August 31, 2009
J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
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?
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.