Uneasy Guest

Hermione Lee

  • Youth by J.M. Coetzee
    Secker, 169 pp, £14.99, May 2002, ISBN 0 436 20582 3

By comparison with the acclaim for Disgrace, and the respectful reception of Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, Youth has been met here with some disappointed and negative reviews (‘a tortuous exercise in intellectual introspection, and not much else’; ‘as fiction it is so interior and cerebral, it fails to engage’; ‘not wholly satisfactory as either novel or memoir’). Is the tide turning against Coetzee? Or is this darkly teasing little book really so much worse than its predecessors? It’s not as if we expected to be charmed. The drab early 1960s London setting is as grim as Coetzee’s South Africa ever was; the cold, dysfunctional, misogynist central character, John, is as compromised and unappealing as the disgraced David Lurie. But perhaps Youth is being taken too seriously, and we are meant to mock this grim young man and the Conradian title that portentously frames his rite of passage.

A good deal depends on whether we read Youth as fiction or autobiography. It was published in the UK without a subtitle, and with a blurb suggesting it is meant to be read in the same way as Coetzee’s novels of alienated, unresolved quests: ‘He begins a dark pilgrimage in which he is continually tested and continually found wanting.’ Thus it has been reviewed as a novel with powerful autobiographical elements. In America, it is subtitled ‘Scenes from Provincial Life II’, a deliberate pairing with Boyhood. The subtitle (used by William Cooper for a novel in the 1960s, but that’s probably been forgotten) hovers between storytelling and remembering. Certainly, the facts of this life are Coetzee’s. After the uneasy South African childhood we read about in Boyhood, he went to the University of Cape Town in the late 1950s, where he graduated in English and Maths. At the start of Youth, we find John in 1959, aged 19, living in a flat in Cape Town, paying his way with a variety of small teaching and library jobs so that he can be independent of his parents, coldly undergoing a series of disappointing and pointless affairs, revolted by ‘the carnage of Sharpeville’, desperate to get out of the country before he is conscripted for the Defence Force. In 1962, like this narrator, Coetzee left for London, where he was employed by IBM, and then by its British rival, International Computers, as one of the first wave of computer programmers, while working on an MA thesis by correspondence on Ford Madox Ford. The MA was awarded in 1963, but that takes us beyond the end of Youth. If there were to be another memoir it would cover Coetzee’s move to America (a move which the anti-American narrator of Youth strongly resists) to study linguistics and stylistics at the University of Texas at Austin and to write a PhD thesis on Beckett. In 1968, he became a professor of literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo, finished his thesis, and started his first book, Dusklands. In 1971, he returned to teach at the University of Cape Town, and became the J.M. Coetzee we know about.

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