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J M Coetzee: Youth

The second in Coetzee’s fictionalised autobiography trilogy sees him in England. He actually starts with his studies in South Africa, financed by various odd jobs, but the aim is to graduate and go to England. His studies are in maths but he is only interested in pure mathematics and this makes his course difficult, as he is expected to do applied mathematics and physics as well, which he does not want to do, so he fits awkwardly into English studies. While still in South Africa, we learn that his lack of success in poetry is matched by his lack of success with women. He admits that he lacks passion. His first romantic encounter is with the twin sister of the girlfriend of a close friend. She has a reputation for being unbalanced. She very soon moves in with him (to his disgust, though he does nothing to stop her). She later moves out, expressing her contempt for him but continues to visit, often unexpectedly. Other relationships are equally unsuccessful. One woman becomes pregnant but, at her own expense, has an abortion. As well as his love life and his literary career – Ezra Pound is his model – he watches the ever deteriorating situation in South Africa post-Sharpeville. He fears revolution is imminent. Other South Africans, such as his parents, feel that the problem is exaggerated. This spurs him to go to England, which he does.

He has come as an immigrant but must find a job, so he can stay and become a poet. He has a romantic image of London which the weather and the fact that he is a foreigner gradually dispel. Finding a suitable job is not easy. He tries to be a substitute school teacher but is asked to teach social studies, about which he knows nothing, so declines. Finally, he applies for and gets a position as a programmer with IBM, though, despite his maths ability, he only manages to scrape through. He works there for a year but is not happy. Meanwhile, he goes through a series of desultory love affairs. These are all odd as it generally seems that, while he does want a woman, he is not particularly attracted to any of the women he sleeps with. Indeed, in one or two cases, he cannot wait for them to leave or is not happy when they phone him. He even experiments with homosexuality and considers going to a prostitute. Nor does he make male friends easily. He does receive a very small bursary from his university in South Africa, and sets out to do a study of Ford Madox Ford, primarily because Ezra Pound thought very highly of him. While he enjoys the major works, he finds the other works generally uninteresting but, nevertheless, spends much of his time at the British Museum Reading Room, reading Ford.

But he is making no progress as a writer and, in the end, he leaves his job at IBM. However, as a foreigner, he is obliged to have a job or else leave the country, so he applies for a job with International Computers, a British computer company. He has to work outside London but finds the atmosphere more congenial, not least because he is able to make friends with a strange Indian, Ganapathy, who has lived and worked in the USA but is anti-USA or, rather, pro-Vietnamese, as is Coetzee. But, ultimately, we get the story of a not very happy, solitary man, unsure of where he is going, finding it difficult to make friends or establish romantic relationships and toying with various ideas of literature. In short, the ideal character for a writer.

Publishing history

First published 2002 by Viking