Search the Community
Showing results for tags 'J. M. Coetzee'.
Found 3 results
This book follows a South African student from Cape Town who dreams of moving to Europe and becoming a poet. He obsesses with the idea of living life to its full intensity, so that these experiences can then be translated into his art. Having saved enough money to leave a homeland on the verge of a race-war, he moves to London to follow in the footsteps of some of his favourite poets, but rather than finding inspiration he instead ends up becoming an outsider, unable to communicate with those around him and stuck in a monotonous job. Frustrations mount as he is unable to sustain a relationship as the women he meets fail to notice the 'fire inside' him. Ultimately, he continually falls short in terms of his lifestyle, writing and relationships. I think the book is partly auto-biographical, in which case, Coetzee has given a frank and sometimes brutal, assessment of his younger self. I'm sure plenty of people will recognise the conflict between youthful idealism and the reality of the daily grind, and I suppose the book's greatest strength is the way the main character's hopes and dreams are gradually crushed until the ideals have been replaced with something akin to an acceptance of mediocrity.
Most writers integrate elements of their own lives into their work but the Nobel Literature Prize-winning South African author J.M. Coetzee - twice winner of the (Man) Booker Prize, and shortlisted again this year with this book - has taken a step further. Summertime is the third in his series of fictionalised authobiographies, following the much-acclaimed Boyhood and Youth. The premise of Summertime is that a writer named Vincent is working on a biography of the late - yes, Coetzee is dead in this novel - J.M.Coetzee. To this end, Vincent interviews five people who he believes have played pivotal roles in Coetzee's life. The five comprise Julia, a bitter ex-lover; Margot, Coetzee's favourite cousin; Adriana, the mother of a girl to whom Coetzee taught English; Martin, a teaching colleague; and Sophie, another ex-lover. The testimony of these people says as much about themselves as about Coetzee. Coetzee the author is unflinching in his willingness to document the criticisms of his characters for the Coetzee in the novel. The inevitable result of this is that the reader thinks first how modest and brave Coetzee the author must be to risk this tactic. Then there's a brief moment of wondering whether it's an extravagant double-bluff - perhaps we're meant to heap praise on the author to compensate for his courage and self deprecation. And finally, there's the realization that no, this is altogether more complex. There is indeed an element of catharsis, with the author re-treading ground such as his past politics that could truly be seen as self-reflection/criticism as well as uncomfortably delving into his own personal faults. But this book is more than the sum of its parts; it's actually a commentary on what it's like to be a writer. It deals with so many aspects of this writer's life - the tendency to preserve a part of oneself intact; to keep emotional distance and not get involved; artistic licence and when it's acceptable to fictionalise one's experiences for the sake of a story (there is a section about making up details for the preface to a novel as well as fictioneering diaries and letters that may or may not be true,); the dangers of allowing one's philosophical beliefs to overcome practicalities. But it also deals with universal aspects of writing. There is the tendency of Vincent the biographer to embellish his interviewee's accounts to enrich the story, the conflict between a novelist's desire to follow their vocation and the need to earn a regular wage. And Summertime also touches on many other aspects of life - familial duty to ageing parents with whom one may not get on and relationships and the balance they require between self-protective reserve and risky emotional honesty to name but two. The first interviewee is Julia, who had a relationship with the fictional Coetzee in the early 1970s when she was married. She provides a scathing account of Coetzee in every respect. Despite Vincent's wishes, she insists on drawing Coetzee as a bit-player in the drama of her own life, the central character being very much herself. Her unflattering picture of Coetzee borders on the vicious: she describes Coetzee as being 'socially inept', 'repressed', 'neither handsome nor appealing', and 'as having no sexual presence whatsoever. It was as though he had been sprayed from head to toe with a neutralising spray, a neutering spray.' She doesn't hold back - he was, in her view, 'incompetent', a 'failure', 'not in her league', and 'merely adequate' and 'competent' in bed. She even goes so far as to suggest he had an autistic element. 'Sex with him lacked all thrill,' she says with disdain. Yet she goes on to describe one episode where their sex was the most memorably wonderful she's ever had, suggesting that the holding back both physically and emotionally was not solely her lover's . Julia's section shows that even intelligent people who believe in their ability to be objective are inevitably bogged down in the subjectivity of their own baggage. Julia also displays staggering lack of insight for anyone leave alone a bright psychotherapist - at one point she wonders why her servant girl Maria, a single mother of seven, two of whom are her dead sister's children, didn't clear away a used condom under the bed which Julia's husband later finds. It doesn't enter her head that her breezy arrogance and life of adulterous leisure might have grated on her overworked, underpaid servant. Margot, Coetzee's favourite cousin, provides the most tender testimony of them all. Her story touches on distant memories of the love they had for each other as small children. Margot's concern for Coetzee's austere, parched life - as arid as the land around them - is evident, but even she feels frustration at her cousin's stubborness, such as his insistence on learning dead languages and fixing his ramshackle car himself out of shame at the way menial work in their society is delegated to blacks. The latter leads to a night stranded in the cold when Margot agrees to accompany Coetzee on a drive. It is at moments like this that the force of Coetzee the author's talents are evident; his insight into emotions and his ability to convey situations are conveyed elegantly in simple but powerful language: 'She is not yet miserable; she is still removed enough from their situation to find it grimly amusing. But that will soon change. They have nothing to eat, nothing to drink save water from the can, which smells of petrol. Cold and hunger are going to gnaw away at her fragile good humour. Sleeplessness too, in due course.' Adriana, the third interviewee, was a Brazilian dancer turned dance teacher at the time she encountered Coetzee. Her vitriolic commentary on Coetzee, which stretches to his writing as well as his person, is entirely based on her (almost certainly false) belief that Coetzee was sexually interested in her teenage daughter who was in his tutoring class for English. Coetzee embarks on a doomed one-way letter correspondence with Adriana, transfixed and drawn like a moth, it seems, by the flame of her beauty and contempt. Coetzee the author may or may not be making a statement on his attraction to indifferent and frankly hostile women; the thrill of the chase is a romantic concept that leads many a creative person to be enthralled by unsuitable individuals. As at many points in this novel, the reader finds themselves wondering how much the fictional Coetzee has in common with the author; how much is confessional and how much pure fabrication. The two people without axes to grind are Martin, an ex-colleague, and Sophie, another ex-colleague with whom the fictional Coetzee had an affair. Their accounts of the subject are much more measured and less tainted by personal poison than those of Julia and Adriana. One interesting section in Sophie's account deals with Coetzee's past political beliefs. She relays that Coetzee had been a believer in 'Romantic primitivism'; a belief that in African people, 'body and soul were indistinguishable'. If this is true of the author Coetzee as well as the fictional character, the author may be exorcising his political demons here: while his politics have always been liberal compared with the fascist views of Apartheid era South Africa, the theory of primitivism is shockingly outdated and racist by today's standards, despite Coetzee's obvious affection and respect for his black countrymen. But then, the reader never knows how much the fictional Coetzee's views coincide with the author's, just as we are left wondering about how closely the personality traits of the two resemble each other. It is almost impossible not to muse on this, especially at raw, shocking parts like the notes in which the character Coetzee works on a short story idea about a man clearly based on himself planning the best way to commit suicide. One hopes that Summertime will not be an epitaph in the way that Joy Division's Closer was; seen, in retrospect, to so clearly be the work of a suicidal genius plagued by ghosts of his failings. Despite this nagging fear, Summertime is never a depressing read. There are very poignant sections, such as the part where Coetzee relates that after hating Italian opera for decades on principle because his father had loved it - '...that he might despise it simply because his father loved it' - he realises that actually, the music is beautiful. Or this line, where Coetzee recounts his elderly father setting off wordlessly by himself for the rugby game: '...it went through his heart like a knife, the first Saturday after his return to the country, to see his father put on his coat and without a word go off to Newlands like a lonely child.' And there are parts steeped in regret, such as this line about when the fictional Coetzee's father is in hospital after extensive surgery for cancer of the larynx: 'There is nothing more to say. He could stretch out and take his father's hand and hold it, to comfort him, to convey to him that he is not alone, that he is loved and cherished. But he does no such thing.' At times elegiac, at others reflective, often funny and always thought-provoking, Summertime is a beautiful book, part confessional, part fiction, though we will never know in exactly what proportions, and will undoubtedly fulfil the fictional Coetzee's wish to live on after his death through his work.
This was an extremely challenging read for me, both in terms of structure and content. It was also engaging, wise, slightly sentimental and provocative by turns. JC is an ageing South African writer, now resident in Australia (so far, so autobiographical). He is invited by a German publisher to contribute to a book of opinion pieces and one strand of the narrative is his opinions. A second strand is his relationship with Anya who lives in another apartment in the same building as him and a third is Anya's relationship with her partner. Structurally, it was challenging, because each page contains either two or three separate threads, separated by a line and the threads are not discrete to that page. I ended up reading each thread until it ran out and then going back to the second thread etc. 3 bookmarks job! If you can get past this structure, the content is challenging in that some of JC's opinions seen designed to be provocative, and some are incredibly philosophical and astute. This isn't something to read on the bus on the way to work - I had to concentrate. However, the rewards were worth the effort. The contrast between JC's somewhat high brow approach and Anya's more down-to-earth approach is touching and the reader sees them both learning to see things from a different angle. The contrast between JC and Anya's partner is almost painful: the partner coming up with a ruse to steal from JC and Anya finding that her feelings are protective and moral is compelling reading. JMC doesn't resort to fluffy endings either, which I prefer when they aren't appropriate. I enjoyed this on balance. I had only read Disgrace in the past, and will now look out for more. Zebra