J.M. Coetzee: Youth

There was an interesting comment stream on John Self’s recent review of John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father, a memoir.  Is there a greater proportion of lousy memoirs than in other book categories, even throwing trashy celebrity and misery memoirs out of the mix?  What makes someone’s life interesting to those of us not living it?  Well, I can say that I usually avoid memoirs, but I’ve read a number that are just as good as anything else I’ve read.  Certainly, J.M. Coetzee’s three books based on his life are included there when he turns his cutting pen on himself.  I recently reviewed the first of his memoirs, Boyhood.  Right when I finished reading it I picked up the next one, Youth (2002).  As much as I enjoyed Boyhood, I was more engaged with Youth

The book opens when Coetzee is nearing 20.  If Boyhood was about the artist as a young man, Youthis about that artist attempting to fit himself into his vision of what an artist is.  The strained relationship with his parents becomes altogether worse.  Now Coetzee is “proving something: that each man is an island; that you don’t need parents.”  But he isn’t just separated from his parents.  In the opening pages, we see several examples of just how separate Coetzee is from almost anyone, especially women.  For one thing, he doesn’t trust that anyone sees in him what he hopes: that he is an artist.  It plays out both sad and funny because he wants lovers, but he cannot trust their motives.  Here, for example, is his reaction to a sexual encounter with Jacqueline, a friend of a friend:

In fact he is not carried away.  Not only is there the matter of the sand, which gets into everything, there is also the nagging question of why this woman, whom he has never met before, is giving herself to him.  Is it credible that in the course of a casual conversation she detected the secret flame burning in him, the flame that marks him as an artist?  Or is she simply a nymphomaniac, and was that what Paul, in his delicate way, was warning him about when he said she was ‘under therapy’?

Well, despite Coetzee’s misgivings, Jacqueline moves in with him (something typical for an artist, he feels).  But this relationship just doesn’t work.  He wants love and sex and connection, but he wants it to generate from the fact that he is an artist.  Now he’s enmeshed in a relationship that takes away his sleep and, worse, any time he could devote to writing.  So he’s with her because he’s an artist, but with her he cannot be an artist; along those same lines, she does not see him as an artist.  His relationship with Jacqueline is stop and start.  She moves out, and he feels relieved.  Then he allows her to move back  in for various reasons, not the least of which is because he thinks that is how a true artist would live.

Yet whole days pass in a fog of grey exhaustion.  He curses himself for letting himself be sucked back into an affair that costs him so much.  If this is what having a mistress entails, how do Picasso and the others get by?  He simply has not the energy to run from lecture to lecture, job to job, then when the day is done to pay attention to a woman who veers between euphoria and spells of the blackest gloom in which she thrashes around brooding on a lifetime’s grudges.

Although no longer formally living with him, Jacqueline feels free to arrive on his doorstep at all hours of the night and day.  Sometimes she comes to denounce him for some word or other he let slip whose veiled meaning has only now beocme clear to her.  Sometimes she is simply feeling low and wants to be cheered up.  Worst is the day after therapy: she is there to rehearse, over and over again, what past in her therapist’s consulting room, to pick over the implications of his tiniest gesture.  She sighs and weeps, gulps down glass after glass of wine, goes dead in the middle of sex.

His is not a romantic life.  Whatever hopes he has that his art will grow as he mimics his artist idols, his demeanor just isn’t compatible with the lifestyle he thinks he should lead, causing this already lonely and distant young man to retreat even further. 

As the book progresses, Coetzee moves away to England, anxious to achieve the artist’s life in a more metropolitan setting.  To live there, though, he must work.  He’s qualified to do computer programming, so he ends up working for IBM, which, much like his experiences with a lover, saps his time and diminishes his art.  But why should it be this way?  He’s miserable, and isn’t that the state of mind he’s been looking for?

Why is it a greater sacrifice, a greater extinction of personality, to hide out in a garret room on the Left Bank for which you have not paid the rent, or wander from café to café, bearded, unwashed, smelly, bumming drinks from friends, than to dress in a black suit and do soul-destroying office-work and submit to either loneliness unto death or sex without desire?

So Youthbecomes much mor than just a young man’s quest to become his vision of an artist.  It is also about Coetzee’s genuine attempts to battle loneliness and depression and to find some human touch, even when his natural instinct is to shy away.  He finally quits his job at IBM, but that means he has even fewer people to speak to: “Day after day goes by when not a word passes his lips.  He begins to mark them off with an S in his diary: days of silence.”  One day Coetzee bumps into someone by mistake and mutters “Sorry!”

Sorry: the word comes heavily out of his mouth, like a stone.  Does a single word of indeterminate class count as speech?  Has what occurred between himself and the old man been an instance of human contact, or is it better described as mere social interaction, like the touching of feelers between ants?  To the old man, certainly, it was nothing.  All day long the old man stands there with his stacks of papers, muttering angrily to himself; he is always waiting for a chance to abuse some passer-by.  Whereas in his own case the memory of that single words will persist for weeks, perhaps for the rest of his life.  Bumping into people, saying “Sorry!”, getting abused: a ruse, a cheap way of forcing a conversation.  How to trick loneliness.

Certainly this book, with all of its layers strengthened by Coetzee’s absolute control and precision, is one of the highlights of my work through Coetzee’s oeuvre (my work through Coetzee’s oeuvre being one of the highlights of my reading life).

3 thoughts on “J.M. Coetzee: Youth

  1. cbjames says:

    I doubt that the proportion of lousy books is higher in the memoir category than it is elsewhere. I do think many lousy memoirs get more than their share of publicity and public attention because they are celebrity products, whether by genuine celebrities or by people suffering the misery of the day. There’s a clear movie-of-the-week aspect to memoirs that is not so apparent with other genres.

    That said, like you, the few memoirs I read tend to be very good. I also gravitate towards artist’s memoirs.

  2. Colette Jones says:

    I loved Youth. Being a programmer myself, I loved his wry take on trying to do that job (and also that perhaps I’m better than him at something!)

    I think Youth is more fiction than memoir, and Summertime leaning even more into the fiction realm, but they’re all good.

  3. I’ve just finished this book and found it to be a powerful portrait of alienation and sexual angst. Had no idea it was autobiographical, but many years after the events it describes it’s a curious fiction/fact admixture and an acute self-insight written with a precise control of language.

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