Wednesday, March 5, 2014

YouthYouth by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe I am just bored with J.M. Coetzee's utter literary perfection, but I will not rate "Youth" with five stars. Clearly, it is a five-star work in any reasonable scale, but not when compared with "Disgrace", "Waiting for the Barbarians", or "Boyhood". To me, "Youth" is a great book, yet a tiny bit short of a masterpiece.

Like "Boyhood", this book is a fictionalized autobiography. It covers the period from 1959 to 1963 or so, meaning that "he" (the author writes about himself in the third person) is 19 years old when the book begins, and about 23 when it ends. He studies mathematics at a Cape Town University in South Africa and plans to devote himself to art. The danger of getting called to military service forces him to leave the country. He moves to London, where he finds a job as a computer programmer, all the time trying hard to become an artist

Cold War is at its peak, the Cuban missile crisis threatens the world with nuclear annihilation, horrible events are happening in South Africa torn by racial strife. He is trying to escape from politics, and also to shake off the possessive love of his mother, or, as the author writes, "to run away from his mother and the smothering ease she offers." He has not yet become himself and is still trying.

He is of the age when the discrepancy between what a young man knows (not much) and what he thinks he knows (a lot) is most pronounced. Mr. Coetzee again shows his unparalleled mastery of the literary craft by writing from within the mind of a naive young man, who - because of his voracious reading - believes he knows almost all there is to know about life. He matures a little, though, and wonders "Is that what growing up amounts to: growing out of yearning, of passion, of all intensities of the soul?"

This beautifully written book, full of wisdom about people and their lives, can also be read as a treatise on art: poetry, literature, music, painting. It has stunning passages that take my breath away. On the grass of Hampstead Heath "he experiences a moment of ecstatic unity with the All!". Once, being his age, I had a similar experience. But I wish I were so hard on myself as "he" is, and as thoughtful in understanding and exposing the weaknesses and dark, scary corners of my psyche.

So why not five stars? I perceive some lack of cohesion in portraying "his" inner self and the big events of the outer, real world. They feel separate. Maybe it was the author's intention, and I am just not getting it. Anyway, I read "Youth" much faster than "Boyhood", which means that it was not extremely delightful reading, just very delightful.

Four and a half stars.

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