Summertime Hardcover – Sep 14 2009
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"This is the third instalment of a life so reserved, so repressed, so seething with polite rage and restrained despair that it could only be approached through a third-person voice... it is wonderful stuff. But then, Coetzee is wonderful: edgy, black, remorselessly human, witty, and often outright funny... Summertime is offbeat and deliberate, elusive and truthful."
"The cumulative effect of Coetzee's unblinking honesty and his never-wavering seriousness, is an understanding of the creation of a great writer."
"Beautifully reflective... reveal a strangely sincere, self-critical and romantic man... an intense outstanding and very enjoyable talent." --Scotland on Sunday "Both an elegant request that the sum of Coetzee's existence as a public figure be looked for only in his writing, and ample evidence, once again, why that request should be honoured."
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
J.M. COETZEE's work includes Waiting For the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, Boyhood, Youth, Disgrace and Diary of a Bad Year. He was the first author to win the Booker Prize twice and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.
Top Customer Reviews
SUMMERTIME, anticipated as the continuation to the author's fictionalized autobiographies, or "autofiction", Boyhood: A Memoir and Youth, may not be even that. Vincent, having studied John's diaries and notebooks, travels the world to fill in some gaps and, hopefully, discover new facets of the man's inner emotional being, especially during that decisive time in his subject's life, the mid nineteen seventies. He interviews five individuals - lovers, real or unreciprocated, a close relative and colleagues - some thirty years after the period of interest to him.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This is the third in a series that began with Boyhood and continued with Youth. The first two books were fictional biographies of writer John Coetzee and were told in the third person but with insight into Coetzee's thoughts. It is very difficult to assess what is fiction and what is true biography though I simply didn't worry about it and just enjoyed the novels. They're both excellent books but Summertime is even better and is structured very interestingly.
In this novel, he chooses a different approach in that he tells of dead writer John Coetzee through a journalist's interviews with old friends and acquaintances of Coetzee (mostly women.)
The perspective is interesting and his writing about his dead self from the perspective of others was fascinating. It is set in the 70s when Coetzee lives with his aging father in Cape Town. This is around the time just before he first started to publish novels.
Those that tell the story include his cousin Margot whom he planned on marrying when he was a child,a woman whom he became infatuated with but would have none of him and a former lover.
A consistent theme throughout the book is that Coetzee may have turned out to be a great writer but he certainly didn't strike anyone as a person destined for greatness. Through the eyes of others, Coetzee portrays himself as cold, distant, arrogant and somewhat strange. One of the characters does make a comment that Coetzee may not have appeared that he would be a great writer but he didn't win the Nobel Prize for nothing.
The portrayal of his life in 1970s South Africa is very creative, moves well and gives great insight into JM Coetzee I loved how he wrote about himself but by doing it through the words of others said things that are not quite the same as when one does it directly.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, highly recommend it and wished he had won a third Booker for it
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.
With another writer I might get infuriated with this approach: underneath the masochism, it suggests a control freak who anticipates every criticism--who who wants to tear himself down before anyone else does: "Look, I'll show you how to do it." But I know Coetzee to be a compassionate, empathetic writer; this portrait of a cold fish cannot be the whole truth. So what's going on here?
While many of the elements here are completely made up, a certain residue is left over that, I have no doubt, reflects the reality. This was true of the earlier volumes as well. The shape and taste of the life is there, even if the facts are all wrong. We're left suspecting that the artist, who is heroic, has lived deep inside himself--a sentient iceberg that, all these years later, is still worried over the disappointment and confusion he feels he has caused. Coetzee relieves the memoir of all its boring facts, just as he relieves the novel of all its tiresome artifice, to create the only possible answer for his solitude
A wise move, such wariness. It's indeed tempting to attach the word "cagey" to Coetzee, but I propose that "inventive" may be the more accurate descriptive, although certainly less alluring. Think of a pair of his recent books:
In Diary Of A Bad Year, Coetzee weaves a seeming series of crank essays on a number of topical subjects into an "almost" romance between an aging writer and his young typist. Elizabeth Costello gives us another snapshot of an elder writer, this time a woman, bent on assessing the world around her. As part of her assessment she can't escape the notion that her fame as a writer has long since outdistanced the reality of who she is.
Seeing some similarities, despite the differing characterizations and novel structure? Don't be deceived here: wariness is still the watchword regarding Coetzee and his relationship to his writing. But I'm going to throw that word aside and make my own stab at what Coetzee is - and has been - up to in his more recent novels.
But first a word or two about this story:
In Summertime, Coetzee has died and a man named Vincent is researching for a biography of Coetzee. As part of his research, he's selected five people from Coetzee's life to interview.
* Julia, a married woman with whom Coetzee has had an affair while in his early to middle years
* His cousin Margot
* A Brazilian dancer whom Coetzee knew indirectly - Coetzee was for a time her daughter's tutor.
* Martin, a university colleague of Coetzee's, and...
* Sophie, a French woman with whom Coetzee had a sexual liaison in his early life.
Among the topics discussed in these interviews are:
* Coetzee's lack of social graces
* His lackluster performances as a sexual partner
* His possible homosexuality
* His abilities as a writer
* His successes - or lack thereof - as a tutor and teacher
Clearly, some of these interviews unearth accurate biographical bon mots. But which? Beware! Okay, I step into literary quicksand here.
These are my contentions:
* Coetzee is first and foremost a novelist of great stylistic inventiveness. While his prose may seem pedestrian to some, that's not where his talent and vision lie. Birthed as a writer in the crucible of South Africa and that nation's checkered history, he has rarely written directly about that nation's history. In fact, his writing on the subject, as with other subjects he treats, is somewhat oblique. He prefers metaphor and symbol to the real, the tangible.
* Coetzee has embraced the postmodern tone and style, although I wouldn't term his work as mainstream (yes, this adjective is laughable) postmodernism. The aspects of postmodernism he has appropriated for his own use tend toward the deconstructive. They also minimize the autonomy of the author and take a view of both history and fiction as a blend of the real and the imagined.
* I suspect, then, that he's been trying for a decade to construct a legacy to bear his name. I also suspect he wants this legacy to be one of literary adventurousness regarding style and structure. And I believe he would want to minimize his personality in such a legacy. Hardly the manner of Hemingway or Mailer, right?
In this light, Summertime seems to be a subtle witticism on both his life and fame, one in which he wishes to reduce his role to the minimal, leaving only an authorial representation something akin to Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
But this review isn't to be construed as all about Coetzee, or the anti-Coetzee. With Summertime, he's constructed one of the most skillful and readable novels of his career. I think this laudable to the nth degree. In an age in which so much poetry and memoir is self-absorbed, Coetzee seems to be leaving us with a maxim we readers and writers should forever hold close to our hearts: the story's the thing.