Fictioneering

Frank Kermode

  • Summertime by J.M. Coetzee
    Harvill Secker, 266 pp, £17.99, August 2009, ISBN 978 1 84655 318 9

Subtitled ‘Scenes from Provincial Life’, Summertime is described as the final volume of a trilogy, the others being Boyhood and Youth. These books are instalments of a sort of autobiography. The first two volumes could pass as memoirs, though only Boyhood is actually given that description. Each of these earlier books is a portrait of the artist at the relevant age. This new volume is different: it records a series of interviews, by a prospective biographer, of people who knew Coetzee, along with some notes by the biographer himself about possible additions and developments. By the time of the interviews the novelist, who emigrated to Australia, has not only won the Nobel Prize for literature but died. The chronological sequence of the ‘memoir’ has obviously taken several impatient forward leaps.

Boyhood gives an account of the narrator’s sufferings at a school, memorable both for the savage beatings administered as a matter of course by the masters and the bullying by Afrikaner boys. Coetzee is himself an Afrikaner, his native language is Afrikaans, but the family spoke English at home, and he later claimed no more than a competence in Afrikaans. His disgust with Afrikaner culture is always evident: ‘He thinks of Afrikaners as people in a rage all the time because their hearts are hurt. He thinks of the English as people who have not fallen into a rage because they live behind walls and guard their hearts well.’ The boy’s private games and his ways of judging his parents foretell a future of solitude.

In Youth the narrator is a student with the prospect of a career in South Africa, but he breaks away and settles in London, where poverty and the climate make life hard until his mathematical skills get him a job as a programmer at IBM. He will improve on this when he joins a government computer project. Meanwhile he continues his work on a thesis about Ford Madox Ford, who disappoints him – five good novels and a heap of trash. His main interest remains literary, however, and he chooses as his mentor Ford’s champion Ezra Pound. His own writing isn’t getting anywhere. He fights losing battles with the blank page, and for recreation frequents the cinema and the bookshops. The dreariness of his friendless sojourn in England is not dispelled by his sexual enterprises, described in chill, self-deprecating detail. He is far from finding for himself the style of life he thinks appropriate to an artist – a style coldly impassioned, licentious and creative. On the contrary, he is ‘afraid of writing, afraid of women’. At the end of Youth he is not a poet, not a writer, not an artist. He is ‘a 24-year-old computer programmer in a world in which there are no 30-year-old computer programmers’.

Boyhood is subtitled ‘A Memoir’ and Youth is not, but the reader will in neither case suppose that these narratives are free of fiction; perceiving that, especially in Youth, the author’s purposes always call for liberty at the frontier between life and the freedoms of fiction. But both books will leave readers convinced that Coetzee is a powerful enough writer to make that border territory his own, and that he can do pretty well anything he wants there, having multiple skills and extraordinary, quiet energy.

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