. These fictionalised memoirs miss no opportunity to see the comedy lurking in the shadows, ever ready to trip up the dour, awkward John Coetzee.
Coetzee is brilliant on the subject of emotional paralysis. In Youth, John subjects his unfortunate lovers to a coldness born more of his inherent ineptitude than of deliberate nastiness. In culture lies his salvation – or so he thinks. Youth certainly presents the artist as misfit: “Misery is his element. He is at home in misery like a fish in water . . . Happiness, he tells himself, teaches one nothing. Misery, on the other hand, steels one for the future.”
Although Summertimecould be read independently, it won’t be, because Coetzee readers read all his work. And the two previous volumes set the scene for this book of revelations. Throughout it, there is a strong sense of the older, wiser Coetzee looking back with amused horror at the mess he once was, perhaps still is. The various interviewees, mainly women, leave no doubt as to his breathtaking awkwardness.
One of them, a successful therapist, recalls her relationship with the late writer. It happened when her then husband had proved unfaithful: “Then let me correct myself,” she says to the biographer/interviewer, “An erotic entanglement. Because, young and self- centred as I was then, it would have been hard for me to love, really love someone as radically incomplete as John.” This former lover emerges as a vain, selfish character – Coetzee’s women are neither fools nor victims.
The biographer moves on to kindly Margot, a cousin. She recalls going on an outing with John which ends in his shaky pick-up truck breaking down. When she suggests that he should get a proper mechanic to look at it, his response is characteristically stilted: “I am sorry. The fault is mine. I try to do things myself when I ought really to leave them to more competent hands. It’s because of the country we live in.” Margot cannot let this remark stand unchallenged. “The country we live in? Why is it the country’s fault that your truck keeps breaking down?” Coetzee replies, as if out of a textbook: “Because of our long history of making other people do our work for us while we sit in the shade and watch.”
Later, after they have been rescued, Margot quizzes him about his insane plan to move his father and himself out to a shack in the countryside. John then makes it clear that the shack may be intended only for himself: “My difficulty consists in not wanting to live with other people.” The outsider theme is consistent: within his family he is an outsider, within the wider world he also stands apart.
When the biographer tracks down a Brazilian woman whose daughter was once taught English by John, the comedy, which has been bubbling, erupts. The woman, Adriana, is blunt, fearful that he had designs on her child. Then John arrives at her flat and, in Adriana’s words:
I could see at once he was no god. He was in his early thirties, I estimated, badly dressed, with badly cut hair and a beard that he shouldn’t have worn like a beard, his beard was too thin. Also he struck me at once, I can’t say why, as célibataire. I mean not just unmarried but also not suited to marriage, like a man who has spent his life in the priesthood . . .
This sequence is dominated by a doomed picnic killed completely by heavy rain. Adriana recalls, after more than 30 years, the image of John and his father, “those two Dutchmen, the father and the son, sitting together side by side under a tree trying to pretend they were not cold and wet”. Ultimately John makes his pursuit of the mother, Adriana, obvious, by attending the dance classes she teaches: “he had no feeling for dance . . . He was not at ease in his body. He moved as though his body was a horse that he was riding, a horse that did not like its rider and was resisting.” This petulant, now elderly, Brazilian woman lives off the page, and Coetzee makes her exasperation real.
HAVING DEMOLISHED ANYidea of the strange Coetzee as romantic hero, he then moves on to consider the writer. In a fascinating sequence featuring Sophie, a French academic who was his lover during the period the biographer is researching, Coetzee assesses his literary legacy. For all the distance, there is intense engagement. He is answering many questions in this book: he is putting the record straight on his politics and his art, and on his position in his country. “Was he at ease with anyone?” asks Sophie, responding to the biographer. “He never relaxed . . . Was he at ease with black people? No . . . he saw Africa through a romantic haze. He thought of Africans as embodied, in a way that had been lost long ago in Europe . . . His philosophy ascribed to Africans the role of guardians of the truer, deeper, more primitive being of mankind.”
He gives Sophie the final word on his work as “Too easy. Too lacking in passion.” Yet Coetzee is so clever, and the final word in this terrific performance is ultimately contained in what seems a casual insight in notes at the close of the book. As a young man he had focused exclusively on Bach, shunning the Italian opera so beloved by his father; he then discovers Verdi and Puccini for himself.
Summertimeis offbeat and deliberate, elusive and truthful. Coetzee the artist remains mercury on a spoon.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times