by J.M. Coetzee (1997)
Penguin Books (1998)
166 pp

Certain that I would enjoy them, I’ve been putting off reading J.M. Coetzee’s three fictional memoirs for some time, even going so far as to assume that, had I read it, I would have chosen his third, Summertime, as the 2009 winner of the Booker Prize. So, when I got that Coetzee craving, familiar over the past few years, I delved in, reading each of the three one after the other. I won’t spoil my reviews of the next two, but I will say that I was right to suspect I would enjoy the first, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life.

In writing this memoir, Coetzee has chosen to adopt a rather unique perspective (which worked so well in his fellow South African Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room): he’s writing about himself in the third person. Where one might expect “I/We lived outside the town of Worcester” one instead gets “He/They lived outside the town of Worcester.” Worcester is a small town, out of the way, in South Africa. This provincial background will haunt him later on when he wants to become a serious artist, longing for a more dramatic boyhood in, say, London. The time period is the late 1940s and early 1950s, just before and after Coetzee reaches adolescence. I’d say this background hindered him not in the least, providing ample experience for a supreme output that also happens to include a wonderful, rich book about that very background.

As the book develops, one is, of course, reminded of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In fact, in many ways, Boyhood is a portrait of who Coetzee was in youth, giving a bit of insight into how he became the author of his oeuvre. In the book, which reads much more like a novel than a memoir, Coetzee gives us youthful impressions of terror and fascination in a variety of familiar situations — at school, in sickness, at sport — and of wonder and repulsion at a dawning awareness of words, art, and social ills. Furthermore, much of this book deals with Coetzee’s early uneasy relationships with his mother and father. But similarities to a masterpiece of world literature do not diminish Coetzee’s accomplishment. In fact, I welcomed the obvious connections.

In regards to his relationship with his parents, Coetzee’s relationship with his mother is both tender and sad, rendered in unsparing prose. We sense just how much Coetzee yearns for her, feels comforted by her. At the same time, perhaps because of his dependence and certainly because of his demeanor, he yearns to separate himself and, through general coldness or alienation, succeeds in gradually pulling away, something she recognizes but is powerless to remedy.

He shares nothing with his mother. His life at school is kept a tight secret from her. She shall know nothing, he resolves, but what appears on his quarterly report, which shall be impeccable. He will always come in first in class. His conduct will always be Very Good, his progress Excellent. As long as the report is faultless, she will have no right to ask questions. That is the contract he establishes in his mind.

A central character in Boyhood, it is interesting to track his relationship with her in the future books where her absence sticks out all over the place. In this book, the absent parent (which will also change in future books) is Coetzee’s father; he’s practically on the periphery of his son’s experience at this point in time.

He has never worked out the position of his father in the household. In fact, it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all. In a normal household, he is prepared to accept, the father stands at the head: the house belongs to him, the wife and children live under his sway. But in their own case, and in the households of his mother’s two sisters as well, it is the mother and children who make up the core, while the husband is no more than an appendage, a contributor to the economy as a paying lodger might be.

What his father does in his absence becomes very important to Coetzee’s fate. Again, it is fascinating to track this relationship, which has a certain degree of resentment and repulsion, and see it develop into a type of tenderness. It reminded me of some of the relationships in Coetzee’s other books, principally the relationship between Michael K and his mother in Life and Times of Michael K.

Another central aspect to this book is Coetzee’s developing intellect. One passage in particular that certainly brings up A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man was the one that explored, as Coetzee grows up, his fascination with words and sounds that all connect at an early age into an intelligent perspective on language and its beautiful subtleties.

Is fok is spelled with a v, which would make it more venerable, or with an f, which would make it a truly wild word, primeval, without ancestry? The dictionary says nothing, the words are not there, none of them.

Then there are gat and poep-hol and words like them, hurled back and forth in bouts of abuse whose force he does not understand. Why couple the back of the body with the front? What have the gat-words, so heavy and guttural and black, to do with sex, with its softly inviting s and its mysterious final x?

These are all fascinating and worthwhile aspects of this book, but I hate to leave without addressing something quite obvious. Coetzee’s youth in South Africa was troubled at all turns by government sponsored racism. In this book, we get mostly confusion, as, for example, in the following passage where Coetzee is watching a black boy on the street:

So this boy who has unreflectingly kept all his life to the path of nature and innocence, who is poor and therefore good, as the poor always are in fairy-tales, who is slim as an eel and quick as a hare and would defeat him with ease in any contest of swiftness of foot or skill of hand — this boy, who is a living reproof to him, is nevertheless subjected to him in ways that embarrass him so much that he squirms and wriggles his shoulders and does not want to look at him any longer, despite his beauty.

Of course, as always, Coetzee’s skill with language and clarity — even when clarity is painful or coolly distant (as it often is when he discusses his parents) — allows for this to be much more than a simple memoir. At its heart it is still concerned with language and with the way language interacts with the world around. It’s an excellent book. And I’ll give a slight spoiler now for my upcoming posts on Youth and Summertime: they only get better.

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