The Education of ‘John Coetzee’

J.M. Coetzee, Rome, mid-2000s; photograph by Jerry Bauer

Following Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), Summertime concludes J.M. Coetzee’s autobiographical trilogy. It is a teasing and surprisingly funny book, at once as elaborately elusive and determinedly confessional as ever autobiography could be. If Boyhood and Youth were remarkable for Coetzee’s use of the third person (the author declining to identify with his younger self) and the present tense (a narrative device more commonly associated with fiction than memoir), Summertime takes both distancing and novelizing a step further. Despite our seeing Coetzee’s name on the cover and hence assuming the author alive and well, we are soon asked to believe that he is now dead, the book being made up of five interviews conducted by an anonymous biographer who is speaking to people he presumes were important to the writer during the years 1972–1975.

Coetzee’s reflections on his younger self are thus articulated through his imaginings of what people might remember of him and choose to disclose to an unauthorized biographer who is increasingly anxious that the material he is gathering will disappoint. It is at once clear that any attempt to establish the truth status of Summertime, or indeed the trilogy as a whole, is unlikely to yield satisfying results.

Two of the three books bear the subtitle “Scenes from Provincial Life,” suggesting an attempt to shift the focus away from biography and to remind us that “no man is an island, entire unto himself”; each of us must be understood in relation to those we live among. The irony here is that in Youth the young Coetzee is determined to prove “that each man is an island” (my emphasis), while in Summertime an ex-lover remembers Coetzee as having an “autistic quality,” not “constructed to fit into or be fitted into. Like a sphere. Like a glass ball. There was no way to connect with him.” If personality is to be understood through one’s negotiations with others, the burden of this trilogy is that for Coetzee such negotiations have always been arduous.

Boyhood tells of a child trying to find a position he can be comfortable with, first inside a family, then in a larger community. But in the South Africa of the 1940s, in a family of Afrikaans origin that has chosen to speak English, in a stridently Christian community where his parents are agnostic, with a father who never hits his children but allows a black servant boy to be whipped, this is far from easy. The young John wants his mother to be always “in the house, waiting for him when he comes home” but at the same time resents her possessive love and is secretive in response. He does not speak about his problems with violence, his revulsion—whether it be the castration of farm animals, canings at school, or the whipping of black boys—yet…

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