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J M Coetzee: Summertime

Coetzee has always liked post-modern games and here we get quite a few. Firstly, the story of the dead author is told not directly but through interviews a biographer is conducting with people who knew the author. Secondly, the interviewer/biographer is clearly an unreliable narrator. In a couple of the interviews, he has previously interviewed the subject and is now going over the interview, reading out what he has written over the phone to the interviewee. In a few cases the interviewee comments that he has exaggerated. In some cases he admits this. In other words, either the interviewer or the interviewee (or even both) is unreliable. We do not know which. Thirdly, the dead author is called John Coetzee. This raises the obvious questions. Is this dead author identical to the John Coetzee who wrote this book? Is he similar (i.e. the events more or less happened but names, places and details have been altered)? Is he the same but the events are only related in very broad terms to the real Coetzee? Or has the Coetzee who wrote the book we are reading merely used his own name for someone who bears no resemblance at all to him? And does it matter? Probably not.

The biographer/interviewer – we know only that he is called Mr. Vincent, as a couple of the interviewees address him in that way – states that his aim is to focus on a particular period of Coetzee’s life, namely the period when he returned from the United States in 1971/1972 until his first public recognition as a writer in 1977. The fictional Coetzee (as did the real one) studied in the United States and both of them had to leave the United States for involvement in anti-Vietnam War protests. The fictional Coetzee returns to South Africa and lives with his father. Much of the book is about his relationship with his father, including fragments of a notebook, at the end of the book, after the interviews. One of the things that is clear is that Coetzee is like his father, solitary and anti-social. Indeed, we learn more about the father, namely that he had been convivial and jolly, had had various interests, particularly rugby and Italian opera, but is now a sad and unhappy recluse, a man who has lost his job as a lawyer (the reason is not too clear but the real Coetzee’s father lost his job for opposition to apartheid) and who now works as a bookkeeper for a car parts dealer. Coetzee clearly feels a certain responsibility for him but, at the same time, recognises that a father and adult son should not live together.

We also learn briefly about Coetzee’s amorous relations, as the interviewer interviews two women (both married) with whom he had affairs, one woman (also married but whose husband died) whom he pursued unsuccessfully and his female cousin who may or may not have been interested in him sexually, though the feelings do not seem to have been reciprocated. The impression from all is that he was kind but not passionate. As for his writings we learn little. One of the women had not read his work. One had read only his earlier work but not his later work. If their stories contributed to his work, we do not learn about this. Indeed, those that are asked explicitly deny that they recognised themselves in his work. However, as this is not entirely about the fictional Coetzee but a post-modern novel, at least in some cases, we learn as much if not more about the interviewee as we do about Coetzee. Indeed, one interviewee specifically says that she can only tell her story, not his.

Of course, the whole thing works as Coetzee is such a first-class writer. The somewhat fragmented picture of Coetzee (and the somewhat voyeuristic interest as to whether this is the real Coetzee, as some of the biographical details are certainly identical) and of his lovers, colleagues and relatives is fascinating, not least because it is fragmentary. Is there more? What is he hiding? If his lovers, colleagues and relatives never really get to know him, how can we? But Coetzee is not there to make it easy for us and, while it may not be easy, it is still a first-class read.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Harvill Secker