Like Philip Larkin in ‘Posterity’, imagining an American lecturer yawning over his research into an ‘old-type natural fouled-up guy’, J.M. Coetzee places himself in the shoes of a notional English biographer gathering the material that will make sense of the years that followed his 1972 return to South Africa. The result is Summertime, third part of Coetzee’s semi-fictionalised biographical trilogy.
Two previous volumes — Boyhood and Youth — recounted the author’s childhood in the Western Cape as the son of middle-class Afrikaners and his move to London, where he tried his hand as a computer programmer. Like Summertime, both of those books used the distancing third person, as though Coetzee simply could not bear the intimacy of a life conveyed first-hand. In this volume he goes one step further along the path of self-elimination, viewing his experience exclusively via the insights of outsiders, almost all of them women.
The distance allows Coetzee to demonstrate a cool mercilessness towards his own self few authors would stomach. The adult Coetzee, it seems, is a sorry specimen. Limp, bloodless, he elicits impatience, near disgust from those who meet him. Julia, a married neighbour who bedded him, found that ‘sex with him lacked all thrill’. ‘I presume his mother must have taken to him, when he was little, and loved him, because that is what mothers are there for,’ she meditates. ‘But it was hard to imagine anyone else doing so.’
Margot, a cousin, is kinder. Her memories of a reunion at the family farm in the bleak Karoo tells us something about the agonised bond Coetzee feels with the land of his forefathers. But even she judges him a ‘lightweight’, ‘who ran away to the big world and now comes creeping back to the little world with his tail between his legs.’ As for Adriana, the widowed Brazilian dance teacher with whom Coetzee becomes infatuated, she pretty much loathes him, dismissing him as ‘soft’, ‘weak’, ‘still a boy’, and — most devastatingly — ‘not a man of substance’.
Is Coetzee, a Nobel prize winner admired around the world for the rigour and sensitivity of his writing, indulging in a prolonged intellectual joke here, or does he genuinely believe this is how others view him?
His skill at getting under the skin of his five separate characters is undeniable. Each voice is rendered with such empathy and concision, he seems at times to be almost showing off, reminding us just how good he can be when limiting himself to a more conventional form of fiction. The problem is that the further we go down these narrative byways, the more interested we become in these cameo portraits and the more indifferent we become to Coetzee himself. And then, just as we are in danger of being permanently absorbed by the individual story of Margot, Sophie or Adriana, the author brings it to an abrupt end and switches to a new tale, reminding us that these are illusions of his own making. These witnesses are worse than unreliable, their unflattering insights are figments of Coetzee’s imagination. The artifice is suddenly made visible, the reader uncomfortably aware of falling victim to a complex exercise in authorial manipulation.
Summertime has been longlisted for the Man Booker. If it is chosen, Coetzee will become the first writer to have won the prize three times. Does it deserve to? One admires the art. The writer’s ironic detachment, his playful tweaking of narrative conventions and readers’ expectations, causes a wry curl of the lip. But at the end the reader is left hungering for some form of resolution, an end to this game of bluff and double-bluff. No one is obliged to write a memoir. When an author does so, he probably owes it to his audience to answer a basic question: who is he? Coetzee, in these pages, only deigns to flirt with the notion.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 5, 2009Tags: Fiction