In 'Summertime,' Coetzee completes a character built upon his own
The latest by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee blurs the line between fact and fiction as it examines the character of a lately deceased author named J.M. Coetzee.
Special to The Seattle Times
by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 266 pp., $25.95
"Summertime," shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, is J.M. Coetzee's provocative third installment in his series of semi-autobiographical memoirs couched as fiction. The Nobel laureate and two time Booker Prize winner's previous "Boyhood" (1998) and "Youth" (2002) followed the writer from adolescence into his early twenties. This time, the successful writer named John Coetzee is dead.
The novel begins and ends with a group of "Notebooks" which reveal Coetzee's uneasy relationship with his ailing father while they are living in a ramshackle cottage near Cape Town. The core of the book, however, is the series of crucial exchanges between a biographer, Mr. Vincent, and five people who knew the enigmatic writer during his supposedly formative years (1972-1975). The interviews, which often blur the line between fact and fiction, take place over eight months, from late 2007 until mid-2008, in Canada, South Africa, Brazil, England and Paris. In the process, the biographer creates an unflattering but apparently authentic characterization of a composite Coetzee.
The first conversation is with psychotherapist Dr. Julia Kis Frankl in Kingston, Ontario. It details an awkward 1972 liaison in South Africa with the young Coetzee. Julia was 26, married to a philandering husband, with a young daughter. She recalls meeting Coetzee, a bookkeeper, in a supermarket, finding him a "[s]ocially inept" and "[r]epressed" loner with "no sexual presence whatsoever."
She believes a key recurrent theme in Coetzee's novels — "the woman who doesn't fall in love with the man" — is a reflection of Coetzee's life experiences. She describes their "erotic entanglement" as "two automata having inscrutable commerce." When Coetzee suggests coordinating their lovemaking to Schubert, she says it is as though the man "mistook his mistress as a violin."
In the novel's second exchange, Coetzee's cousin Margot reinforces Julia's severe characterization. She claims he is "prickly, opinionated, incompetent, ridiculous." Like Julia, Margot wonders why the biographer is interested in her but agrees that she is as much a part of her "heatless, sexless" cousin as he is a part of her.
The novel rapidly becomes a series of sketches about Coetzee's unsuccessful sexual matchups. One of the more fascinating segments involves the statements given by Adriana, a Brazilian ballerina. Coetzee, then in his early 30s, tutors one of her daughters and is attracted to Adriana. He joins her dance classes, where she finds him "intractable, unteachable." Again, Schubert's music works its way into their love life. She ultimately decides that Coetzee was a great writer and a great human being.
In the fourth interview, Martin, a candidate for a lectureship in English literature along with Coetzee, does not concur. He finds Coetzee an "adequate" academic, "not a notable teacher." In the final interview, Sophie, another university colleague who shared a course on African literature with Coetzee, describes him as "cold, supercilious."
"Summertime" is a challenging but rewarding read, a warts-and-all mosaic of an irascible character. Even though the facts of the fiction are not always in accord with information known about the real Coetzee, the variant perspectives coalesce to form an intriguing likeness of a formidable writer.
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