"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 31, 2011

"Summertime" by J.M. Coetzee (Book review)

Summertime (2009) is - as of this writing - the latest novel by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee. The writer "John Coetzee" is deceased and a fictitious biographer, Mr Vincent, has interviews with five different persons to compile materials on his life. He concentrates on the 1970s, after Coetzee returned from the United States to South Africa. Some fragments from Coetzee's notebooks are also given. Presumably, these are all rough drafts to be worked on later.

Four of the persons interviewed are women: two former lovers (Julia, with whom "John Coetzee" had a brief affair that led to the dissolution of her marriage; Sophie, a former French teacher at Capetown University), a cousin, Margot, and a Brazilian woman whose daughter was taught English by Coetzee (she accuses Coetzee of making overtures to both her and her teenage daughter). The basic theme in their stories is Coetzee's inability to build a relationship with women. He is even called autistic in his lovemaking. Coetzee is not only blasted as son, as teacher and as lover, on top of that none of the interviewed thinks he is a great writer. His views on South Africa and apartheid are also made to look problematical. The whole book is one fest of self-depreciation.

Coetzee is the most reclusive of modern writers. He doesn't see why readers should be at all interested in his private life. Isn't it, in fact, immoral to be interested in the life of one Coetzee, just because he is a famous writer? Without mentioning them, this novel is the great "anti" to our popular press with its paparazzi, TV shows where lives are publicly dissected and our tendency to seek everywhere for human interest and emotion (not to mention Facebook).

It is also post-modernism over the top. Coetzee imagines a fictional biographer, who has interviews with fictional persons, who give fictional information about a fictional writer John Coetzee – five layers of fiction! In reality, in the period described here, instead of being the loner who could not connect with others, Coetzee was married and had two sons.
Far from being a bona fide autobiography, this is an anti-autobiography, bending the facts of Coetzee's life because he doesn’t want us to pry in it. It is also a great joy to see the author at play with these materials.
I read Summertime in the Penguin edition.