Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life
by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 166 pp., $22.95
It is a universal delusion that life elsewhere must be different. Like those antique authors who believed that in the Antipodes there were men whose heads grew under their arms, we have the vague conviction that extreme climates and bizarre landscapes will breed human beings utterly unlike us in their customs and rituals, their desires, their fears, their pleasures, and their pains. For a European reader, the most surprising thing about J.M. Coetzee’s “autobiographical” sketch (we shall account for those quotation marks in a moment) is how few surprises it contains. Boyhood in South Africa and boyhood in, say, small-town Ireland in the late 1940s and early 1950s seem uncannily similar. On every page one experiences successive soft shocks of recognition: the BSA bicycle, the Meccano set, Superman and Mandrake the Magician on the wireless, the Rover and Reader’s Digest and The Story of San Michele, the head colds in winter and the summer visits to the farm, the terrors and inexplicable exaltations, the secret storms in the heart. As Philip Larkin ruefully has it, in a marvelous poem about childhood, “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.”
Boyhood is a Portrait of the Artist without the Daedalian swoonings and with only the most meager of epiphanies. It is written in the third person, in the continuous present. In an interview, Coetzee has spoken of the (literary) faith he places in “spare prose and a spare, thrifty world,” and certainly this brief little book is a model of voortrekker virtue and earnestness. Although he is as vague—evasive, even—as Proust in the matter of his protagonist’s age at any given moment, the period covered is from about age seven to about age thirteen. However, apart from a brief and admirably restrained passage dealing with the onset of puberty—a subject on which few novelists can resist letting rip—Coetzee presents his childhood self to us as curiously finished, even in the midst of emotional and intellectual upheavals.
Wittgenstein wonders somewhere if the old man on his deathbed can truly be considered the same person as the baby in its basket that he once was. For Coetzee, the boyhood version of himself he portrays here is sustained throughout from infancy to puberty—and, we may assume, on into middle age—by a steely cord of unchanging selfhood. This gives to the book a peculiarly seamless quality which, along with the paucity of first names (the boy at the center of the narrative is never directly named) and the sparseness of background, creates an atmosphere of fable, despite the confessional tone. Indeed, one finishes the book with the suspicion that this most frugal, most thrifty, of novelists has used the past, his own past and that of his family, to write not a memoir but a slyly disguised novel.
John Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940, of mixed Afrikaans and English ancestry. He was brought up speaking English but, as Boyhood relates, learned Afrikaans as a child …