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leyla

Summertime

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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.

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I suspect this is a book which can be read on many levels. At a superficial level it appears to be about JM Coetzee but on a deeper reading, it is far more about the various interviewees. If John Coetzee, the invisible central character, is taken to be a constant then what is interesting is not so much piecing together the different perceptions of him, but rather to explore what it is about the interviewees that can cause such different reactions. Obviously, relationships are two way so there will be an element of situational difference in the relationships, but mostly I think John Coetzee (who is not the author) serves as a mirror for us to observe the interviewees. The interviewer, too, is instrumental in this purpose, bringing a constant approach to bear with different interviewees. It is interesting to compare the degrees of control that each interviewee needs to have over the interview.

 

For me, a fundamental, central theme was how each of the characters (and John Coetzee) reconciled the present realpolitik with having lived through Apartheid in South Africa. If you visit RSA, one of the striking things is how few people seemed to have supported the Apartheid regime. Everyone has their little anecdote to demonstrate that they were never comfortable with what was going on. Whether it was by building their own concrete bases; or considering themselves foreign; or being nice to their maid; or having coloured people at their night classes; everyone has their own rationalization. Yet the National Party won election after election. One of life's great mysteries, I guess. Summertime was centred around the early 1970s, but very much set in the 2000s.

 

Summertime is a very mature, complex novel but it wears its profundity lightly. Many of the narratives have a comedy at play too, so I expect it would have appealed to mass readers too who were only interested in looking at it at a superficial level. It's a shame it didn't win the Booker Prize. I haven't read Wolf Hall, but it would have a hard job indeed to surpass this work of genius.

 

*****

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Summertime is a very mature, complex novel but it wears its profundity lightly.

It's especially to the book's credit that it can be read as an interesting political novel by readers with an interest in South African politics, just as it can be read as an interesting work of really quite experimental fiction by people whose interest is more in literature and literary theory.

 

And apart from all that - and mostly - just be a bloody good read!!

 

I haven't read Wolf Hall, but it would have a hard job indeed to surpass this work of genius.

I feel the same. (I wonder if Coetzee might have stood a better chance were he not an already double-winner?)

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(I wonder if Coetzee might have stood a better chance were he not an already double-winner?)
I think so.

 

A friend has been urging me to read Boyhood and Youth for ages, so I think I'll get all three now.

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I think so.

 

A friend has been urging me to read Boyhood and Youth for ages, so I think I'll get all three now.

I'll be looking out for those too. It'll be interesting to see how they compare.

 

EDIT: I was just reading the review of Summertime in the TLS. The writer notes that

In its form and narrative techniques, Summertime is considerably more complex than its predecessors, especially in complicating the relationship between fact and fiction.
so I'm not sure that I'll enjoy the other books quite as much.

 

That fact/fiction thing was one aspect of Summertime that I really enjoyed. It made me think a lot of certain Roth novels - particularly the Zuckerman ones. Have you read those?

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I suppose I should resist writing this until I have finished reading the book, but I was curious to see what other BGOLers thought about it. I think it is an absolutely brilliant book - Coetzee writes unlike any other author I know, his language is a joy to read, and emotionally he pushes the boundaries into the depths of himself. For me it resonates. He uses the book to explore himself and there are no gloves on : everything is open to examination. I guess I sound incoherent! Emotionally he gets below the skin and because I felt disturbed and exhilarated, I gave myself a break and went to watch a TV programme I had recorded and found myself in tears (a good programme about Dementia Care homes but not something what would usually reduce me to tears.) Leyla's summary is masterly and gets it just right.

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I've just finished reading this and loved it till the last 20pages when I found that the notes from his notebook - when Coetzee (the character) is writing about himself in the third person was just that little bit too much. I loved the interviews, the interviewees lives and stories and was surprised at how easy they were to read.

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Until Summertime I'd not read a Coetzee novel since Life and Times of Micheal K. Of the two I much prefer the earlier one because it's a novel you can lose yourself in, following the plot and identifying with the characters in the way we used to. These days many of our novelists have a tendency to play games with their own lives, giving us a cross between a confession and a novel, often using their own names, like for instance Martin Amis in Money, Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night and, although he has the decency to give his hero a fictional name, more recently David Lodge in Deaf Sentence. In all of these I ask myself the question: 'What the hell is going on here?' I wonder if these writers are at the end of their novelistic rope, throwing out scraps to a starving public hungry for real fiction. The problem is that. like Coetzee in Summertime , they tend to become obsessed with the notion of writing - the protagonists are often writers themselves, self-consciouslly plying their trade, very reader-aware, even as Coetzee is here in the passage quoted below, analysing and philosophising about the nature of fiction, getting into novelistics to amuse the reader - as here, where Coetzee's resourceful biographer interviews Mme Denoel, one of his subject's former Cape Town university colleagues and tells us:

 

Mme Denoel, I have been through the letters and diaries. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record - not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioner. In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing much the same for his own eyes, or perhaps for posterity.

 

These Nabokov-type games are played out for our amusement, but they soon become tedious. Of course, we all know that we are fiction-writers in our minds, that we adopt different personae in different situations, that personality is a role and an illusion. That's old hat, something we found out in the Sixties, or maybe before. What we don't want in a novel is an author reiterating this in expository prose disguised - often pretty badly as here - as a character's voice. Let the story speak! Do not give us the author in motley! So, although the story had its revealing and moving moments (especially in its presentation of the father-son relationship) it annoyed me by persisently drawing my attention to the fact that I was reading a novel by a very clever writer.

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