August 31, 2009

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime

Posted in Coetzee J.M. at 8:00 am by John Self

To describe myself as a fan of J.M. Coetzee’s work on the basis that I liked Disgrace makes me feel a little like the gorilla in the Far Side cartoon, who says to his friend, “You know, Sid, I really like bananas. … I mean, I know that’s not profound or nothin’. … Heck! We all do. … But for me, I think it goes far beyond that.” After a disastrous attempt to review Diary of a Bad Year when I was having a bad month, I have now – third time lucky – reached the stage where I know I will, eventually, have to read all his books. It’s all because of Summertime, a magnificent book which from the beginning places the reader in Coetzee’s expert care. But which Coetzee?

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime

Summertime is subtitled Scenes from Provincial Life, which recalls Middlemarch and Madame Bovary, but also aligns it with Coetzee’s earlier books Boyhood and Youth. Summertime follows them as fictionalised memoirs of Coetzee’s life, and the title is a mordant joke from an author not famed for his wit. The joke is: ‘If this is the prime of his life…’, because Coetzee gives us a ruthless self-portrait. He does this by stepping aside and reimagining his life in the 1970s from the viewpoints of five people – a lover, a relative, a colleague, and so on – all interviewed by a prospective biographer named Vincent after Coetzee’s death. The book opens and closes with journal entries, the only time the author (as character) speaks directly.

But to the barbarians, as Zbigniew Herbert has pointed out, irony is simply like salt: you crunch it between your teeth and enjoy a momentary savour; when the savour is gone, the brute facts are still there.

The reader’s temptation when reading Summertime is to try to work out what is brute fact, what is irony, what is something else, but it’s a temptation which should be resisted. (As I manfully resisted the urge throughout to compare the content of the book with Coetzee’s biography.) John Coetzee – as he is called in the book – is not flatteringly depicted. “He looked out of place, like a bird, one of those flightless birds; or like an abstracted scientist who had wandered by mistake out of his laboratory. There was an air of seediness about him too, an air of failure.” Even for his lover, Julia, “he had no sexual presence whatsoever.” This, she suggests, is because “his mental capacities, and specifically his ideational faculties, were overdeveloped, at the cost of his animal self.” While Julia knew John Coetzee, he wrote and published his first novel, Dusklands.

He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.

Summertime might be its own cathartic exercise. Coetzee seems to lacerate his human failings (and given Coetzee’s interest in animal welfare, his “animal self” might represent the highest qualities), but it seems sly and knowing, even witty. The portrayal of John Coetzee – cold, ill at ease, “stalled” – looks steeped in humility, though such self-effacement can itself be a form of vanity (“See how brave he is to mock himself! Such a good sport!”). John Coetzee is not much more effective as a family member than he is as a lover: he lives with his ageing father, and his cousin considers that “all Coetzee men are slapgat [slack, spineless]“. During this period, he also works as a teacher of English, but when he shows passion for a student’s ability, this is misinterpreted by her mother. The mother’s personal distaste for him (“he is nothing, was nothing, just an irritation, an embarrassment”) leads her to cast doubts on what his biographer – and John Coetzee himself – believes might really redeem him: his writing.

He was not a man of substance. … I know he won a big reputation later; but was he really a great writer? Because to my mind, a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You also have to be a great man. And he was not a great man. He was a little man, an unimportant little man.

This hurts. In the book, John Coetzee believes that what will survive of him are his novels. His lover, Julia, observes that she “never entered his books. Which to me means I never quite flowered within him, never quite came to life.” To him, his books are “a gesture of refusal in the face of time. A bid for immortality.” Writing is a way of fixing in time, like music; as he explains to Julia when trying to persuade her to make love to Schubert’s string quintet:

He wanted to prove something to me about the history of feeling, he said. Feelings had natural histories of their own. They came into being within time, flourished for a while or failed to flourish, then died or died out. The kinds of feeling that had flourished in Schubert’s day were by now, most of them, dead. The sole way left to us to re-experience them was via the music of the times. Because music was the trace, the inscription, of feeling.

He maddens his cousin Carol with knowledge of dead languages. She asks who he can use them to speak to. “The dead. You can speak with the dead,” he responds. “Who otherwise are cast out into everlasting silence.” John Coetzee, when the biographer is carrying out the interviews which glean these details and statements, is already dead, and is speaking to us from his everlasting silence.

The repeated conflict in Summertime is between the writer and the world, the writer and ‘real people’. John Coetzee plans to move his father to “some rundown old ruin” in the backwater of Merweville. “I want to be able to be alone when I choose.” Elsewhere, in the journals, John Coetzee wonders “where in the world can one hide where one will not feel soiled?” The book emphasises that for a writer, most alive when alone, even those who see him most often, who know him longest, can’t know him at all. This is a book where the writer is everywhere present in many different forms: the hand of Coetzee creating the biographer Vincent; the character of John Coetzee shaped by that biographer’s selections and omissions; and the ghostly figure that lies somewhere between the reader’s existing knowledge and the fiction on the page.

One of the interviewees points out to the biographer that “we are all fictioneers … we all continually make up the stories of our lives.” Another challenges him where he embellishes her comments as he writes them up. A third berates him for trying to recast her story into John Coetzee’s story.

You commit a grave error if you think to yourself that the difference between the two stories, the story you want to hear and the story you are getting, will be nothing more than a matter of perspective – that while from my point of view the story of John may have been just one episode among many in the long narrative of my marriage, nevertheless, by dint of a quick flip, a quick manipulation of perspective, followed by some clever editing, you can transform it into a story about John and one of the women who passed through his life. Not so. Not so. I warn you most earnestly: if you go away from here and start fiddling with the text, the whole thing will turn to ash in your hands. I really was the main character. John really was a minor character.

The work evades, eludes, gets away from the facts and finds it own form. The version we see is not the finished biography, but it is the finished novel. It is not life, but art. Which is what the late John Coetzee surely would have wanted.

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63 Comments »

  1. Sam Jordison said,

    This review makes me want to read the book even though I disliked Disgrace and Life and Times Of Michael K…

  2. Sam said,

    Wonderfully written review, John. I don’t think you get nearly enough credit for the clean qualities of your sentences, which must be as difficult to get right as they are easy to read.

    This is a book where the writer is everywhere present in many different forms: the hand of Coetzee creating the biographer Vincent; the character of John Coetzee shaped by that biographer’s selections and omissions; and the ghostly figure that lies somewhere between the reader’s existing knowledge and the fiction on the page.

    Such a good, well-controlled sentence; it could so easily have turned ugly.

    Does the book ponder at all on the allegorical nature of Coetzee’s work? Oh, doesn’t matter – I’ll find out for myself soon enough!

    I can’t wait to read this book. With this, the Trevor and the Munro it’s going to be an exceptional late-Summer of fiction. I’m so excited!

    If you’re wondering which Coetzee to read next, then Waiting for the Barbarians is still my favourite (if not his best), just ahead of Disgrace. There’s a scene in Barbarians… that I’ll never forget, involving a line of black men all connected up with a single length of barbed wire going in and out of their cheeks.

  3. Nick said,

    Wonderful review. I’ll have to read it now !

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks guys.

    Sam J, I don’t know what to say: I haven’t read enough Coetzee myself to make a judgement like, “If you don’t like Disgrace then you don’t like Coetzee,” although you do seem to have read and disliked his mostly popular books. So who knows?

    Sam non-J, I was aware that there was an awful lot in the book that I didn’t refer to above, but the review was already 1,200 words long and I couldn’t justify extending it any further. For example it does touch on some of his work (such as Dusklands and Foe), though I think it speaks more about the political than the allegorical content. I do hope you like it and that you’ll share your thoughts here in due course.

    As to the other contenders in your late summer of fiction, I haven’t decided yet whether to read the Trevor, although I will do so if he’s Booker shortlisted. I’ve never been as overwhelmed by his work as I feel I should be judging by how others love him. And I don’t plan to read the Munro, but I do have Lives of Girls and Women lined up.

    It’s certainly a heavy week or two for new releases from established names. I’ve recently read William Boyd’s new novel (an, er, interesting experience; watch this space) and am currently reading Banville’s The Infinities. I also read Bolaño’s Amulet, just published, but haven’t decided whether to review it or not as frankly I have no idea what to say.

    And thanks for the Coetzee recommendations. Barbarians sounds like a good choice. When I went into my local Waterstone’s last week looking for another of his books to buy, they had only Disgrace in his fiction so I ended up plumping for his recent selected essays, Inner Workings.

    • nicknick said,

      I’ve never read a Coetzee I didn’t love, but it’s not like I go seeking his books out. Oh, and please tackle the Amulet review — I’m curious what you think. Such a strange book. You may find it easier to digest the thing after Savage Detectives.

      • John Self said,

        Yes nicknick, I’ve heard that Bolaño has characters recurring through his books. I don’t think I’ll review Amulet however – it seems to me to rely so heavily on at least a passing knowledge of South American politics and literature that my own opinion of it would be virtually meaningless. Particularly as all I know about South American politics and literature is what I’ve read in Amulet.

  5. ijsbrand said,

    I do think this book’ll get a lot richer, once you know more about the rest of his books. Or his life.

    Last year, I read both _Boy_, and _Youth_, the predecessors to _Summertime_ one could say. Both ended up with the label ‘recommended’.

  6. John Self said,

    Yes ijsbrand, I read Summertime at a disadvantage as I haven’t read Boyhood or Youth. I liked it very much anyway, as you can see, so I look forward to revisiting it as the third in the trilogy.

  7. MON said,

    Life and Times Of Michael K was, to me, a work of genius and hooked me into reading all of JM’s books.
    I look forward to reading his latest Summertime after this fine review, thanks John.

  8. I was 1,200 words into drafting my review of this book last night when I thought “I’ve only addressed one aspect of this book, but this is as much as I can expect people to read.” I am personally heartened to see you faced the same problem; even more heartened that this review addresses aspects that I don’t. That’s why I think Summertime is such a good novel (and I certainly feel it is a novel about a writer as much as it is a semi-autobiography) — Coetzee simultaneously develops so many streams of insight that it is like a reading version of playing with a kaleidoscope. I’ll admit that my own favorite stream is one that has very little to do with his portrayal of himself or his writing — it is his awareness of his (usually negative) impact as a creative observer on those around him. When I get around to posting my thoughts in a few days, I will certainly be referring people to this review (a lazy way of dealing with some of those missing aspects) and assuring people that you and I did, in fact, read the same book.

  9. John Baker said,

    Great review. Thank you. I’ve already ordered my copy and look forward to reading it.
    I saw Coetzee give a talk some time ago, and some readings from Inner Workings. I never got around to reading Inner Workings, though what the writer had to say about it was stimulating stuff.
    So perhaps that will be worth spending some time with too.

  10. John Self said,

    Yes John, there’s stuff there about Roth, Bellow, Sebald, Beckett and Robert Walser (the last a writer I keep meaning to read more of), among many others, so it wasn’t quite the bridesmaid purchase I made it out to be above.

    MON, thanks for the recommendation of Michael K. Kevin, I look forward to seeing your review and the elements you concentrate on. Certainly I think this is a book that has numerous readings in it.

  11. P.S. I Love You said,

    An excellent review, John. One I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

    I have just finished reading ‘Summertime’. and I can easily see it giving Coetzee the Booker prize for the third time. I can’t help but think that this is the novel that one of this year’s Booker judges was referring to (see Ion Trewin’s recent post on the Man Booker website) when they said reading it (‘Summertime’) made them want to read the author’s back-log of novels.

    One of the things that I am most impressed about in novels generally is an author’s ability to come up with a new approach to telling a story. In other words, side-lining the traditional linear fashion, and thinking outside of the box. In the case of this novel, I really think it pays dividends. Indeed, the last words in the last interview in ‘Summertime’ alludes to this, and I really think Coetzee must have had me in mind when he wrote it! The interviewee (Sophie) is asked to share her thoughts on Coetzee’s novels. ‘The control of the elements is too tight’, she remarks… ‘Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing.’

    Great writing indeed. I think I shall swiftly be supporting this for the Booker now, too. Might even put money it because I feel that strongly about it! Of course, I too will swiftly fill my shelves with as much work of his as possible. Reading it promises to be very enjoyable.

  12. Stefania said,

    This book is absolutely the favourite in the Booker Prize competition. I don’t know if I’ll read it… I didn’t like “Disgrace” that much, but maybe it’s just that I didn’t fully “understand” it.
    Do you think that with saying things like “John Coetzee is talented, but to be a great writer you need to be a great man and he’s not a great man”, words of his biographer in the book, he’s actually saying “I am a great writer and everything, but my fictionalized biographer doesn’t think so”? Ahah, I wonder if someone like J.M. Coetzee is a humble person or not…. He won a Nobel Prize, after all. He must be a great writer! ;-)

  13. Philip said,

    Hello John,

    Thanks for this review – very interesting. I’m a huge fan of Coetzee’s writing and I found ‘Summertime’ tremendously rewarding. It returns, both directly and obliquely, to so many of the themes and topics he has touched on previously in his career: patriarchy, colonialism, authority, cruelty, and, perhaps chief among them – as you point out above – the place of the writer in society. If you’re interested in pursuing this aspect, take a look at the other works of fictional autobiography you mention above, but also Foe (a brilliant and very short book) and Elizabeth Costello. It seems clear that he has been hugely influenced by (if highly sceptical of) post-structuralism, and I’m developing a pet theory that one of the features of his career is an ongoing response to the Derrida/Barthes/Death of the Author/Authority thing. Barthes et al questioned the authority of the author; Coetzee questions the authority of the author – himself – by killing him off, or, as in Youth and Boyhood, rendering him in a present tense that allows no possibility of retrospection or, crucially, justification: his actions are what they are; he cannot argue on his own behalf. (And the portrait of Coetzee in Youth is just as lacerating as the one in Summertime). By destabilising his own identity (is the John Coetzee of the books the John Coetzee of the real world?) he kind of undermines his own status and insists that the responsibility for finding meaning is turned over to the reader. In my book, that’s a fundamentally generous act. The theory’s by no means water tight, but ‘Summertime’ has thrown plenty more wood on the fire… It’s invigorating stuff, that’s for sure…

    One small thing: you say he’s not famed for his wit. He should be. His writing is dotted with sly jokes. There’s a corker in ‘Summertime’, in the Sophie section, when she is being interviewed about what ‘John Coetzee’ was like. She responds:

    “He believed our life-stories are ours to construct as we wish, within or even against the constraints imposed by the real world.”

    Thanks again for the review.

  14. JRSM said,

    ‘Boyhood’ and ‘youth’ are wonderful, and surprisingly funny for an author with such an austere image. I was dithering about getting this after ‘Slow Man’ and, even more so, ‘Diary of a Bad Year’ seemed the work of a writer bored with fiction, but your review has convinced me.

    Weirdly, Coetzee lives 5 minutes’ walk away from me, and I often walk my dog past his house. I con truthfully say that I have seen a Nobel Prize-winner’s underpants flapping in the breeze (they were on the washing line at the time, not his person, but still…).

    • Philip said,

      Interesting what you say about ‘Diary of a Bad Year’. I haven’t read it, but ‘Elizabeth Costello’ – which I liked – is all about a writer who appears to be bored with fiction – or at least used up by it, exhausted. Some people wondered if the novel reflected something similar in Coetzee, to the extent that David Lodge wondered if he might be on the verge of throwing it all in. I think ‘Summertime’ puts the lie to that, it’s by no means an optimistic book, but there’s a real zing to the storytelling.

  15. JRSM said,

    More feeble reflected glory: My wife and I are vegetarians, as is Coetzee, so I tried to get talking to him at a neighbourhood gathering by offering him some food my wife had made, but it contained coconut, to which he is allergic, so that was not my finest hour.

  16. John Self said,

    It could have been worse, JRSM; you could have sent the Nobel laureate into anaphylactic shock and we might never have seen Summertime. Then you’d really be in trouble.

    Still, Coetzee the ‘recluse’, who reputedly has been known to speak not one word during dinners, turning up at a neighbourhood bash for some free food? The old tart.

    Ahah, I wonder if someone like J.M. Coetzee is a humble person or not…

    Stefania, I do take some of Coetzee’s more self-lacerating judgements in the book sincerely. Aren’t all writers plagued with self-doubt? Mann’s “A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people” comes to mind here.

    Philip, thanks for the detailed comments: your theory of Coetzee’s writing and analysis of his other works makes me very tempted to go out and get them all at once. I agree that there is wit in Summertime, and when I said he isn’t famed for his humour, I didn’t necessarily agree with the perception…

    P.S. I Love You, I suppose the comment about one judge wanting to read an author’s back catalogue could apply to about half a dozen of the authors on the list – then again, it’s a little worrying, isn’t it? What is someone doing judging the Booker Prize if they haven’t read Coetzee/Trevor/Tóibín/Mantel (or whomever it referred to) before? The one question I must ask you, however, is whether, based on your username, you are a fan of both J.M. Coetzee and C. Ahern??

  17. Lee Monks said,

    I think there is wit there, but it’s desert dry, and all the better for it. He’s the Thom Yorke of literature.

    • Good comparison! After all, Yorke and Coetzee have pulled off the same miraculous trick: cultivating an “outsider” image while being hugely successful celebrity millionaires.

      • Lee Monks said,

        Po-faced curmudgeons the pair. Love ‘em both!

    • Luciana said,

      The most succinct comment yet – my feelings exactly – am an absolutely “groupie” for them both – Coetzee and Thom Yorke.

  18. Trevor said,

    I’m excited about the response to this book. I loved Disgrace, Life and Times of Michael K, and Waiting for the Barbarians. I recently reviewed Foe, but I found it lacking. I had hoped it would excite me for reading Summertime. It didn’t — but your review did! Thanks!

  19. P.S. I Love You said,

    I am indeed a fan of Cecilia Ahern’s novel, P.S. I Love You. Its not the best book I have ever read buts its still one I had a lot of pleasure in reading. Mostly because of the plot. (No, I didn’t cry; my eyes welled up but at no point did the dam burst!) As a bestseller writer, I’m guessing that she is not an author on your radar, am I wrong?

    Your point about that particular reference being applicable to a lot of the authors on this year’s longlist is true. It makes me think that Coetzee was not the author being referred to; at least I hope not! Giving the judge credence, it would more suitably refer to the likes of Sarah Waters or Sarah Hall.

    • John Self said,

      PS, you’re right to presume that Cecilia Ahern is not on my radar. I can however confirm that I have met her, when she was doing a signing for a book (I forget which one), and I was in line for getting a copy signed (FOR A FAMILY MEMBER). She had a lackey to go down the line in advance and write down people’s requested dedications on Post-It notes which were then stuck to the title page of the book. Presumably this was to prevent Miss Ahern, who was absolutely tiny and looked about twelve years old, from fainting with exhaustion by having to actually speak to members of the public.

  20. [...] book that I have ignored those others. For a much broader assessment, please visit the review from John Self at theAsylum — John admitted that when he reached the 1,200-word mark (and I am well past that) he felt [...]

  21. Richard said,

    Nice review. I don’t think there’s a Coetzee book I don’t like, at least a little. For the so-called memoirs, I preferred Youth to Boyhood. And I’d like to say that Slow Man and especially Diary of a Bad Year are hardly the work of a writer bored with fiction. Quite the contrary, I’d say.

  22. nicole said,

    Now I really can’t wait for this to come out in the States…although I am another “fan” on the basis of just one book really—Waiting for the Barbarians in my case. I should dust off the others sitting on the shelves while I wait.

  23. I knew there was a reason I’ve looked forward all day to reading this review. Brilliant, Mr. Self! I’ve only read Disgrace, and it’s top banana. Lots to think on and I look forward to reading Summertime.

  24. Tony S. said,

    I haven’t been much of a fan of Coetzee over the years. I’ve read Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, and Disgrace; his work just doesn’t grab me. But if he wins the Man-Booker, I’ll probably read Summertime.

  25. Lee Monks said,

    Disgrace was a bit of a revelation for me. I couldn’t figure out what was so good about it. I could see the pinpoint, chiseled economy of prose, beautiful pacing and dialogue that rang perfectly true, but it coalesced into something above and beyond the exquisite sum of parts. I had yet to read any Hemingway in earnest and I think there is a similar essence there, a sense of things unsaid rendering the work extremely powerful.

  26. I’ve only read Disgrace and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t encouraged to go on a Coetzee binge.

  27. Biblibio said,

    I’ve got two Coetzee books on my lists: “Disgrace” and “Slow Man”, both of which confused, exasperated and excited me. Both books made me want to smack Coetzee over the head but also made me want more, thanks to that way he ends his books just by ending them like that. Not that an ending needs drama, but with both books I gasped a little at the abrupt removal from the story and with “Disgrace” I actually fell off my seat (not one of my finer moments).

    But I still want more. It’s vaguely perverse, is what it is. I can’t settle my mind on Coetzee’s writing so I’ve decided I just need more of it. So far I’ve been very casual with the issue: like “Disgrace” just came to me after I stumbled across “Slow Man” in a bookstore and read half the book, I expect my next Coetzee will come without much fanfare and will piss me off just as much as these two have. But I’ll probably enjoy it.

    (and to add my voice to the crowd, this is a heckuva review. I keep having to tell myself that I can’t actually buy this book now, I shouldn’t read it now even though I want to…)

  28. John Self said,

    Thanks for the further comments, everyone. Biblibio, you win the prize for responses to Coetzee by literally falling off your chair. I remember Tom Baker speaking of someone who literally fell out of bed laughing at Dickens; but then he (Baker) is quite mad.

    Tony, it seems to me that you’ve given Coetzee a fair crack of the whip. I think Barbarians will probably be my next visit to him.

    Sorry to any US readers who have been unreasonably frustrated by my praise of this book. I didn’t realise it wasn’t out in the US yet (it was due out in the UK this week, but publication was brought forward after its Booker longlisting). I always presumed that big name writers were published at the same time in the main English language markets.

  29. Sam said,

    I was glad that we saw in the final section John’s inner reaction to Mrs Noerdien – describing her as a ‘beauty’, and wondering what it might feel like to sleep next to her. It neatly answers back, if only in a whisper, Julia’s and Margot’s testimonies that John was ‘a cold fish’, and feeds into the question of what it means to really know a man, which feeds into Coetzee’s wider question of what it is to be a man, and a son, in a country that doesn’t acknowledge you as a suitable example of either.

  30. Lara said,

    Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K are phenomenal books. I was sorely disappointed by Diary of a… and certainly it was a bad week or so for me while I read it, despite enjoying the refreshing structure. I’d suggest you read Michael K next: it is a brilliant piece of writing, often reminding me of Beckett’s work despite such a very different style.
    Glad to have come across this blog BTW, and I will be returning!

    • John Self said,

      Thanks Lara – Michael K and Barbarians are both getting recommendations so I will definitely look into it. Interesting to hear you mention Beckett – and presumably the K surname is a Kafka reference? And hope to see you back here soon!

  31. Kerry said,

    I’ll just add my voice to the chorus praising this review. Between your and Kevin from Canada’s reviews, I really can hardly wait to read this. The only danger now is that my expectations have been raised too high. Darn you, John Self. You’re too damn good at this!

  32. 1streading said,

    I’ve just read your excellent review. I’d noticed a couple of days ago that you’d reviewed it but resisted reading until I’d finished the book and posted my own review – but my quick glance had seen enough to know you had enjoyed it as much as I was. It’s a while since I’ve read Coetzee with as much enthusiasm.

    You make many excellent points about what the novel has to say about Coetzee as a writer, but, on reflection, what I liked most about it was his portrayal of the female charcters and their lives. That and his portrait of South Africa in the 1970s. But then I can understand your need to stop writing at some point!

    I also wanted to say that a year ago I would never have thought of posting a review – until, that is, I came across your blog on a Stefan Zweig search – a writer you review regularly. It’s taken a while but I now have my own, much inferior, version. In fact, I am quite in awe of the care you obviously take with each piece you write. Thanks for inspiring me!

    • John Self said,

      Thanks for the kind comments, 1streading. Feel free to include a link to your own blog.

      Yes, the thing about Summertime is that there’s so much there that you could write a thousand words about any one of the aspects of the book. Which is one sign of a good book.

  33. blah said,

    I would also highly recommend Coetzee’s Age of Iron, which tends to get overlooked for some reason. It is a very poignant reflection on cruelty and empathy – very similar in mood and tone, I think, to Disgrace.

    • blah said,

      I should also add that Age of Iron is unique in that it was Coetzee’s most direct confrontation with the reality of Apartheid in South African.

    • Luciana said,

      Strange stumbling onto this blog and review years later… reminds me of the comment from the review about learning dead languages… and tracing dead feelings… although I doubt that the feelings expressed here have died in the intervening time – if Coetzee lives in others as he lives in me…

      Started Age of Iron a while ago, and progressing slowly mainly because it makes me “fall off my chair” … too often… and need to pick myself up again. No idea why it might be overlooked… it is as gripping as a maelstrom…

      • John Self said,

        Well, I’m still here anyway, Luciana – so thanks for your comments…

        Odd that of all the Coetzee books I’ve acquired since reading Summertime (i.e. most of them), Age of Iron isn’t among them. I wonder if it’s even in print in the UK? This reminds me, too, that I must stop acquiring his backlist and actually start reading it.

      • Luciana said,

        Cool! I hope it is in print in the UK – or by Amazon? Have just come across an amazing book – The Kindly Ones – by Jonathan Littell… have you heard about it? Is there a place where you track books you are considering reviewing?

  34. John Self said,

    Thanks blah – I must admit I’ve never heard of Age of Iron so I appreciate the recommendation. Summertime does reflect in part on the political aspects of Coetzee’s fiction, so that might provide enlightenment too.

  35. Richard said,

    I’ll put in a good word for Age of Iron too…. I think I’ve read all but Foe and Master of Petersburg. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this isn’t a big Elizabeth Costello crowd, but it needs to be mentioned, since it’s likely his best book.

  36. John Self said,

    Crowd, eh Richard? Ha, I dream of having enough readers to constitute a crowd!

    • Luciana said,

      Keep reviewing Coetzee and you might :)
      (my dream, anyway)

  37. Lee Monks said,

    I’d agree with Richard. Of the Coetzee books I’ve read (and Summertime sits alongside the new Coupland in the mini ‘oh-dear-you’re-going-to-leave-that-other-one-halfway-through-for-the-shiny-new-one’ pile), Elizabeth Costello is the best.

  38. Lee Monks said,

    ‘Coetzee, A S Byatt, Adam Foulds, Hilary Mantel, Simon Mawer and Sarah Waters are today announced as the shortlisted authors for the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.’

    I’d put money on Mantel this year. Where’s Toibin? Joseph O’Neill all over again…

  39. John, I read this myself a few weeks ago and pretty much agree with you. It’s a wonderful exercise in not writing a conventional autobiography – and every bit as good as Boyhood and Youth, which are brilliant.

    But one thing I did notice was that Coetzee was married from 1963-1980 and had two children, in 1966 and 1968. So in the year the book starts, the real Coetzee was married with two children aged 6 and 4.

    So how much of Summertime is factual? Well it’s hard to say, as I suppose Coetzee might have left his wife and children and shacked up with his dad after leaving America. But my guess is that the resemblance between book and life is pretty slim.

    It is an impressive achievement, but very much a fictional one.

  40. Lee Monks said,

    This leads in nicely to a bit of a hoo-ha that’s raging (no, hardly: lightly simmering) on the Guardian Booker blog, about the merits/pratfalls of historic fiction. Firstly, and I haven’t quite finished ‘Summertime’ yet as I’m reading it in snatches whenever I can, I don’t actually care about the veracity of events. Pretty much all writers are fabulists and that’s absolutely fine by me. I’m not too worried about tales being told, I’m interested in the writing. Whether JM Coetzee did or did not do something in 1973, I can live with the uncertainty. It’s all we can have, anyway. Most memoirs are false, airbrushed projections. I actually find the idea of a fictional memoir far more honest and intriguing. All that matters to me is that I can revel in the use of language, feel something, recognise and learn, hopefully, from insight or just plain old great story. Wallow in words. Hilary Mantel can write about cavemen for all I care, or primordial gloop. I’m interested in the work. True enough, Sarah Waters does not have me rushing to the local Waterstones, but that’s because, to me, she writes in a purposefully affected style.

  41. Philip said,

    On the subject of what is and what isn’t ‘true’ (although I’m with Lee Monks in not being much troubled by the question in relation to Coetzee), there’s an excellent essay in Derek Attridge’s excellent book, ‘J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading’. The essay’s called ‘Confessing in the third person’ and looks at the then two autobiographical works, ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Youth’, in conjunction with Coetzee’s own essay, ‘Confession and double thoughts’.

  42. karenb said,

    Thanks for the review. I have just read the book and loved it because as always Coetzee is a writer who makes me think. The first Coetzee I read was “Waiting for the Barbarians” and would highly recommend but the Coetzee book which I have reread the most is “Elizabeth Costello” and get more from on each reading. (IMO reading “the lives of animals” adds a lot to rereads of novels like “Elizabeth costello”)

  43. John Self said,

    Thanks Karen. I am in danger of exposing my ignorance here but am I right in saying that The Lives of Animals is a series of essays which are incorporated in their entirety into Elizabeth Costello? Anyway Richard’s fears above have proved unfounded, as Elizabeth Costello seems to have a number of admirers here.

  44. karenb said,

    hi John,
    What made ‘The Lives of Animals’ thought provoking for me was the format. First there are 2 essays by Coetzee (they are included in EC) but then the following chapters essays are replies to Coetzee (or reflections on Coetzees essays) by Marjorie Garber, Peter Singer, Wendy Doniger and Barbara Smuts. Thought provoking stuff.

  45. karenb said,

    One of the comments Singer made “I don’t know how to go about responding to this so called lecture. They are Costello’s arguments. Coetzee’s fictional device enables him to distance himself from them”

    I think this can also be said of Summertime we are all left wandering is this how Coetzee see’s himself or is it all just fiction.

  46. Richard said,

    Singer was right to raise his concerns. I’ve always found it curious that the Costello animal essays were separately published in that format, with replies. The whole notion seems to miss the point of what Coetzee is up to in Elizabeth Costello, not to mention Slow Man and, especially, Diary of a Bad Year. I tend to think that Coetzee allowing the separate publication was meant as a sort of test, or a bit of mischief.

  47. leyla said,

    Thanks for this excellent review, John. It’s certainly a very complex and multi-layered book – much more so than Disgrace, imo. I’m halfway through and am completely caught up.
    One thing – wasn’t it his kind, loving cousin Margot rather than the hostile Carol who questioned him about the value of learning dead languages? The fact that even those who had very tender feelings for him felt frustrated by aspects of his stubborness was for me quite telling, both about the fictional man Coetzee and about the author writing the book.

  48. John Self said,

    Good question leyla. I do remember looking back at that section when I mentioned the dead languages conversation, because I thought I had got it wrong between whether it was Carol or Margot who said it. However it may be that I changed it the wrong way… I passed the book on to someone else so I can’t check it now, sorry. I’m happy to take your word on it though, and I hope you continue to enjoy the book.

  49. [...] J.M. Coetzee: Summertime One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written.  ”He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.”  The best new novel I read this year. [...]


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