Thursday, 1 March 2012

Book of the Month: Summertime (J.M. Coetzee)

In 1997 J.M. Coetzee published Boyhood, a fictionalized memoir of his childhood in South Africa, to great acclaim. In 2005 he published Youth, which traced the years he spent in England, in the 1960s. Both Boyhood and Youth were intense, brooding, at times dark, works of autobiographical fiction. If Boyhood had a kind of mystic quality to it, perhaps because of the strong emotions which, you suspected, were agitating to break through the patina of cool, elegant prose, Youth was a detached contemplation on the fluffing of one’s hopes and ambitions of youth.  

In 2009 Coetzee published Summertime, the next instalment of his fictionalized memoirs.

The premise of Summertime is as follows: an English biographer is working on the biography of a writer called John (J M) Coetzee who has passed on a few years ago. The fictional Coetzee, prior to his death, was a renowned novelist of international reputation and was also awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. The biographer is, however, interested in the early years when Coetzee was finding his feet as a writer. He is planning to focus on the years between 1972 and 1977. During this period, the fictional Coetzee was living with his widowed father in a run down cottage in the suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, and was working as a supply teacher of English (although I am not sure whether this term existed in the South Africa of the 1970s). This was also the period when ‘fictional’ Coetzee published his first novel entitled ‘Duskland’ (also the title of the real life Coetzee’s debut novel). The biographer has never met Coetzee, who, by all accounts, was a recluse when he was alive. The biographer has at his disposal a few dated as well as undated entries Coetzee made during this period. Most of the entries relate to public events, but there are a few personal entries. The biographer interviews a total of five individuals who were close or important to ‘dead’ Coetzee at some time or the other during this period. These include: a married woman (Julia) with whom Coetzee had had an affair, a cousin (Margot) to whom he was close, a Brazilian dancer (Adriana) to whose adolescent daughter Coetzee taught English, and two colleagues at the University where Coetzee had taught—a male (Martin) and a female (Sophie). Coetzee most probably had an affair with Sophie.

The picture of fictional Coetzee that emerges out of these interviews is not very flattering. Julia, who lived in the same area as Coetzee in the 1970s, admits to having an affair with him not so much because she was swept off her feet by the future Nobel laureate as because of her desire to teach her philandering husband (who had been having it off with his colleague) a lesson and salvage her own amor propre. The sex, she feels obliged to inform, was not earth shaking, except perhaps on one occasion. She remembers Coetzee as socially inept, a loner, and repressed in the ‘wider sense of the word’. She remembers their first meeting: it was in a supermarket when he retrieved a Christmas roll she had dropped and, while returning it, either inadvertently or deliberately—she is still not sure after so many years—prodded her breasts with it. Julia did not find Coetzee particularly attractive: he was scrawny, he had a straggly beard, he wore horn-rimmed spectacles, and had an air of seediness and failure about him. He was the outsider. She does not think he loved his father, either, with whom, she suspects, he was obliged to live because of his financial problems. She tells the biographer that she did not know at the time that he was a budding writer, and was surprised when he turned up at her doorstep one day with a copy of his novel, ‘Dusklands’.  She confesses that she does not like ‘Dusklands’ as she prefers her books to have proper heroes and heroines.  She reads the book as an expose of the cruelty involved in various conquests, the locus of which, she feels, lies within the writer. She is surprised when the biographer informs her that Coetzee probably considered her an important figure in his life. She is under the impression that she was important to him in an unimportant way, and never entered his books, never quite flowered within him. She remembers him as a man who was afraid to expose his desire, who found it hard to court women and open himself to rebuff.

Margot is the late J M Coetzee’s cousin and was close to him as a child. She tells the biographer about a family reunion one Christmas in the early 1970s, which Coetzee attended with his father. Coetzee had returned from America under a cloud and the wider family suspected that he might even have spent some time in jail in America. Coetzee was not exactly the flavour of the month with the family, Margot excepted. Her sister, Carol, for example, felt that John Coetzee was stuck up, thought too much of himself, and couldn't bear to lower himself to talk to ordinary people.  One afternoon Coetzee and Margot went out for a drive and drove all the way to the dying town of Merweville of which their grandfather was a mayor years ago. Coetzee informed Mergot that he was thinking of buying a house in Merweville where he was hoping his father would live and he would drive from Cape Town (a seven hour drive) every weekend to give him company. Margot was scandalized: she could not see old Coetzee coping on his own in a town in the middle of nowhere; Carol, her sister, accused John (on his back) of simply wanting to be rid of the old man whom he had never loved. Margot remembers John Coetzee as a mess, with his unkempt hair and beard sticking out at all angles. He also seemed to have very na├»ve and romantic ideas about the Black emancipation. After the family reunion, Margot wrote Coetzee a long, heartfelt letter, urging him not send his father to Merweville. Coetzee replied, informing her that he had taken on board her suggestions, and had abandoned the plan to buy a house in that town. Margot was hurt by the cold, formal tone of Coetzee’s letter.

The next person the biographer interviews is a Brazilian dancer called Adriana, who lived in Cape Town for three years with her two daughters, and was forced to earn her living—after her husband, who worked as a security guard, was attacked and killed by robbers—as a dancer as well as dance teacher. Adriana had high hopes for her younger daughter, Maria Regina, who at that time was in her late adolescence. Adriana was paying the school extra fees for English tuition, and was concerned when she learnt that the teacher was an Afrikaner called Coetzee. Adriana had never liked Afrikaners, many of whom she had come across in Angola where she lived with her husband prior to coming to South Africa, and saw how they treated Black people. Coetzee was summoned to Adriana’s house for tea during the course of which she was further concerned to learn that Coetzee was just a supply teacher and did not have proper teaching qualifications. Coetzee on his part tried in his gauche way to ingratiate himself with Adriana and her family (inviting them for a picnic, with his father, in the middle of winter), which only confirmed Adriana’s suspicions that he was letching after her vivacious daughter. It was, however, not the daughter, but the mother, who was the object of the late Coetzee’s sexual desire. He started writing letters to Adriana that made little sense to her as he expatiated on Schubert’s music through which, he claimed, one could sublime music. To her disgust, Coetzee enrolled himself in her dancing classes. This, she decided, amounted to stalking, and complained  to the school principal. Finally, she removed her daughter from Coetzee’s class. Adriana does not remember John Coetzee fondly; she remembers him as an awkward man who made a nuisance of himself for a short period when she lived in South Africa in the 1970s.  She describes Coetzee as celibataire—not a homosexual, not sexless, but solitary—not made for conjugal life, not made for the company of women.

The final two interviews are with Coetzee’s colleagues in the university where he taught for many years. The male colleague, Martin, had generally got on well with Coetzee and the two had jointly run a poetry course for many years. He remembers Coetzee as someone who knew a fair amount about a range of things but not a great deal about anything in particular. Coetzee, Martin opines, was a perfectly adequate academic, but not a notable teacher. He was a dry, reserved man, whose passion of literature—for example nineteenth century Russian novelists—never quite translated itself in his teaching; something always seemed to hold him back. A strain of secretiveness was ingrained in him. The female colleague, a Frenchwoman called Sophie, who admits to having had liaison with Coetzee (but refuses to give details), comments on Coetzee’s political leanings.  Coetzee’s politics, she informs the biographer, tended to be left-wing, but he was not a Marxist. He was not a militant. Indeed he looked down on politics, and his political ideas were too idealistic, too Utopian for him to end up in a prison cell. He was not hostile for the South African liberation struggle, but as long as liberation meant national liberation, he had no interest in it. He accepted the struggle as just, but the new South Africa towards which it strove was not Utopian enough for him. She remembers an informal interview she had arranged for him with a French journalist and Coetzee became prickly when he felt that the Frenchman was insulting Afrikaans—and, by extension, his identity as an Afrikaner—by dismissing it as just a dialect, even though he never wrote in Afrikaans, and had written in English all his life. The late John Coetzee, Sophie remembers, was a passive man who was convinced that supreme felicity would be his if only he could acquire a French mistress who would recite Ronsard to him while simultaneously inducting him into the mysteries of love, French style. 

The final section of the novel consists of Coetzee’s undated diary entries which record his father’s cancer and the novel ends on the note of Coetzee facing with extreme dread and reluctance the prospect of nursing his aged and debilitated father.

It is difficult to make out what it is that J.M. Coetzee is trying to do in Summertime. The publishers described it as a ‘fictionalized memoir’. Quite why Coetzee felt the need to fictionalize his memoirs is not clear to me; however, one supposes that it is entirely in keeping with his reputation as an elusive and reclusive writer. This is after all a man who did not bother to turn up to collect his two Booker wins (although he had presumably no objections to his publishers entering his novels in the draw). He did arrive to accept the Nobel Prize in literature which he was awarded in 2003; however, instead of giving a lecture or a talk as might have been expected, he read out a story.

All of Coetzee’s published work save one, since the Nobel award, has been autobiographical. Or is it? Perhaps what Coetzee is trying to tell the world of literature is that it is impossible to know the real J.M. Coetzee—even he is not sure that he can record his life faithfully as it really happened— and the best he can do is create a simulacrum in the form of a fictionalized memoir. If that is the case, it is one hell of a convoluted way to make the point, although it has to be said that in Summertime (as in Youth, the second instalment in the fictionalized memoir) Coetzee excels in this literary ambiguity. Because the memoir is fictionalized, it is impossible—and probably not even necessary—to tease out what in Summertime is a fact and what is fiction. 

Based on the evidence furnished (Coetzee portrayed through the eyes of his one-time colleagues, lovers, relatives, and acquaintances), J.M. Coetzee was a creep and a snob, his head full of airy-fairy ideas about politics, and urgently requiring bottles of HP sauce to go with the chips on each of his shoulders. Coetzee seems at pains to portray himself in the fictionalized memoirs as a social misfit, but there is the underlying assumption that people would want to know about his life. This need not be as conceited as it may sound at first. Coetzee is a superb writer, and a Nobel laureate; people far less gifted than he have been driven by the desire to tell the world about their lives.

Summertime, despite its mournful tone, is a riveting read, not least for Coetzee’s prose—ice-cool and razor-sharp. Recommended.