Book World: The artist through the eyes of others in J.M. Coetzee's 'Summertime'
Friday, January 8, 2010
By J.M. Coetzee
Viking. 266 pp. $25.95
Few writers are as puzzling as John Maxwell Coetzee. His works are, in turns, brilliant and brittle; his stories, as wise as they are maddeningly self-absorbed. If he is the most cerebral of South African novelists, he is also the most visceral. When he speaks -- if he speaks at all -- it is in infuriating riddles. And yet, despite those contradictions -- despite the critics who see his achievements as decidedly suspect -- he has managed to produce masterworks of post-colonial literature that have earned him considerable praise: two Bookers, a Jerusalem Prize, the coveted Nobel. Now, with his new novel, "Summertime," we learn that no one finds that approval more suspect than Coetzee himself.
The novel is part confessional, part tease, a wholly trumped-up story in which a callow biographer sets out to get the true goods on the novelist. The result is an uneven patchwork of notes and interviews in which informants produce damning evidence that John Coetzee is less master than human fiasco, less hero than inarticulate brute.
It's not the first time Coetzee has written himself into a story. His fictionalized memoir, "Boyhood," anchored his coming of age in the heyday of apartheid; "Youth" followed him into awkward young manhood in '60s London. Many of Coetzee's novels, too, are inspired by real life: The harrowing scenes in "Age of Iron," for instance, were an eerie mirror on his ex-wife's struggle with cancer; the haunting portrait of the ruined professor in "Disgrace" was informed by thorny experience at the University of Cape Town; the heartbroken father in "The Master of Petersburg" reflected his own anguish at the loss of his son.
In "Summertime," we see Coetzee's life refracted through the memories of five people who knew him in the early 1970s, just before the release of his first novel, "Dusklands." The man whom these fleeting acquaintances recall is not impressive or appealing. He lives with his old, widowed father in a suburb of Cape Town, tries to shore up their dilapidated cottage with his own meager labors and works when he can as a teacher.
"He was not what most people would call attractive," says his former lover Julia. "He looked out of place, like a bird, one of those flightless birds; or like an abstracted scientist who had wandered by mistake out of his laboratory. There was an air of seediness about him too, an air of failure." That apparent weakness doesn't stop Julia from crawling into bed with him, though. For the next few months, they engage in a liaison she sees as fitting retribution for her husband's flagrant infidelities. But when Coetzee asks her to make love in time to a Schubert piece, she realizes how truly weird and willful he can be. In the end, her skinny prince is a mere frog, "not fully human."
Coetzee's weirdness plays out in other ways. Margot, his married cousin, recounts that he claimed to know something about cars, drove her out into the glacial wilderness, and then stranded them on a secluded road, where they were forced to spend the night, trying to warm themselves with little more than their own body heat. It's vivid confirmation of everything Margot has ever felt about Coetzee men; they are spineless, "slap gat: a rectum, an anus, over which one has less than complete control."
Joining this chorus of reproof is a dancer: She is Brazilian, passionate, the mother of one of his high school students. Suspecting Coetzee of a lecherous mind, she accuses him of having more than a pedagogical interest in her daughter. "He shouldn't have worn a beard," she gripes in mounting annoyance, "his beard was too thin. Also he struck me as a célibataire . . . a man who has spent his life in the priesthood and lost his manhood and become incompetent with women."
When the dancer learns that Coetzee is romantically interested in her, not her daughter, she squelches him outright. Her ire proves hardest, however, on Coetzee's literary aspirations: "I know he won a big reputation later; but was he really a great writer? Because to my mind, a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You have also to be a great man. And he was not a great man. He was a little man, an unimportant little man."