Posted on | August 21, 2009 | 14 Comments
When the Man Booker longlist was announced I was excited to see J. M. Coetzee’s inclusion on it, for Summertime. Although I had only read my first book by Coetzee, Disgrace, earlier that month I was excited to read more by him, especially following the great experience that was my primary encounter with his work. I was lucky enough to obtain a copy of Summertime pre-publication (due to be published September 3rd in the UK) and could not resist reading it more or less immediately.
Summertime is a fictionalised memoir of the author himself, who appears in the third-person via memories recounted by individuals who featured during this period of his life and through his own notebooks, research gathered together by a young English biographer. It is the last in a trilogy that began with Boyhood and progressed to Youth, neither of which I have read. However, I don’t think it is a requirement to read the others as Summertime works well as a stand-alone and rarely mentions Coetzee’s earlier life; the only time I found myself curious about something, mentioned frequently but not elaborated upon, was in reference to his expulsion from the United States, although I’m not even sure if that features in the earlier works. This allusion to events prior to 1972-77 -the period the biographer is researching and when Coetzee was in his thirties, living in Cape Town with his widowed father, and “finding his feet as a writer”- is interesting in terms of the literary construct of the novel: Summertime is very much a fraction of the whole, a glimpse of a life, but works independently of it. It is difficult to describe how Summertime functions so completely and resembles a novel that goes from a-z when it is not complete, and it only covers l-p in the fictional Coetzee’s life, but it does; I was never left feeling dissatisfied and as if I was missing the bigger picture.
That leads me to distinguishing between Coetzee, the character, and Coetzee, the novelist. I suspended belief when approaching this novel as I don’t think it is an accurate memoir, nor do I think it is supposed to be, nor do I want it to be. I think that Coetzee is incredibly clever in achieving what he has, even if I am not entirely sure what that is. Like Disgrace, Summertime is an exceptionally though-provoking read, and I find myself struggling to order and convey those thoughts. Summertime is very much a meditation on being an author and whether by putting words on paper, you are thus putting yourself on paper, immortalising yourself and, consequently, belonging to the reader. I struggle with this concept. People in the public eye should be afforded privacy and those in the literary world are not part of our world, it is their words that are, but neither are our property.
I attempted to divide John Coetzee, the character, and J.M. Coetzee, the writer, in my mind to prevent discombobulation and brain explosion. I believe that J. M. Coetzee is either creating a persona for himself or thumbing his nose at the media and public who have created the persona for him, either of which I respect. I admire Coetzee’s sheer ambition and scope of this work. Although Summertime spans a short period of time it engages with large literary questions regarding the relationship between author and reader and of literary biography, questions that will remain with me, whilst I attempt to figure out the answers and what I would like them to be. Summertime is not plot-driven but works in a sequence of notes and interviews, the content of which is often dramatised. The biographer never meets John Coetzee and the distant and detached, self-effacing, mysterious character that is presented is done so through the [biased] memories of others and via his own notebooks, that may have been doctored for public perception. I was also given the sense that this was a posthumous biography and that Coetzee was being immortalised post-mortem. I have even less of an idea of J.M. Coetzee as a person now than I did before reading the novel, everything is a fiction but his words, and not a sense of him, are what stay with me, and that, I think, is the point.
Immortality of a kind, a limited immortality, is not so hard to achieve after all. Why then does he persist in inscribing marks on paper, in the faint hope that people not yet born will take the trouble to decipher them?
[A]m I wrong about John Coetzee? Because to me, frankly, he was not anybody. He was not a man of substance. Maybe he could write well, maybe had a certain talent for words, I don’t know, I never read his books, I was never curious to read them. I know he won a big reputation later; but was he really a great writer? Because to my mind, a talent for words is not enough of you want to be a great writer. You also have to be a great man. And he was not a great man.
It would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life.
I did not read all of them. After Disgrace I lost interest. In general I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion. That’s all.
Nobel Laureate Coetzee has won the Booker twice, apparently controversially, so will he be the first author to win for a third time? I think there is a very good chance and that Summertime is an attempt in “deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before“.