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Summertime by J.M.Coetzee

Written by eastern writer on Thursday, January 14, 2010

Title: Summertime
Author: J.M.Coetzee
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 266 pages

The subject of Summertime is 'John Coetzee'. As far as many of the autobiographical details that the general reader might be familiar with go, 'John Coetzee' bears a strong resemblance to author J.M.Coetzee: both have South African backgrounds, and returned there after stays abroad, in the UK and United States; both wrote works such as Dusklands, Disgrace, and two fictional memoirs, Boyhood and Youth; both won the Nobel Prize. There is one major difference, however: 'John Coetzee' is dead.
Summertime is an odd and somewhat creepy exercise in auto/biography and self-analysis, and while Boyhood and Youth were written in the third person, Coetzee here tries to remove himself even further -- while yet remaining at the very center of the book.
In this alternate reality, 'John Coetzee' also planned a third memoir, after Boyhood and Youth, but it: "never saw the light of day". A biographer, Vincent, has now decided to follow 'John Coetzee''s trail, and tell the story of this "stage in his life", his years in South Africa in the early 1970s, after he returned from the United States, a period during which he worked as a teacher, in various capacities, and also published his first book, Dusklands. The way Summertime is presented, however, suggests that this is not the final product, as it collects the material the biographer presumably plans to rely on in writing his work but reads very much like a research-work in progress.
It is noteworthy that Coetzee gives 'John Coetzee' the first and final words: the opening and closing sections of the novel consist of notebook fragments from and/or covering the period in question. They also include a few annotations, about which the biographer claims:

Coetzee wrote them himself. They are memos to himself, written in 1999 or 2000, when he was thinking of adapting those particular entries for a book.

The five other sections of the book each center on a different person who knew 'John Coetzee' during that period, and mainly take the form of interviews the biographer conducts with them. Some of the conversation partners offer expansive answers -- telling their stories, as it were -- while other exchanges are more of a rapid-fire back and forth of questions and answers. In one instance the biographer reads back what he has made of an interview with his subject, Margot, explaining:

I cut out my prompts and questions and fixed up the prose to read as an uninterrupted narrative spoken in your voice.

But the version presented here includes interruptions and further questions and elaborations as the subject comments on this revised version. Here and elsewhere, the biographer promises to take into account his subjects' concerns about what information is related, and how:

One final thing: if you are planning to quote me, would you make sure I have a chance to check the text first ?

Of course.

But though he promises things like: "I'll cut it. No problem", the text, as presented to the reader, appears to be entirely verbatim, and includes (presumably) all the information his subjects also wish withheld or reformulated, down to the: "one thing, entre nous, which you must not repeat in your book" (but which is repeated in this book ...). These are (it would seem) the 'raw' transcripts -- though, as in the case of Margot's, they aren't all entirely raw: in that case it is a transcript of both the revised earlier one and the reactions to those revisions .....
Some of the stories are also filtered by intermediaries, as the conversation with the Brazilian-born Adriana, for example, is conducted with an interpreter (though this is not immediately revealed); elsewhere, Vincent relies on "a colleague from South Africa to check that I had the Afrikaans words right".
Coetzee does not stress the unreliability of the narrative(s), but he hints at it constantly. The biographer, too, questions records -- though not (openly) the ones he is presenting: he reacts only with "[Silence.]" when it is suggested his interview subjects may have their own agendas -- in explaining why he has chosen to build his biographical work in this way, relying on others' stories rather than Coetzee's own words:

I have been through the letters and diaries. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record -- not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer. In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing the same for his own eyes, or perhaps posterity

(Which begs the question what the hell an author who presents a mock-memoir of this Summertime-sort is up to -- and certainly confirms that, whatever it is, it is anything but reliable. This despite Coetzee's presentation, which, with its essentially documentary form, can not but lull readers into believing that some truths are being conveyed.)
Vincent explains:

I am not interested in coming to a final judgment on Coetzee. I leave that to history. What I am doing is telling the story of a stage in his life, or if we can't have a single story then several stories from several perspectives.

(The choice of provisional over final judgment is interesting: Coetzee may have been willing to kill himself off, but isn't quite ready to tie up all the loose ends and offer a summa. Just as the book's fragmentary, willfully incomplete form suggests, Coetzee sees himself (and his self-analysis) as a work in progress, with much revision of the accumulated records still needed for any neat and tidy summing up.)
In one of the accounts 'John Coetzee' claims: "I don't know any stories", and Summertime is a work of fiction so deeply rooted in the factual that it does (or at least seems to) without any pure invention -- what could be considered story-telling, in its most absolute sense. But as his biographer recognized, 'John Coetzee' is a fictioneer (and as the reader recognizes, J.M Coetzee is even more obviously one): everything is a flight of the imagination, no matter how hard he tries to ground it in any reality.
The stories that are presented here are the interactions five people had with 'John Coetzee' in the early 1970s: four women and one man. (Vincent also reveals that these are the only five accounts he will be relying on for his biography.) It's an unusual approach, all the more so because, as Julia, the first interview-subject, insists when relating her story:

I really was the main character. John really was a minor character

We essentially only get their versions -- and there is only so much they can tells about the man. Yet 'John Coetzee' remains an elusive figure to these five as well; even intimacy is not very revealing. They have their ideas and thoughts about him, and can diagnose some of his failures -- "he did not love anybody, he was not built for love" -- but beyond that he remains a shadowy figure. A minor character. (Yet he is also the dominant presence in the book: Plato is mentioned, and 'John Coetzee' is presented as a Platonic shadow. Even if, in our cave, we can't see him, we are pushed towards coming up with out own sense of him based on what information is available.)
'John Coetzee''s failures in relationships are the central issues Coetzee examines in Summertime. This includes his relationship with his father, with whom he lives. Repeatedly described as sickly and looking older than he is, 'John Coetzee''s father is a withdrawn, friendless man now in a state of decline. The final notebook entries, with which the novel closes, provide some background about the man -- and also about the burden he has become to 'John Coetzee'; tellingly, the complications are left unresolved.
More of the examples involve women, as 'John Coetzee''s hapless romantic (and sexual) efforts are described. As Julia puts it:

In his lovemaking I now think there was an autistic quality. I offer this not as a criticism, but as a diagnosis

His efforts at wooing are hardly any better .....
In a rare section where he is allowed to speak for himself (refracted, of course, through these intermediaries) he remembers his six-year-old self:

And all the time I was thinking, So this is what it means to be in love ! Because -- let me confess it -- I was in love with you. And ever since that day, being in love with a woman has meant being free to say everything on my heart.

Yet he fares poorly with these women, and poorly in unburdening his heart. It's no coincidence that what he thinks he recognizes as love -- and what he clings to, lifelong -- comes at an age when physical impossibility removes any sexual component; in adulthood, he is able (and presumably eager) to go through the motions (to Schubert, in one particularly misguided effort) but comes across as, at best ... autistic. The failures are various, but the conclusion the women reach, sooner or later, about the relationships is always the same: "It was not sustainable." (It's the final subject, Sophie, who sums things up that way without going into details; it could come across as cryptic, but it's not: little more need be said about 'John Coetzee''s intimate relationships.)
While 'John Coetzee''s writings are only incidentally dealt with, his biographer does elicit some literary judgements. Dusklands is described as: "a project in self-administered therapy" (a description that fits Summertime, too, as J.M.Coetzee uses it to come to terms with his father, his relationships with women, and South Africa), and it is suggested that writing became: "a sort of unending cathartic exercise" for him. Sophie, meanwhile, says she lost interest in his work after Disgrace:

In general I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion.

Coetzee makes it a bit too easy on himself with the self-criticism: while often accused of being passionless, and certainly always in control of his elements, he revels in medium-deforming -- including, of course, in this very book (but also in works from Dusklands to Diary of a Bad Year). And among the most revealing asides in Summertime comes when Vincent asks: "Am I taking too many liberties ?"
Does Coetzee take too many liberties ? This is a very elaborate game: so obviously based on fact, twisted into fiction (especially in removing himself from the scene by literally wiping himself from the face of the earth), the presentation meant to look almost sloppy -- like a set of notes waiting to be edited into a book -- yet obviously very painstakingly and carefully put together like this. The overlay of fact and fiction remains uncomfortable, but then this is meant to be a very uncomfortable book (as the descriptions of his love-interests alone would assure). Yet it's hard also not to see it as a vanity project.
Coetzee is an incredibly talented writer and a master craftsman -- and, yes, this is a meticulously crafted book, and one of its weaknesses is that it is so obviously a construct. Summertime is fascinating, but leaves one very uneasy -- about everything from Coetzee himself to the very idea of fiction and autobiography.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 September 2009

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