Summertime by J.M. Coetzee (2009) Penguin Books (2010) 266 pp
And so I’ve made it to the last (or, perhaps, most recent) of Coetzee’s fictional / factual memoirs, Summertime. I’d been looking forward to reading this book for some time. It was a finalist for the 2009 Man Book Prize, and I cheered for it even though at the time I hadn’t read it or any of the other finalists (Booker 2008 still looming large in memory). A report from John Mullan, a judge that year, after the award was given to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall are that the voting was split between Wolf Hall and Summertime until he cast the deciding vote. Lucasta Miller and Sue Perkins, the two votes for Coetzee, both expressed some remorse of their own by reminding Mullan; “agenbite of inwit,” they said to him afterwards.
Well, in Summertime Coetzee takes his memoir project even further than he did in Boyhood and Youth, the two preceeding memoirs wherein Coetzee writes his past in the third person. Here, Coetzee is again the subject of the narrative, and we begin with that familiar third-person perspective with some of Coetzee’s notebooks from 1972 – 1975. However, here there are interjections of some other voice within the narrative, imploring someone to go a little deeper, explore this question more, before moving on to another narrative strand. It turns out that Coetzee has died. His biographer, a Mr. Vincent, is going through his old notebooks; these particular ones that introduce the novel appear to be first drafts of passages for Coetzee’s third memoir, which he never finished. The interjecting voice is Coetzee himself trying to dig deeper into certain topics in the narrative.
Vincent has taken it upon himself to write what would have been in that third memoir, covering Coetzee’s early thirties, around the time he published his first novel, Dusklands. When Youthended, Coetzee was still in England; from there he eventually went to teach at a university in the United States. For most of the period Summertime covers, though, Coetzee is back in South Africa, uneasily tending his ailing father. His mother is dead.
To get at this period in Coetzee’s life, Mr. Vincent chooses five people to interview: Julia, Margot, Adriana, Martin, and Sophie. These interviews, or their resultant text, are the contents of Summertime, and with the first one we realize that Coetzee is playing with biography.
The section with Julia is formed as an interview. Julia was a neighbor to Coetzee and his father. She was married and rather lonely, and eventually she and Coetzee became lovers, though that term doesn’t exactly fit. Vincent asks a question and Julia answers, and Vincent hopes the results can be used to provide color to his biography. But what we get is a story where Coetzee is merely a side character, and a kind of miserable burden at that. Whatever indications Vincent gleaned from Coetzee’s notebooks about how important these people were to him, their impressions of Coetzee are quite different:
Mr Vincent, I am perfectly aware it is John you want to hear about, not me. But the only story involving John that I can tell, or the only one I am prepared to tell, is the one, namely the story of my life and his part in it, which is quite different, quite another matter, from the story of his life and my part in it.
Julia is particularly concerned about how her role in Coetzee’s biography could spin out of her control: “by dint of a quick flip, a quick manipulation of perspective, followed by some clever editing, you can transform it into a story about John and one of the women who passed through his life. Not so. Not so.” Simply put, Coetzee was a minor part in her grander life, and she’s not even that interested in him anymore, though she at least kept up with his literary output. Therein she finds justification for her feelings toward Coetzee:
Well, cast your mind back to the books he wrote. What is the one theme that keeps recurring from book to book? It is that the woman doesn’t fall in love with the man. The man may or may not love the woman; but the woman never loves the man. What do you think that theme reflects? 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, maybe they even tried him out. Then they moved on.
In the next section we meet Margot, Coetzee’s cousin whom he deeply loved when they were children. By the time we get here, Vincent has already interviewed Margot and has used Coetzee’s style (that third person) to dramatize her account. In this meeting with her, Vincent is reading his work to her loud. She frequently interjects because his product is so far, in her mind, from what she said in the interview.
I was under the impression you were simply going to transcribe our interview and leave it at that. I had no idea you were going to rewrite it completely.
Vincent, it turns out, has his own ideas about how these lives intermingled and his words are warping their experiences. It’s important, at this time, to note that Vincent never met Coetzee. He’s just a great admirer.
His next interview takes place in Brazil where he has found Adriana. Again this section is presented as a straight interview, only this time there is a silent translator involved in the transmission. Coetzee taught Adriana’s talented daughter while her family was living in South Africa. His interest in her talents eventually spilled over to an interest in her mother who spurned his advances, often made by way of the written word.
You say you decided not to read his last letter. Do you ever regret that decision?
Why? Why should I regret it?
Because Coetzee was a writer, who knew how to use words. What if the letter you did not read contained words that would have moved you or even changed your feelings about him?
Mr Vincent, to you John Coetzee is a great writer and a hero, I accept that, why else would you be here, why else would you be writing this book? To me, on the other hand — pardon me for saying this, but he is dead, so I cannot hurt his feelings — to me he is nothing. He is nothing, was nothing, just an irritation, an embarrassment. He was nothing and his words were nothing. I can see you are cross because I make him look like a fool. Nevertheless, to me he really was a fool.
The next section is an interview with an old university friend named Martin who suggest to Vincent it is naive to believe that a theme that comes up in an author’s work is there because it was present in the author’s life. The last section is an interview with another colleague, Sophie. Together Sophie and Coetzee taught a class at the University of Cape Town, and she suggests Coetzee didn’t fully understand the history of South Africa and of the Afrikaners, again somewhat destabilizing the impression Vincent had of the man from his work.
It’s a fantastic book, incredibly fluid and fast-reading and yet complex in its many layers. What here is true? I certainly don’t know. Possibly none of it. Certainly much is false. Coetzee’s mother didn’t die until 1985, but here she’s dead by the early 1970s. Coetzee was also married at this time and had two children, but there is no indication of any such relationships in Summertime. Oh, and Coetzee himself is not dead. Despite and with these departures, Coetzee is teasing any line between fact and fiction and showing how submitting life to words ensures not clarity but more mystery, presenting his character as an aloof, awkward annoyance, tolerated, perhaps sometimes admired, but not loved and not particularly important in the grander scheme of these other characters’ lives.
However, then the book ends in an interesting way. We go back to Coetzee’s notebooks to look at some undated fragments. In particular, these fragments focus on the time he was caring for his father. They are brief but incredibly intimate passages. And it isn’t even that the two men talk — in fact, they don’t really — but they’re in close quarters together. It takes this book back to personal and intimate at the same time it casts in relief the loneliness and alienation.