J. M. Coetzee
J. M. Coetzee; drawing by David Levine

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, or at least learned that he could speak it. His attitude—the attitude of his boyhood self portrayed in the book—to Afrikaans and, therefore, to the Afrikaner culture built into the language is ambiguous, to say the least.

Because they speak English at home, because he always comes first in English at school, he thinks of himself as English. Though his surname is Afrikaans, though his father is more Afrikaans than English, though he himself speaks Afrikaans without any English accent, he could not pass for a moment as an Afrikaner. The range of Afrikaans he commands is thin and bodiless; there is a whole dense world of slang and allusion commanded by real Afrikaans boys—of which obscenity is only a part—to which he has no access.

However, on the next page he recounts how “suddenly one day he opened his mouth and found he could speak, speak easily and fluently and without stopping to think.”

When he speaks Afrikaans all the complications of life seem suddenly to fall away. Afrikaans is like a ghostly envelope that accompanies him everywhere, that he is free to slip into, becoming at once another person, simpler, gayer, lighter in his tread.

This heady sense of escape into another language is significant. Coetzee from the start of his career has had a deep interest in linguistics. As he says himself, he wrote no fiction of substance before he was thirty. In his university years in Cape Town and, later, in America, he specialized in mathematics, computer science, and linguistics—one of his early projects was a briefly notorious computer-assisted deconstruction of Beckett’s short text Lessness. Along with Kafka, Beckett has been for Coetzee an abiding exemplar and “a clear influence on my prose”—though I am not sure how clear the influence is, when one contrasts Coetzee’s grammatically and syntactically conventional style—his “spare prose”—with the Master’s anarchic fireworks and fizzles. In Boyhood, as in his—I was about to say “other”—novels, the impression is that of a storm at sea in reverse: the surface is glassily calm, while down in the deeps the tempest rages.


What Coetzee certainly does share with Beckett is an attitude of stoic desperation in the face of the world. But whereas one cannot resist now and then succumbing to a certain impatience with Beckett’s unrelievedly dystopian vision (Ah, what ails you anyway!), Coetzee’s claim on despair is impeccable: South Africa, after all, where he was born and lives and writes, was until very recently a working, indeed thriving, model of Hitler’s Germany. In such richly dreadful circumstances, what novelist could resist writing directly about the politics of the day? Not most of Coetzee’s South African colleagues, anyway. However, Coetzee’s sense of rigor, of dedication, of commitment to his private vision, as well as his dauntless loyalty to the high consistory of Modernism, have kept him aloof from direct literary activism. In an essay, “Into the Dark Chamber: The Writer and the South African State” (1986), he speaks of novelists in South Africa being “drawn to the torture room” in search of “novelistic fantasy.”

Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is: how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.

This is well put, and certainly true. The aesthetic out of which such a declaration springs has produced some of the most intense, dark fictions of our time. Among them are Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), an allegorical meditation on marginality and torture—this was his breakthrough novel, the one which first brought him to wide international attention; the Kafkaesque Life and Times of Michael K (1983), which won the Booker Prize; Foe (1986), a retelling of Robinson Crusoe; Age of Iron (1990), the story of Elizabeth Curren, a retired university lecturer in Cape Town dying of cancer, and the book in which he comes closest to direct political statement; and, most recently, The Master of Petersburg (1995), in which Dostoyevsky is the central character.

Of course, all these novels, not just Age of Iron, are colored by the South African experience—how would they not be? As Coetzee says in “Into the Dark Chamber,” “One can go about one’s daily business in Johannesburg within calling distance (except that the rooms are soundproof) of people undergoing the utmost suffering.” Yet Coetzee’s fiction is exemplary in the way in which the author flies by the nets of politics and shows “how not to play the game by the rules of the state.” It is both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the “interesting times”of a totalitarian regime, as Coetzee is well aware. His achievement is that his books are so concentrated, so poised, so intensely meditated, that they are wholly autonomous, and do not depend for their power on our knowledge of where and in what circumstances they were written. Surely this is one of the identifying marks of authentic, enduring works of art.

Boyhood is in some ways a most unexpected book from such a scrupulously reticent author. In the interview quoted from above, which was conducted sometime around 1990, replying to a question on the autobiographical aspects of his work and the “authenticity and authority of the speaking subject,” Coetzee had this to say:

But what is truth to fact? You tell the story of your life by selecting from a reservoir of memories, and in the process of selecting you leave things out. To omit to say that you tortured flies as a child is, logically speaking, as much an infraction of truth to fact as to say that you tortured flies when in fact you didn’t. So to call autobiography—or indeed history—true as long as it does not lie invokes a fairly vacuous idea of truth.

The full implications of this quite radical, Nietzschean statement would seem to put the very form of autobiography beyond the pale of literary respectability (that it also raises the problem of whether any wholly truthful statement can be made in the writing of autobiography, or history, or the novel, is another matter). Age, however, brings more than corporeal slippage; in one’s fifties, the upright rhetorical positions struck in earlier years begin to grow infirm, and as the future diminishes before us, we find ourselves more and more turning to cast a backward glance at the far past, grown tiny now, and distorted, but wonderfully clear, like scenes in a convex mirror. Coetzee, despite the doubts and strictures expressed in that interview, is admirably honest in his refusal to romanticize his childhood, or to portray it as a time of the trembling of the veil before the adolescent artist stepped forth in all his tentative, Wordsworthian glory. There was, it seems, precious little bliss in that South African dawn:


Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny-rabbits or at the hearthside absorbed in a storybook. It is a vision of childhood utterly alien to him. Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.

Worcester is the small town, some ninety miles from Cape Town, where John Coetzee grew up, “on a housing estate…between the railway line and the National Road.” His father, lately returned from the war in Europe, is a small-time lawyer, working as a bookkeeper for Standard Canners. His mother is a retired teacher. There is a younger brother, but he hardly figures in the narrative. All attention is concentrated on John. He works hard in school, not out of any real love of learning, but in order not to attract attention, to remain unremarked, untouched.

So this is what is at stake. That is why he never makes a sound in class. That is why he is always neat, why his homework is always done, why he always knows the answer. He dare not slip. If he slips, he risks being beaten: and whether he is beaten or whether he struggles against being beaten, it is all the same, he will die.

The school scenes are very good, catching with shiver-inducing accuracy the intense, humid, faintly indecent relation that exists between teacher and pupils. Briefly, but memorably, we meet Miss Oosthuizen, the Standard Three teacher, “an excitable woman with hennaed hair.”

Miss Oosthuizen flies into rages, calls Rob Hart out from his desk, orders him to bend, and flogs him across the buttocks. The blows come fast one upon another, with barely time for the cane to swing back. By the time Miss Oosthuizen has finished with him, Rob Hart is flushed in the face. But he does not cry; in fact, he may be flushed only because he was bending. Miss Oosthuizen, on the other hand, heaves at the breast and seems on the brink of tears—of tears and of other outpourings too.

No wonder young John determines that he will kill himself should he be subjected to such ravishment. Here, and elsewhere, Coetzee has his childhood self acutely if uncomprehendingly aware of the secret lasciviousness at the dark, heaving heart of the adult world. He indicates too, with the lightest, most delicate of touches, the suggestive nature of race relations under apartheid (a word, incidentally, that is never once used in the book). Walking one day with his mother, John spies a boy running past, absorbed in himself. The boy is Coloured, as distinct from Native, and is unremarkable, despite having a body that is “perfect and unspoiled, as if it had emerged only yesterday from its shell,” who yet “will be important to [John], important beyond all measure….” John knows that if his mother were to call out “Boy!” the Coloured boy would have to stop and do whatever she bade him to, such as carrying her shopping basket, and he realizes that this boy, “who is slim as an eel and quick as a hare,” is a living reproof to him, and, embarrassed, “he squirms and wriggles his shoulders and does not want to look at him any longer, despite his beauty.”

Later on in the book there is an account of another Coloured boy, seven-year-old Eddie, who comes to work as a servant for the family. After a couple of months Eddie runs away, is captured, and is given a flogging and sent home to his mother. John owes Eddie a secret debt, for it was Eddie who taught him to ride a bicycle. The boys had engaged in wrestling matches, too. Though Eddie is roughly the same age as John, it is Eddie who is the victor, but a cautious one. “Only for a moment, when he had his opponent pinned on his back, helpless, did Eddie allow himself a grin of triumph; then he rolled off and stood at a crouch, ready for the next round.”

This passage and others like it are perilous in their susceptibility to being read in symbolic terms. However, such is Coetzee’s skill, such is his concentration on particulars—that grin of triumph, that waiting crouch—that it is the life that fascinates us, not the political background to that life. John realizes from early on that he is hopelessly out of step with the world into which he was born. His strategy is to turn from that world, to hide from it, inside himself, inside his difference. He spends hours alone with his Meccano set, with his stamp collection, his cigarette card collection, his lead soldier collection. As the cold war gets under way, he champions the Russians over the Americans; at school, he pretends to be a Roman Catholic.

Whatever he wants, whatever he likes, has sooner or later to be turned into a secret. He begins to think of himself as one of those spiders that lives in a hole in the ground with a trapdoor. Always the spider has to be scuttling back into its hole, closing the trapdoor behind it, shutting out the world, hiding.

He oscillates in his allegiances between his father and his mother. He joins his father in mockery of his mother when she buys a bicycle and tries to ride it, yet he has never worked out the position of his father in the household, and in fact “it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all.” He wishes his father would beat him “and turn him into a normal boy,” yet he knows too that if his father were indeed to beat him “he would become possessed, like a rat in a corner, hurtling about, snapping with its poisonous fangs, too dangerous to be touched.” By the close of the book, when the family has moved to Cape Town, the father has sunk into debt, failure, and alcoholism, and as he sinks, the mother rises: “It is as though she is inviting calamities upon herself for no other purpose than to show the world how much she can endure.”

This spirit of endurance “angers him to the point that he wants to strike her,” yet it is, of course, what the mother has bequeathed of herself to her son. And in the making of him as an artist, she is explicitly implicated, in a passage remarkable for its mingled clarity of expression and almost surreal suggestiveness. Already, in describing the hopelessly dull essays he is required to write in class, he realizes that what he would really write, if he could, would be something far darker, stranger, far more mysterious: “Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightning crackling across the sky.” Long before that, however, he has been granted a vision, however dim and confused, of what it will be to be an artist, of the passionate half life that awaits him. Lying in bed late at night, the boy is remembering an incident in school in which two bullies gave him a beating. He recalls that, alongside his fear, there was “something deeper inside him, something quite jaunty,” that tells him he is somehow free of the tawdry, menacing circumstances of his life.

Nothing can touch you, there is nothing you are not capable of. Those are the two things about him, two things that are really one thing, the thing that is right about him and the thing that is wrong about him at the same time. This thing that is two things means that he will not die, no matter what; but does it not also mean that he will not live?

He is a baby. His mother picks him up, face forward, gripping him under the arms. His legs hang, his head sags, he is naked; but his mother holds him up before her, advancing into the world. She has no need to see where she is going, she need only follow. Before him, as she advances, everything turns to stone and shatters. He is just a baby with a big belly and a lolling head, but he possesses this power.

Then he is asleep.

This Issue

November 20, 1997