Summertime

 summertime

Since the publication of the previous volume of his fictionalised memoirs, Youth, in 2002, Coetzee does seem to have, in the words of Hermione Lee, given up story-telling, at least in terms of linear narrative. Elisabeth Costello is largely a series of essays (or ‘lessons’) delivered by his eponymous alter-ego; Costello appears again in Slow Man, usurping the narrative as the author of Paul Rayment’s story; in Diary of a Bad Year we are treated to three narratives running along side each other, each in a different voice, the first and second being that of yet another Coetzee stand-in. What do we learn from this? Not that Coetzee is tired of writing, but that he is frustrated by the constraints of the traditional novel; that he has views he wishes to communicate to us, not necessarily obliquely; and that he seeks to understand himself by creating characters that are little more than ciphers, and viewing them through the eyes of other characters.

This last point in particular feeds into Summertime, which covers the years 1972 to 1977 when Coetzee returned to South Africa after spending some time in America. The novel is presented largely as series of interviews conducted by a researcher into Coetzee’s life who is planning a book. These interviews are presented in what we are encouraged to feel is an unedited form, that is, closer to the truth. Alongside the interviews, book-ending the novel, are some fragments from Coetzee’s notebooks – each followed by a note suggesting what he intends to develop to produce what this volume would have been had it followed in the pattern of Boyhood and Youth. This is one of the few examples in the novel of Coetzee the writer – most of the interviewees have little idea of or interest in this side of him. Clearly writing is very important to him at this time (Dusklands, his first novel, is published) and a narrative where he was the central character would have focussed on this. Instead, this is the story of Coetzee the man – and, so we are led to believe, not much of a man.

All bar one of the interviews are with women, and each of them is dismissive in their way. The first woman, Julia, a bored housewife who has a brief affair with him, describes him as having:

“…no sexual presence whatsoever. It was as though he had been sprayed from head to toe with a neutralizing spray.”

His cousin, Margot, a close friend from childhood, wonders:

“Why is there no male aura about him?…Is her cousin, if not a moffie, then a eunuch?”

Adriana, a Brazilian woman he pursues unsuccessfully, having taught her daughter English, comments:

“For me it was not natural to have feelings for a man like that, a man who was so soft….there was a quality he did not have that a woman looks for in a man, a quality of strength, of manliness.”

Coetzee is not so much presenting the different views of three women, as one view channelled through the three characters, a view that is far from flattering. Coetzee’s apparent obsession with himself in his recent fiction does not rise from arrogance; on the contrary, he seems to be presenting a harsher picture than would be normally felt fair. (I don’t mean fair to Coetzee, whom I do not know, but fair compared to what we would expect from someone trying to be truthful) In his experimentation in search of the truth, Coetzee is beginning to remind me of B. S. Johnston – though whereas Johnson was surprised when he wasn’t seen as a great writer, Coetzee – or certainly his characters – seem surprised when he is.

This painful exposure of an emotional lack is both repulsive and fascinating – like a child picking at a scab. However, this is not an ego-centric novel, and what made it, for me, probably his best since Disgrace, is the way in which he reveals through the interviews, the lives of his female characters. Julia talks as much about her marriage as her affair; similarly, Margot talks about her own marriage and that of her sister. Adriana discusses the problems she faces when her husband is gravely injured and eventually dies. All three talk about the way children, or the lack of them, affect their lives. If Coetzee does anything to prove that he does not lack the empathy suggested, it is in his portrayal of these women. When you put this beside a portrait of 1970s South Africa and the changes it was already undergoing – exemplified, in many ways, by Coetzee’s father – you have a very rich novel that only a number of readings will do justice to.

Don’t be put off by the label ‘experimental’, or the lack of a linear storyline. This is a novel that tells many stories, and all of them are worth hearing.

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One Response to “Summertime”

  1. Books of the Year « 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Summertime by J.M. Coetzee […]

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