Summertime by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Summertime" (2009) is the final part of J.M. Coetzee's fictionalized autobiography: it completes the trilogy that began with "Boyhood" and "Youth" . In the first two books Coetzee refers to himself in the third person, as a "he". Here he goes even further - "Summertime" is narrated by an English academic, a Mr. Vincent, who is working on Coetzee's biography, after the author has died. There is no doubt that the deceased John Coetzee, the subject of Mr. Vincent's biography, is the very same J.M. Coetzee, who created Mr. Vincent's character, and who - fortunately for us - is still very much alive and active as a writer. Henceforth, I will refer to fictionalized Coetzee as JC, to distinguish him from the "real" J.M. Coetzee.
The book is composed of five interviews with people, mostly women, who knew JC well in the early and middle 1970s in South Africa, and it is bracketed with undated fragments from JC's notebooks. I find the first three interviews totally spellbinding. Dr. Julia Frankl, born Kiš Julia of Szombathely, Hungary, used to be JC's lover. Margot is JC's cousin, who shared childhood with him. Finally, Adriana Nascimento, a Brazilian dancer, is the mother of a teenage girl whom JC taught poetry. We learn a lot about JC from these interviews but we learn even more about the three women - the stories are masterpieces of characterization and they make me feel I have known these women for a long time. Some critics opined that J.M. Coetzee cannot create strong female characters. Nonsense!
Julia talks vividly about her affair with JC and portrays him as a man who has no ability to connect with other people. He is like "the man who mistook his mistress for a violin." Margot, the cousin, tells many wonderful stories from their common childhood, and the account of them going to Merweville in a car that needs fixing is beautifully told. Adriana, a mother who knows very little about raising her daughters yet thinks she knows a lot, claims she was the target of JC's affection. Each of the three stories would make a fabulous novella.
In contrast, the two latter interviews, with JC's colleagues from the university in Cape Town, where he taught, are exclusively about him: both Martin and Sophie are virtually transparent - they serve solely to convey JC's views, beliefs, and motivation. Let me point out two main themes that may help us better understand JC (and by extension J.M. Coetzee). The first is summarized by Mr. Vincent: "What Coetzee writes [...] cannot be trusted, not as a factual record - not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer. In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing much the same for his own eyes, or perhaps for posterity." Can recursion in literary arts go any further? J.L. Borges often played with recursion, but his are rather formal games. In "Summertime" we have J.M. Coetzee writing about how JC's writings about himself cannot be quite trusted, we have the "real" author's fiction about how the author's literary double fictionalizes the events of his life. Magnificent!
The other theme will undoubtedly be considered more important by J.M. Coetzee readers (not by me, though.) Why hasn't he been more active in condemnation of apartheid? Why has he tried to right the wrongs only through literary means? Sophie explains to Mr. Vincent that JC was not apolitical but rather "anti-political". And there comes one of the most astute fragments of the book "In Coetzee's eyes, we human beings will never abandon politics because politics is too convenient and too attractive as a theatre in which to give play to our baser emotions. Baser emotions meaning hatred and rancour and spite and jealousy and bloodlust and so forth. In other words, politics is a symptom of our fallen state and expresses that fallen state."
At the end of her interview, Sophie gives a sharp summary of who JC really was. I will not quote the powerful fragment but I strongly recommend the last two paragraphs of that interview to anybody interested in understanding J.M. Coetzee's work.
The second set of "Undated notes" contains a profoundly sad passage about an incident from JC's youth which illustrates the complicated relationship he had with his father. It brought tears to my eyes, and I would like it to become mandatory reading for everybody, especially for parents and their grown-up children.
I was quite reluctant to read "Summertime": I figured that writing about oneself via stories told by other people is a form of narcissistic self-gratification, yes, extremely refined, but still a masturbation of sorts. I was wrong - this is yet another great book from one of the greatest contemporary writers. I am heaping all this praise despite one two-sentence fragment, which sounds like it was written by a bestseller writer rather than a real one: "His father opens his eyes. Generally he is sceptical about the capacity of the ocular orbs to express complex feelings, but this time he is shaken." A case of truly horrible, jarring periphrasis. I almost believe J.M. Coetzee is teasing the reader "Look, I can write crap as well as all other crap authors."
Finally, deep thanks to the author for "liquefaction". If not for "Summertime" I would not have had a chance to read an absolutely outstanding poem by Robert Herrick, written almost 400 years ago, whose first stanza is:
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Four and three quarter stars.
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