'Summertime' is the brilliant new book by John Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003. This book is part novel, part fictional biography, part memoir, part alternative history, and an obituary for a living writer. Its essence is the imagined life of John Coetzee from 1971 - 1977 as gathered by a biographer who may or may not be Coetzee himself. The basis of the biography consists of interviews with a few people who knew the author, and fragments from the author's journals.
This book is both ambiguous and a page-turner. It is a mystery about the essence of a man or perhaps his imagined self or alter-ego. We see Coetzee through the eyes of female lovers, relatives, colleagues and unrequited loves all interviewed many years after his supposed death. All of these people paint a similar picture of Coetzee as a bland man, socially inept, unassuming, diminished in some emotional capacity, and lacking passion. Is this who Coetzee was or is this a self-deprecatory construct? Is this bland, diminished man the author stripped of his art? Can any artist be viewed separately from his art? Clearly, Coetzee, stripped of his art, is only a cipher. The book weaves interlocking aspects of Coetzee's personality with ever increasing subtlety. Is the fictional Coetzee the 'real' Coetzee's homunculus or is it a shadow of the real self?
Coetzee lives with his father and both are closed men, emotionally guarded, at times antagonistic towards one another. Coetzee's father is a disbarred lawyer who now works as a bookkeeper. Coetzee is said to have gotten into trouble in the United Stated during the Vietnam war and was deported back to South Africa. The two men live simple, apparently boring and vacuous lives together. Both have been displaced and are socially isolated.
Coetzee's first journal entrees speak to his dissatisfaction with living in South Africa. "How to escape the filth: not a new question. An old rat question that will not let go, that leaves its nasty suppurating wound." He writes of the borderlands, murders followed by denials and how he feels soiled by all this. He has conflicted and complex feelings about the corrupt leadership in Africa and the violence correlative with the new apartheid.
The first person interviewed by the biographer is Julia, a therapist with whom Coetzee had a brief and relatively dispassionate affair. Julia describes Coetzee as "scrawny, he had a beard, he wore horn-rimmed glasses and sandals. He looked out of place, like a bird, one of those flightless birds; or like an abstracted scientist who had wandered by mistake out of his laboratory. There was an air of seediness about him, too, an air of failure." It is she who seduces Coetzee and she questions her motivations as "he had no sexual presence whatsoever. It was as if he had been sprayed from head to toe with a neutering spray." Further, he is not a good talker. She perceives John as incapable of love and self-absorbed. "Sex with him lacked all thrill" and had an "autistic quality". At one point, John brought her a copy of his first published book, 'Dusklands'. She was not impressed with it but "simply surprised that this intermittent lover of mine, this amateur handyman and part-time schoolteacher, had it in him to write a book-length book and, what is more, find a publisher."
Julia is very surprised at John's need to write and his belief that books give meaning to life. John wants books to provide him with immortality. Julia is more pragmatic. Rather than continuing to write, she recommends that John find a good wife. She uses her therapeutic background to analyze John's books which she views as having a recurrent theme of the woman not falling for the man. "My guess, my highly informed guess, is that it reflects his life experience. Women didn't fall for him - not women in their right senses. They inspected him, they sniffed him, they even tried him out. Then they moved on." She finds it very odd that a man who is hardly capable of intimacy makes his living writing books about "intimate human experience".
The biographer interviews John's cousin Margot about their annual family get togethers. In his family group, John is like a "lost sheep" and his relatives, except for Margot, view him with disdain and disapproval. His family are Afrikaners but, since John has been schooled outside South Africa, he is no longer accepted as one of their own. He is viewed as odd, bookish and stuck up. Margot is puzzled that John has learned Hottentot, a Khoi language, all of which are considered dead languages. John states that he's "interested in the things we have lost, not the things we have kept." Margot wonders who John can speak to with these languages. He answers, "the dead . . . who otherwise are cast out into everlasting silence."
Like Julia, Margot sees John as without male aura. "She cannot think of him as a man". She considers him a failed man and a failed son, unable to decide what to do with his own life and incapable of caring for his father. "He doesn't have plans. He is a Coetzee. Coetzee's don't have plans, don't have ambitions, they only have idle longings." John longs to be a writer and to set his father up in a home separate from his own. Like Julia, Margot thinks John would be better off having a wife. However, she doesn't think any woman would have him. Julia and Margot both feel a responsibility for John but are weighed down by his inaccessibility and melancholy.
Further interviews ensue. One is with a woman with whom John had an unrequited love and who detests John to the point that she feels stalked by him. The other two interviews are with his colleagues at a Capetown university. One of these colleagues is male and the other is a woman with whom John had an affair. The woman who despises John talks about how unsuited John is for marriage and describes him "like a man who has spent his life in the priesthood and lost his manhood and become incompetent with women". She acknowledges that he might have been a decent writer but he still "was not anybody". At any rate, she did not read his books. With John's male colleague, similar descriptions of his personality come to light. He's described as a mediocre teacher, reserved, a misfit, incapable of intimacy, and socially inept. This colleague makes a striking point - - "It seems strange to be doing a biography of a writer while ignoring his writing."
All of these interviews take place in the background of a changing South Africa and point to Coetzee's conflicted feelings about the struggles that his country is facing. "He accepted that the liberation struggle was just. The struggle was just but the new South Africa toward which it strove was not utopian enough for him." He yearned for a 'coloured' South Africa where everyone was ethnically the same but again he feels outcast with his Afrikaner heritage and history. His female colleague and lover says, "I think he was happiest in the role of outsider. He was not a joiner". She talks about John's Nobel prize and acknowledges that he must have earned it. However, she is not a fan of his writing. "He had no special sensitivity that I could detect, no original insight into the human condition. He was just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but frankly, not a giant."
Mr. Coetzee has painted a fictional alter-ego, a self-deprecatory memory, or perhaps a fictional being. Regardless of the historical truth, this is a provocative and extraordinarily important book by one of our greatest living writers. It is about the paradox of art and the artist, about the man who creates great art and who, without his art, is of no great importance. Is it about John Coetzee? In some sense it must be, as he is the author. How much of it is fact? We may never know, but that doesn't matter, as the book itself is a work of enduring art.