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Book World: The artist through the eyes of others in J.M. Coetzee's 'Summertime'

By Marie Arana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; C03

SUMMERTIME

By J.M. Coetzee

Viking. 266 pp. $25.95

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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."

"Coetzee was never a popular writer," our biographer concludes, goaded by the accumulated evidence to make his own damning judgments. "The public never took him to their collective heart. There was an image of him in the public realm as a cold and supercilious intellectual." To truly understand the fictioneer, he adds (boosting his own slap gat method), you must "go behind the fictions," seek out the people who knew him best.

"But what if we are all fictioneers?" argues Sophie, another of Coetzee's unimpressed paramours. "What if we all continually make up the stories of our lives? Why should what I tell you about Coetzee be any worthier of credence than what he tells you himself?"

And therein lies the nub of this strange little novel: Coetzee wants to be judged by his works, not his life.

Such metafictional devices are not new to Coetzee's books. In more than one, he has snatched back the curtain and showed us the hands on the machine. In "Elizabeth Costello," his novel about an aging English professor, he delivered a bewildering string of literary and ethical preoccupations. In "Waiting for the Barbarians," he offered an extraordinary parable of what it means to live in a moral fog. In "Foe," he told of an Englishwoman, stranded on an island, struggling to communicate with a black former slave whose tongue has been ripped from his head: Surely it is the most daring description of what it means to be white and black in a culture of mutual incomprehension. In "Disgrace," he gave us a heart-stopping tale of rape across race, across sexuality, across species, summoning a firestorm in his own country that spurred him to emigrate to Australia.

Dear reader, he seems to be saying: Take a good look at who we are.

"When all the literary games are done and his last sentence deconstructed," his fellow writer Rian Malan has said, "Coetzee will be remembered for something quite simple: here was a writer who described, more truly than any other, what it was to be white and conscious in the face of apartheid's stupidities and cruelties."

And so, in the end, trying to parse Coetzee's novel about Coetzee is a bit like trying to pry open the goose that laid the golden egg. What does it matter what kind of man he is? Why should we care if he is cripplingly shy, makes love like an automaton, is unwilling to strike the authorial pose? Does it really make any difference to the art to know that the artist doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't eat meat, goes virtually catatonic at dinner parties; that he surrounds himself with high walls, routinely declines interviews, refuses to trot to podiums to accept a prize?

As Coetzee puts it in this defiantly heretical novel, a writer is "just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but, frankly, not a giant."

Dear reader, he seems to say to us: So sorry to disappoint.

Arana, author of "Cellophane" and "Lima Nights," is a writer at large for The Post.

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