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.

In Disgrace, which may be the finest of his more orthodox novels, one again senses the existence of resources of purity and power, and also reserves of feeling that may be tragic or even religious. Given his freedom to make any person in the narrative speak not only for himself but for the narrator, he can make extraordinary statements without vouching for their truth to character; so the following may be read as Coetzee himself speaking, or it may not, it may be the opinion of a character or a straight or an ironical comment by the writer: ‘My case rests on the rights of desire . . . on the god who makes even the small birds quiver . . . I was a servant of Eros . . . It was a god that acted through me.’ Thus he insists on the link between sexual and creative power. In context this remark seems startling, the more so in that the erotic here echoes an ancient and more general claim to creative inspiration: there is a god in us, a creative god, whether a god of poetry or of sex.

The man who makes this claim happens to be by trade a teacher who reflects unashamedly on his success in seducing one of his students; she, like other women in Coetzee’s stories, has been made to feel ‘the weight of the male gaze’. Opposition to that force, though it is expressed in formal terms by the college authorities, remains for the writer puny or irrelevant. He is willing to lose his job rather than cease to be a servant of Eros. In the remainder of the book he provides contexts for desire in all its life-providing forms, human and animal, for animals should have the love that is their due and is denied them, while human love can be shown as distorted or corrupted in various ways: by rape and violence as well as by marriage; when it is used basely as a means of acquiring property; or when it provides an image of the uneasy, heartless union that exists between dissident South African communities. Coetzee remarks more than once that Afrikaans is a language spoken by virtually nobody except Afrikaners, an isolating language; he provides many examples of it in his dialogue, tempting one to guess the meanings of the words.

Everything in Disgrace is as shipshape as in Conrad, and the mood is no less dark. Coetzee also becomes an inquisitor, sometimes almost playful, of fictional structures. In his later books he seems sometimes to have become impatient with anything that smacks of routine composition. Summertime is structurally so different from its predecessors that it is hard to think of the three books as a trilogy. It contains the testimony of five respondents, four of them women, and having so many disparate biographical points of view complicates one’s response to the mature, famous but already late author. What this amounts to, then, is that Coetzee has tired of telling stories simply, and therefore, he may feel, falsely. The writing of a ‘fictioneer’, to borrow a word he uses to describe his craft, is a form of art that cannot have a simple relationship to truth. We may naively hope to get a clear picture of the writer’s formative years, but the opening chapter, dated 22 August 1972 (when the writer was 32), is devoted to a newspaper report of a violent assault on a house ‘in a residential area’ by a gang apparently black but possibly Afrikaner, ‘whites in blackface’. The attack left seven dead, two of them children.

This overture is entirely concerned with South African politics. It has no evident connection with the Coetzee figure (‘John’ in the text), who is described as sharing a house with his father and spending most of his time not very usefully on repairing it. Certain passages italicised in the text are said by the biographer to be memoranda by Coetzee ‘himself’, perhaps as notes for another book. We are in the position of the biographer (who, like us, never met Coetzee), assembling fragments of information about his dead subject.

The first of his five interviewees is Dr Julia Frankl, who answers the questions candidly: she had thought John scrawny and unprepossessing, but still succumbed to the weight of his male gaze; yet he was disappointing in bed. She had been surprised to learn that this unimpressive lover had written a book, his first novel, Dusklands; but she did not admire it, preferring books with ‘proper heroes and heroines’. It might occur to the reader that interviewing of this kind would be an extravagant way of compiling a biography. As Dr Frankl complains, we learn more about her than about John, but the detail of her life, including the fact that her disagreeable husband, unlike her lover, was sexually satisfactory, does occasionally give some depth to the account of John’s rather hangdog existence at the time; and we do learn something that turns out to be important, namely that he became a vegetarian about the time he wrote the violent Dusklands. We still have to decide whether this is plain truth; but the humane treatment of animals was to be a cause of real importance to Coetzee.

Dr Frankl did not wholly approve of his turning himself into ‘a gentle man’, ‘the kind of man who would do no harm, not even to dumb animals, not even to a woman’. Repeatedly accused of lacking passion, he does, however, confess to one passionate hope: that as a writer he may become as close to immortality as it is possible to be. This aspiration may excuse some eccentric behaviour; having been a rather unwilling partner at the time, Dr Frankl remembers with scorn Coetzee’s attempt to make love in time to the slow movement of Schubert’s C major Quintet, not because he wants to achieve some sort of union of the two experiences but because he thinks Schubert’s movement ‘happens to be about fucking’. The experiment is a farcical failure. In an exasperated but imaginative moment Dr Frankl compares Coetzee to a man who mistakes his wife for a violin.

The other interviewees also concentrate, as you’d expect, on their own stories rather than John’s. With the second woman interrogated, Margot, a cousin of Coetzee’s, the biographer varies his method: he cuts out the interviewer’s intrusive questions and prompts, bringing her testimony together in a continuous narrative. He feels a need to explain that when he used ‘she’ in the resulting edited text he was seeking a personal pronoun that was ‘like I but is not I’, a complication that may throw some light on Coetzee’s narratives generally. The purpose of this obfuscation of personal pronouns is apparently to establish an opacity between the text and the person supposed to be speaking it; we know from Youth that Coetzee was at one stage fascinated by, though not altogether happy with, Henry James, who might have raised problems of that sort. ‘Something sounds wrong,’ the cousin complains; but they go ahead anyway. She reports that as a result of Coetzee’s mechanical ineptness she once found herself stranded on the veld with him, on a bitter cold night with no shelter but a broken-down Datsun truck. They are rescued by other family members, no thanks to John, and share memories of the writer’s youth. At the end of her section Margot makes the obvious comment: she cannot understand ‘if it is a book about John, why you are including so much about me’.

The next witness is Senhora Nascimento, or Adriana, a Brazilian immigrant, a widowed ex-ballet dancer. She, too, must settle for a partly edited narrative, though she is allowed, it seems quite straightforwardly, to say ‘I’. She has a complaint about the English teaching at her daughter’s school – briefly, it is not English enough. Insofar as it is about John her story recounts her withering rejection of him as a man and a lover. ‘He is nothing, was nothing,’ she says, ‘just an irritation, an embarrassment.’ And she wonders ‘how you can be a great writer when you know nothing about love?’ Adriana is the most contemptuous witness of them all. Coetzee, she says, cannot dance, he is a wooden man, and he is so stupid that he stays in love even when he has been rejected. The senhora is a lively character but she says little about Coetzee except to ridicule him as a lover and question the merit of his single published novel. She has one marginal claim to biographical interest: it emerges that she was the original of the heroine of Coetzee’s novel Foe.

Next we hear from a male friend, Martin. Asked about John’s relations with students, the biographer denies that the theme of older man and younger woman, which is recurrent in the fiction, had any parallel in Coetzee’s life. ‘It would be very, very naive,’ he says, ‘to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life.’ We may or may not think this good doctrine, but however we read it we have to consider the fact that Coetzee himself wrote it. It quite deliberately makes the encounter of fiction and reality even more problematic.

The last witness is a Frenchwoman with whom John had taught, and with whom he had had a ‘liaison’. This rather scholarly and intelligent interviewee provides what seems a fair account of Coetzee’s political and aesthetic beliefs. To one of these she gives a special emphasis: ‘He believed our life-stories are ours to construct as we wish, within or even against the constraints imposed by the real world.’ And this book, like most of Coetzee’s books, is a construction of that kind. The biographer assures Sophie, the last witness, that he knows very well what he is doing. For instance, that he is well aware that the novelist’s letters, notebooks and diaries cannot be trusted, not because Coetzee was a liar but because ‘he was a fictioneer.’

There is a danger that one might call this book an exercise in mystification: why should we believe this and not that, especially when the tricks are made so easy to spot? And once again one remembers that thesis on Ford Madox Ford (it existed: a matter of public record, not a fiction). He says he got tired of Ford, but it is he who compels us to ask whether we believe him. He spent years studying Ford’s narrative manipulations, his ‘lying’, his ‘fictioneering’. In rejecting Ford might he not be laying a false trail, as so often elsewhere?

Coetzee is a very prolific author, and he may well devise other ways of dealing with the problematics of fiction. In his novel Elizabeth Costello he uses the figure of a distinguished Australian novelist, a rather weary 60-year-old, who travels the world picking up prizes and giving lectures on many subjects of interest to Coetzee: ‘The Lives of Animals’, ‘The Humanities in Africa’, ‘The Problem of Evil’, ‘Eros’. When she turns up again in 2005, two years later, in the novel Slow Man, she is puzzlingly different, a transformed character. Far from being a world intellectual and a credit to her native Australia, she must now apply herself rather unwillingly to satisfying demands not her own, and writings that go unwelcomed.

Slow Man is very good on one of Coetzee’s favourite topics, pain. Knocked off his bicycle by a car on page 1, the slow man is recovering somewhat by the time Costello appears, and at once establishes her fictional privilege by quoting that opening page verbatim. She seems to be an allegorical figure of some sort, standing for Fiction or Fictioneering – for the process, the art, by which the random matter of the world is reduced to order. Though unwell herself, she announces that she will nevertheless accompany the injured cyclist ‘for the foreseeable future’, whether he wants her to or not. This prediction assumes powers she did not possess in Elizabeth Costello. It may also be a kind of promise that Coetzee, whether he likes it or not, will continue as a fictioneer under her auspices.

He would like to escape her but it is impossible. He charges her with being ‘a liar and fabulator’, which she is; he is her material, which she is compelled to process by means of that kind. And of course there is a larger fable to be considered, namely the book we are reading, of which the book subjected to Costello’s reluctant attention is but an image; or vice versa. The figure of Costello, like some of the tricks in Summertime, may assure us that what we have been reading is a game, but a game that might seem to an artist, to Coetzee, the most serious of activities and one in which he seems to be taking an ever deepening interest.