Summertime, by J. M. Coetzee

All of his intercourse with the world seems to take place through a membrane. Because the membrane is there, fertilization will not take place. It is an interesting metaphor, full of potential, but it does not take him anywhere that he can see.

What a joy it is that book 13, my final of the Booker longlist dozen, is one of the best — perhaps, the best. That enthusiastic evaluation of J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime is significant, because I approached this book with much trepidation. Unlike many readers, I am not a fan of author memoirs or autobiographies, let alone fictionalized autobiographies. This book is volume three of a J. M. Coetzee trilogy in that latter category. I have read neither of the two previous volumes (Boyhood and Youth) — other reviewers said that Summertime stands on its own and it certainly did for me.

Purchased from the Book Depository (click on cover for more info)

Purchased from the Book Depository (click on cover for more info)

Whatever else this book may be (and it is a lot, as you will discover) it is not an exploration of the works of Nobel Prize winning author J. M. Coetzee. It focuses on his life in the early 1970s, shortly before his first novel — Dusklands — appeared. In one sense, it is a study of the environment and experiences which caused him to write what he did. In another — and that is the one that this review will focus on — it is an examination of the cost that other people close to him paid for his chance to do that.

All creative people — writers, artists, composers — not only take part in the world, they observe it. Their art grows from that observing, their life and survival from taking part. In order to be a successful artist, whatever the genre, there needs to be a certain distance — that “membrane” described in the opening quote to this review — created between living in the world and compiling observations of that world. Writers in particular are conscious of what that means. (Another Booker longlist title — How to Paint a Dead Man — explores this theme as well. Even the dreadful Not Untrue and Not Unkind tries to — this book shows how bad O’Loughlin’s attempt is.) Good authors like Coetzee acknowledge the price they have extracted from those whom they observed.

Summertime is a novel that can be read from many perspectives and on many levels. It is, more than anything else, a fictionalized autobiography posing as a novel. I am treating it as a novel, but for the ease of both reviewer and reader here is a naming convention. J.M. Coetzee wrote this book and that author will be known as Coetzee; J.M. Coetzee is the central character in this book and that person will be known as John; and since this book concerns a J.M. Coetzee from a few decades past — who may be real or not — he’ll be known as J.M.

Coetzee has produced a unique structure for this book. It is bookended by excerpt’s from John’s journals, but the bulk of the book is devoted to notes from five interviews that a J.M. biographer has collected. (see what I mean about the naming convention?). The result is the study of a prospective major author (Coetzee may be a Nobel winner, but he had published nothing of significance when this novel is set), now deceased (Coetzee is not but John is), looking at his influences.

One of the strongest of those is the South Africa of the time, particularly the area around Cape Town where John and his father live. The collapse of apartheid has begun, as has the country’s isolation from the global community. The description in this book perhaps provides the ultimate framing words for all of Coetzee’s work:

Once upon a time he used to think that the men who dreamed up the South African version of public order, who brought into being the vast system of labour reserves and internal passports and satellite townships, had based their vision on a tragic misreading of history. They had misread history because, both on farms or in small towns in the hinterland, and isolated within a language spoken nowhere else in the world, they had no appreciation of the scale of the forces that had since 1945 been sweeping the old colonial world. Yet to say they had misread history was in itself misleading. For they had read no history at all. On the contrary, they turned their backs on it, dismissing it as a mass of slanders put together by foreigners who held Afrikaners in contempt and would turn a blind eye if they were massacred by blacks, down to the last woman and child. Alone and friendless at the remote tip of a hostile continent, they erected their fortress state and retreated behind its walls; there they would keep the flame of Western Civilization burning until the world finally came to its senses.

John’s isolation is not just being South African (recently returned from America, he knows a broader world). In the isolated nation state, he is even further isolated — tending to his father, they live outside Cape Town only a kilometer from Poolsmoor prison. Apartheid may already be in a state of collapse, but John and his father are closer to the isolation of prison than they are to the commerce of South Africa.

All of which sets up a political, autobiographical novel — then Coetzee heads in a completely different direction. If the notebooks define where his head was at, the book explores the consequences. A writer can never stop observing, but that in itself is active and impacts the observed. The more serious the writer gets, the greater the intrusion.

The first of the biographical excerpts of the book are interviews with Julia. The wife of a philandering financial services executive she had an affair with John — a tit-for-tat thing mainly — in the early 1970s. The interview with J.M.’s biographer takes place in 2008, Julia has long since left her husband and is now a psychiatrist in Canada. She has had time to place her affair with John in a context. Consider her “mature conclusion”:

“You probably think it holds true for artists in general, male artists: that they can’t or won’t give themselves fully for the simple reason that there is a secret essence of themselves they need to preserve for the sake of their art. Am I right? Is that what you think?”

Do I think that artists aren’t built for love? No. Not necessarily. I try to keep an open mind on the subject.

“Well, you can’t keep your mind open indefinitely, not if you mean to get your book written. Consider. Here we have a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect, or can connect only briefly, intermittently. Yet how does he make his living? He makes his living writing reports, expert reports, on intimate human experience. Because that is what novels are about — isn’t it? — intimate experience. Novels as opposed to poetry or painting. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

[Silence]

We will never know how much the novelist learned from that affair — neither will we know what damage it caused his partner in it.

That cost is also examined in the second biographical excerpt. The subject here is John’s cousin Margot; the two grew up together, were in “love” at age six; then split apart. They reconnect at a Coetzee family reunion (these too are not what they used to be, all South African traditions are in decline). John has just come back from America where his anti-war activities have made him a criminal. As Margot contemplates her isolated, bachelor cousin (remember, the Nobel Prize winner at this point is still unpublished) she observes:

But perhaps there is a type of woman who is attracted to a man like this, who is happy to listen without contradicting while he airs his opinions, and then to take them on as her own, even the self-evidently silly ones. A woman indifferent to male silliness, indifferent even to sex, simply in search of a man to attach to herself and take care of and protect against the world. A woman who will put up with shoddy work around the house because what matters is not that the windows close and the locks work but that her man have the space in which to live out his idea of himself. And who will afterwards quietly call in hired help, someone good with his hands, to fix up the mess.

Again in this section, Coetzee presents what John gains from the association and questions at what cost that has come. The pattern is repeated in the remaining three biographical sections and the final notebook entries offer ideas about how the threads tie together. It is a compelling examination of what writers extract from their surroundings — and what cost is involved in their doing that.

As long as this review already is, it is dreadfully incomplete. I have tried to explore only one of the strands that are part of this book, but there are many more:
— the influence of family on a writer. The Coetzees are dysfunctional, in decline and rapidly aging — what did that do to the author’s work?
— parsing the author’s work. I haven’t read enough Coetzee to comment (and do have a personal disinterest in this theme) but it is certainly there.
— why is J.M. Coetzee choosing to write a three-volume fictional autobiography that concludes as his first novel is at the proof stage? Certainly a fascinating question for some, which I have not addressed.

I confess that I became so interested in one thread of this book that I have ignored those others. For a much broader assessment, please visit the review from John Self at theAsylum — John admitted that when he reached the 1,200-word mark (and I am well past that) he felt that he had hardly started. Summertime is only 266 pages long but it is a novel (not to mention fictional autobiography) of incredible complexity. It may not win the Booker (and may not deserve to), simply because it is too “literary” — you need to be a serious reader to appreciate the various levels of this book. If you can engage with it — and I am sure not everyone wants to — it is a compelling piece of work.

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11 Responses to “Summertime, by J. M. Coetzee”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    Summertime is my favourite longlist title this year. I was in awe of it – it is such a cheeky thing to do and he pulls it off. It does seem a bit of a circular reference when described using your naming convention!

    As for the character John, I felt he was largely misunderstood by the first three of those “interviewed”. The two colleagues at the end had a more tolerant view of him.

    Very clever.

  2. P.S. I Love You Says:

    ^Yes, I had similar thoughts with respect to the final two interviewees. Surely its not a coincidence that they were both academics who could see where Coetzee was coming from. I think towards the end of the penultimate interview, the interviewee (can’t recall his name now but he knew Coetzee from being interviewed at the same time for a position at Cape Town University) points out to the biographer that his other sources are people who may have an axe to grind against Coetzee. It served as a poignant reminder, I thought, that there are always multiple ways of viewing events and why someone acted in a particular way.

    I think, Kevin, that you make an excellent point that there are many layers to this novel that a reader is required to appreciate. One of the questions being asked is: What is Coetzee like in real life? How far does he match the Coetzee in the novel? I think Coetzee is fantastic at being able to understand happenings and issues in the real world between people, and being able to write about it effectively. Its difficult to explain exactly what I think in a clear and concise way, and its because, as you say, there are several layers to this novel that need unravelling.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    One reason I thought the last two interviewees had a different view is that the structure in which they met John (mainly the academy) provided the “membrane” that helped define and contain the relationship. Also, John himself was somewhat more grounded (I wanted to write “less ungrounded”) at this stage and hence drawing less from thos around him.

    I’m one of those readers (a small minority, I am sure) who is quite willing to take John as a fictional character and not spend a lot of time wondering how much of him is actually Coetzee. Since I’m more interested in the author’s works than his persona, the layers that I found most instructive were those that suggested the powerful influences on his work. I suspect in some ways that made the book an easier read for me.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm. I’m reassured Kevin that you enjoyed it, found it deeply rewarding in fact, without an interest in the author’s real life. I haven’t the slightest interest in Coetzee’s real life, or how this relates to it, but I have quite a lot of interest in what this is like as a work in its own right.

    Like you, I would take John as a fictional character. I’ll take a look at this, novels about writers are generally something I avoid, for fear of self-indulgence, but there are always exceptions and after such a complimentary review it sounds like this ought to be one of them.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I share the “self-indulgence” concern and there is definitely an aspect of that in this book (and as you read more reviews, I think you will find that that is the angle that appeals to most readers). So Coetzee had a high hurdle to jump for me and he did it quite successfully. I don’t think this is a great novel but it is a very, very good exploration of how a writer collects the base influences that will later dominate his work. It is a surprisingly common theme in this year’s longlist (not just Hall and O’Loughlin whom I mention, but Byatt and Foulds as well) which did add to my interest.

  6. John Self Says:

    ‘Self-indulgence’ is one way of putting it. The way I look at it, I don’t care if Coetzee is indulging himself so long as he’s indulging me. And he is. I also don’t have any interest in Coetzee’s real life, but a book which is ‘about’ its own author is to me not a supercharged form of autobiography, but a more intensely creative form of fiction. Similarly, although I have no interest in Martin Amis’s real life, it still tickled me to see him appear as a character in Money, for the purely novel experience. So to me it is a non sequitur (if that’s the term) to make any connection between “Am I interested in the author’s life?” and “Am I interested in a book which purports to be about the author’s life?” One might equally note that an interest in submariners is of no relevance to enjoyment of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Okay, Proust is about Proust (or purports to be) and I like him. And (closer to Amis) I often can’t tell when Geoff Dyer is writing about himself or a character, and I like him. So while I think a description of “a more intensely creative form of fiction” is perhaps a bit of hyperbole, the idea of using yourself as a fictional central character has established precedent (and, I should note, detractors). And while I agree that this book stands on its own merit whether the central character is the real author or totally fictional, most of the reviews in the conventional press that I have read have focused on what parts are “the author’s life” and what parts “purport” to be the author’s life. That’s what makes “self indulgence” a concern for me.

  8. My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: September 5, 2009 « Hungry Like the Woolf Says:

    [...] related news, if KfC doesn’t make you pre-order Summertime, John Self surely will. The two reviews are complementary rather than redundant. So, [...]

  9. Mirta Says:

    Glad you liked it so much, Kevin. I’ve read both Boyhood and Youth and really enjoyed them. I was surprised to learn that neither of them made the booker shortlist.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mirta: I think the issue with the two earlier books is that his publisher chose to describe them as autobiographies (and hence non-fiction) which meant they did not qualify for the Booker.

  11. Mirta Says:

    Oh, OK… That makes sense then. Thank you, Kevin!

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