Quantcast

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime

And so I’ve made it to the last (or, perhaps, most recent) of Coetzee’s fictional/factual memoirs, Summertime (2009).  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 Summertimecovers, 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.

13 thoughts on “J.M. Coetzee: Summertime

  1. Colette Jones says:

    Bravo!

  2. Graham says:

    Summertime was the first Coetzee book that I read, and I still haven’t read the other books in this trilogy. Reading this review has brought it straight back to my mind, it seems amazingly vivid even now.

  3. Lee Monks says:

    I thought this a tremendous piece of work at the time, and this review tempts me back to it. Great stuff.

    PS have read the first three of Heathcock’s ‘Volt’ – thanks for pointing me in that happy direction, Trevor (once again)…

  4. leroyhunter says:

    A great series of reviews. It’s clear now I need to read all 3 books, but hard to resist the revived impulse to jump straight into this one.

    Having read (and listened to) a few reviews by John Mullan down the years, I’m mystified as to why he would give a casting vote to Wolf Hall over this book.

  5. This is the only one of the three that I have read and, while I found it excellent, I was not motivated to read the other two. As your review shows, I don’t think this book is so much memoir or autobiography, rather it is an exploration of how different friends and acquaintances might perceive their relationship with a “public” character. I wasn’t primarily interested in what was or was not “true” about the book — I did find Coetzee’s portrayal of what those reactions might be to be excellent fiction.

  6. Trevor says:

    Colette, I’ve finally read it, after hearing loads about it from you!

    Graham, while I think reading the other books is a great project (particularly Youth), I wonder if the other two might be a bit more disappointing after this one.

    Lee, I’ll be posting a review of Heathcock’s book soon, and I hope to hear much more from you about them.

    Leroy, I certainly recommend reading them in order, though I don’t believe it is necessary. Partially, I would recommend this approach because I think the books steadily got better, and I’d hate for them to steadily go the other direction.

    KFC, what is true is not a concern to me either. I read somewhere that the names of the characters interviewed are nicely made up based on poetics, and I see no reason to feel the characters themselves aren’t as well. Certainly if Coetzee’s presentation of Summertime is to be believed, even if he’s presenting truth, it’s still fiction.

    I failed to mention how I thought of Roth’s Zuckerman books while reading this. Roth not only plays with fiction and fact when presenting Zuckerman, but Zuckerman himself is an erstwhile biographer who explicitly states that most of the biography is made up — and then is worried quite a lot about his own biography in Exit Ghost.

  7. stujallen says:

    I didn’t get on with it when I read it I found the blurring of fiction and fact annoying but now a good while after I ve read it ,yes it is quite good and typical of him and other books in trilogy ,all the best stu

  8. Trevor says:

    Stu, I’m curious why the blurring annoyed you, if you could expand. I quite enjoyed the total blurring. I care little about Cortzee’s life, but what he has to say about how life can be portrayed (or not) fascinated me, and the blur was a big part of that.

  9. Lee Monks says:

    I found the blurring the more interesting aspect, in the same way as with In A Strange Room, shifting perspectives and conflation and so on.

  10. J. Ditkowsky says:

    I wonder if one of the themes might have been six characters as “they” experienced the “author”; ie, the characters are real, and the author has died because he is no longer real to them. ?

  11. Betsy says:

    I found J. M. Coetzee’s “Summertime” both interesting and startling.

    That it takes place in Coetzee’s native South Africa at the height of apartheid makes it all the more compelling and puzzling.

    The method employed was fascinating: after “Coetzee’s” death, an interviewer talks with four women and one man who were ‘close’ to the writer when he was in his thirties. The ‘biographer’ also provides some excerpts from the “Coetzee’s” journals of the period, and finally, the interviewer has a few opinions of his own. “Coetzee”, the main character, is a “fictionalized” version of the author (Coetzee), something which subjects the whole process to yet another lens (the eighth layer?). One suspects that each of the interviewees is a creation or an amalgam, and that at any rate, offers the real Coetzee a mouthpiece. One also suspects that the “fiction” provides Coetzee with a structure that allows him to condense and reorganize reality while intensifying the essential truth. Still, that Coetzee has written his own obituary as a work of fiction gives the entire book a uniquely peculiar and alluring shimmer.

    The book is startling because it continually presents the writer (“Coetzee”) in an unflattering light. The book has the feel of “setting the record straight”, but the record in question is the Nobel Prize. It is as if since winning the Nobel, the author has been continually subjected to being mistaken for someone he is not (a preacher, a politician, a journalist, a lawyer), and as if this book represents the writer’s chance to demonstrate once and for all that he is actually a man of very clay feet.

    One of the characters comments that “Coetzee” was not “a man of substance”, and she even questions how such an ordinary man could be deemed a great man. (Of course, that is probably Coetzee’s point.) Three of the women remark upon his strangely asexual self-presentation, almost as if he were a eunuch or autistic. He strikes his cousin as incompetent, and he strikes the reader as being mired. One of the women describes their sexual encounters in detail, commenting on how he seemed barely present. As a man, she complained that he was hardly an adequate partner. His cousin (who had always loved him) wondered about his lack of wife, his lack of drive, his lack of sexuality, but most of all, his lack of accessibility. She wished she could “save” him, but thought it was impossible. (“Saving” people is another question Coetzee explores in this book, and he makes a point of mentioning Jesus twice, once to make the point that while Jesus could have been a killer politician, he chose another route. “Saving” and “being saved” appear to be topics about which Coetzee thinks there are usually alternative options. Can “Coetzee” ‘save’ his father? Probably not.)

    Despite the fact that “Coetzee” was a lifelong teacher, no one thought he was a great teacher. A mother to one of his tutees was alarmed that “Coetzee” seemed to have taken an inappropriate interest in her daughter, and then, she was totally repelled when he became inappropriately interested in her, a widow in mourning. She was annoyed enough by his “platonic” theories regarding teaching that she remembered them, and she was completely baffled that he had used her as a model for one of his heroines.

    “Adequate” and “prepared” were the things his colleagues said about him. He wasn’t that type of “pied-piper professor” that students ennoble with roses and letters to the editor. He did not have a following. What a come down! You win the Nobel Prize and your students give you C’s on “Rate My Professor”. He co-taught a potentially great course – the literature of Africa – but he avoided all preaching and pyrotechnics and may have been a little safe for the fire-brands’ taste. But who else had even thought to teach it?

    Three of the women did not think him to be a great writer, although one took a renewed interest in him when she heard she might have been the model for his heroine in the novel “Foe”. One of his lovers thought he – the Nobel Prize winner – lacked “ambition.”

    He struggled with what he thought to be his filial duty. He wanted to take care of his aged father, but he was afraid of drowning in the duties of caring for him. “Coetzee” closes the book with an impassioned an extreme proposal – that he either must take care of his father or lose himself so doing, or that he abandon his father to save himself. This alarmed attitude of desperation shows a portrait of the artist as an overwhelmed young man.

    Finally, while the young “Coetzee” is aware of things being wrong with South Africa, he seems paralyzed. One morning he tries to engage his father in a discussion about the five black people who had been butchered in a murder staged to look as if it was “black-on-black”, when in reality, “Coetzee” knows that it was most likely government agents dressed in black-face. But his father changes the subject. We never hear about these murders again.
    He and his father live in a house on the road to Pollsmoor Prison. They see the vans going by with the men gripping the bars. He wonders, almost idly, what stories the neighbors tell their children about that. And then we hear no more about Pollsmoor Prison, except that this was before Nelson Mandela got there.

    Some startling information about “Coetzee’s” politics emerge from two of his Cape Town two teaching colleagues. This is perhaps the most upsetting aspect of Coetzee’s self-portrayal.

    His politics are not at all politically correct! As presented, Coetzee appears to be a dreamer and a romantic, “romantic” being a word that his colleague Sophie used, not admiringly, to describe his politics. He is in no way an activist, and he is apparently disappointed in the way South Africa is developing. In fact, the real Coetzee has not stuck around to find out.

    Sophie sums up his ‘anti-political politics’, by saying that new South Africa “was not Utopian enough for him.” When pressed, she says his politics could be typified by “The closing down of the mines. The ploughing under of the vineyards. The disbanding of the armed forces. The abolition of the automobile. Universal vegetarianism. Poetry in the streets. That sort of thing.”

    What is the Nobel-prize-winner-to-be doing? One does feel that he is being tongue-in-cheek about the whole issue of the Nobel bully-pulpit. His prize lecture, for instance, bears no resemblance to Faulkner’s. It is not short, accessible or quotable. Coetzee is not easily co-opted. Possibly, after the Nobel, people expected him to spout their politics and lead a movement. This book makes it clear that’s not who he has ever been.

    So what was the Nobel-Prize-Winner as a Young Man actually up to in Summertime?

    It is up to the reader to find out: Coetzee reveals through Julia that “Coetzee” had been writing Dusklands. But that is all Summertime tells us about it. It remains the reader’s project to actually read Dusklands and see if it feels like an adequate response to living on the Pollsmoor Road.
    What balances all this hero-puncturing is the humanity that glows throughout the novel. “Coetzee” cannot bear to be cooped up in a typical marriage, but he is the lover who gives Julia the “erotic landmark” of her life. Coetzee might portray “Coetzee” as a lover who is so withholding that a woman remembers him as autistic, but Coetzee can imagine a man who is his opposite. Margot thinks of her husband as fairly private and quiet, but unlike “Coetzee”, he is able to give himself to Margot fully, and when we read about them, we are moved. Not only that, but Margot’s husband is a man who has given himself to his workers, paying them a fair wage by himself driving the truck. Margot loves him deeply for the devotion he shows to her and his workers.

    Coetzee himself is deeply fair and respectful to his four women – Julia, Margot, Adriana, and Sophie, making them each unique and believable, one devoted to her farm, another to psychology, another to dance, another to literature. Three of them are also devoted to family. He portrays them as intensely alive and entitled to their strongly held ideas about life. In a way, these portrayals read as apologies to women that Coetzee probably new – women to whom he could be not be a full partner as long as he was devoted to writing.

    I liked the romantic visit to The Karoo, I liked the wackiness of his infatuation with Adriana, I liked the fact that he made friends with the guy who got the job instead of him, I liked the fact that he taught African literature in Cape Town when no yet had done so.

    This is a portrait of the artist as a young man. This is what it felt like to try to be a writer when hardly anything was going right. The young man had screwed up his possibilities in the United States to defend a principle, his mother had died while he was away, his father had gotten sick, the house was a mess, he was just part-timer, not a regular teacher, there’d been a long drought, and to top things off, there was no ignoring Pollsmoor Prison. And it doesn’t help that when he decided to get going, he completely miscalculated how long it was going to take to redo the foundation he had decided to fix. Surely he had also miscalculated how long it would take to write his books.

    I loved how real the dilemma is. There is no grandstanding, no great political success, no successful love affair, no tender awakening between father and son, no roses at the end of the lecture, no ease.

    There is only the work.

    “Coetzee” said it was time South Africans starting doing their own work.
    For me to see the fruit of Coetzee’s work, I can’t go see the house on the way to Pollsmoor Prison. But I can read Dusklands.

  12. Trevor says:

    Hi Betsy, I’m sorry it’s taken me a while to respond and I’m afraid I don’t have a great response due to time constraints (always a problem!!). I am wondering, did you read the other two books in this loose trilogy? I don’t think they’re necessary, but if you haven’t read Boyhood and Youth, well then, I think you’ve got some great stuff coming.

  13. Betsy says:

    Hi Trevor. I look forward to those two books. I really enjoyed Summertime. Disgrace was really demanding, and Michael K, Barbarians, and Dusklands look to have the same weight. These memoirs add to the portrait of the artist.

Leave a Reply