JM Coetzee wrote Boyhood, his account from inside the mind (distanced third person, urgent present tense) of an unnamed South African boy heading into puberty when he was in his fifties. Surely he was young to be writing memoirs? Surely another novel would have been a better use of his time, especially when the novel after Boyhood turned out to be Disgrace? So what major work did he choose to write after Disgrace? Yet another slice of curiously urgent memoir, this one titled Youth, again from inside the mind of a young South African called ‘John’ as he tries and fails to penetrate a reasonably desirable woman and/or the London literary scene (he dreams of being a writer). Typically we read writers’ memoirs in the hope of drawing closer, but there were no sweet confidences here, no tenderness for himself when young: just a tense re-created present. Worse, this Afrikaans fellow was simply unlikeable, with nothing childish about the child except his rage at his lack of power and his disgust at the moral incoherence of adult life, and nothing youthful about the youth beyond his social ineptitude. ‘John’ was stiff, ambitious, secretive, furiously judgmental and, as various characters would discover in the course of what action there was, seriously lacking in human kindness. Boyhood might have established that this was a consciousness on which nothing was likely to be lost, but by the close of Youth one thing was as clear to us as it was to our melancholy hero: for all his intelligence, for all his ambition, this chill fellow would never make a writer.
Except, of course, with eight novels and two Booker Prizes behind him, he already had. Ought we have read these peculiar ‘memoirs’ as novels, then, with fantasies of direct communication laid aside? Nudges and winks in the publisher’s blurbs suggested that we should. I dislike the present fashion for ‘fictionalised memoir’– as in the old Irish joke, I don’t even know which of the lies going round are true any more – yet given unavoidable selection and sequencing, what can memoir be but fiction, however hand-on-the-heart honest the telling? At least these Coetzee memoirs or novels or whatever they were made absorbing reading, with their under-the-microscope intensity tempered by a faint but persistent obligato of irony.
Meanwhile and elsewhere we were being seduced by what appeared to be self-revelations in the Coetzee novels. I know that is said to be always true (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”) but these slices of the authorial self were in very light disguise. For example: the ‘real’ Coetzee is famously aloof from the literary circuit, either appearing as unmoved reader of his own texts or not appearing at all. ‘Elizabeth Costello’, a fictional character who shares several attributes with her maker, is still dragging herself around the celebrity circuit, still struggling to speak about what matters most, and managing only to bore, bemuse or affront her audiences. Costello speaks words Coetzee had earlier spoken, indeed published under his own name, and shares several of his passions. But she remembers a different history, and has pursued impulses of charity inaccessible to a man, especially a man of her maker’s temperament, and in his next novel Costello will behave in ways we think he would not, becoming so assertive a presence as to bring slow Paul Rayment to eject her from the pages of his novel. Are we looking at a Picasso technique: an initial self-portrait exploded into fragments and the fragments rearranged to figure some new possibility? The next novel or hall-of-mirrors reconfiguration, Diary of a Bad Year, offers a degree of confirmation: again we have a version of Coetzee, this time slightly shabbier, older, but still a writer, opinions still strong, self-management still poor, and living alone in a Sydney apartment, his most reliable companion a irascible magpie. Then he encounters a Goddess Descended in the laundry room, and his life picks up pace, absurdity, hope … Diary of a Bad Year was intellectually engaging, aesthetically thrilling, and also (though this was not much remarked at the time) irresistibly funny.
Now we have Summertime, another slice of heavily stage-managed Coetzee memoir. It will also be the last because now poor John Coetzee is dead, or so he claims. We don’t know when or how he died: that’s for those inside the book covers to know and us not to find out – unless, of course, I missed it, always a dread with clue-littering Coetzee. So willy-nilly we become detectives. We know he was alive in 2000 because of some dated notes he wrote to himself, but by 2008, when interviews given by five people who had known him were being dictated or revised, he is dead and presumably gone – though given Elizabeth Costello’s loitering in the anteroom to heaven we can’t be sure of the ‘gone’. Is his ‘dying’ related to his emigration to Australia? We don’t know, because all we have are materials towards a biography put together by a young Englishman surnamed Vincent, but left unfinished (what happened? Did he die too?).
This Vincent is or was a confident fellow who is remarkably smug about the biographical project, so he must be too young to have been kneecapped by Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot back in 1984. After working on his Coetzee project for some years, he has decided to focus on a few apparently static years in the novelist’s life between 1972 and 1977. ‘John’, returned from his doleful overseas adventures, still bearded, still miserable, is living with his widowed father in a run-down cottage in the suburbs of Cape Town. He picks up a little money from teaching English to schoolchildren whose parents are prepared to pay, while doing his own inept but politically virtuous home repairs. From his (third person, present tense) notes to himself we realise that he remains obsessed with the murderous politics of dying ‘South Africa’, with his question to himself not being “what can I do?” but “how to escape the filth?” He also broods over acts of malice performed when he was young, and for which he is doing his own kind of penance. And he is still preparing, attempting or failing to write, and also, sometimes, writing.
Not, one would have thought, a promising slice of time for a biographer, but Vincent has convinced himself that it was during those years that Coetzee came to “find his feet as a writer”, which obscure process he is out to uncover. (Here, momentarily, biography and observable life coincide: Dusklands, the real Coetzee’s first novel, saw print in 1974 in a small edition by a South African publisher.)
Vincent also decides to focus not on Coetzee’s own writings, whether notes, novels, letters or diaries, but on the individual perspectives of five people who had mattered to Coetzee over those years. (He acknowledges others might have mattered more, but they are dead. Chancy business, biography.) With two of the five, Julia and Sonia, John had a sexual connection; Adriana, a Brazilian woman and mother to one of his students, he wooed unsuccessfully with many letters; Margot is a favourite cousin from his childhood days at his uncle’s farm in the Karoo. Martin, the only male, had met John as they waited together to be interviewed for the one university job. Martin got the job (John’s would come later) but they become friends, in part because of Martin’s attractively relaxed nature, but also because of their shared understanding that as white South Africans they could not have a legitimate place in their home country. Martin is a cagey interviewee. He has a few unexceptional things to say about John’s university life, but by and large he plays Vincent’s questions with a carefully dead bat. The women are more forthcoming, though for three of them John (they say) is now a half-forgotten figure from the past. Julia, now removed to Canada, had been living with a husband and her small daughter in Cape Town when she met John shopping in the local supermarket, and in time and for her own reasons proceeded to seduce him. She is a woman of energy, sense and remarkably good memory, and we learn a lot from her about John’s habits, assumptions, hopes, and also about the depth of his detachment from reality. We like Julia. She is headstrong, but she is also informed, intrepid, smart and witty: a pragmatist, and proud of it. Cousin Margot, remembered from Boyhood, is not much changed: still watchful, patient and unfailingly tender with her prickly cousin. A woman as careful of her words as she is of others’ feelings, she has a hard time listening to Vincent’s blithe “improvements” on her earlier interview, which he sunnily confesses to have edited “to read as an uninterrupted narrative spoken in your voice”, “dramatiz[ing] it here and there”. He assures her she will see what he means when they get going; she does, and is appalled by what she sees as wanton falsifications and potentially hurtful indiscretions. Margot does not trust fiction. Adriana, Brazilian dancer, fiercely protective mother, is the most hostile, the most highly flavoured, possibly the most comical of the women; Sonia the French academic, brimming with Gallic cool, is distant, kind, intellectual, and the only one among the four women who is not in the least maternal.
Sonia also exposes Vincent’s strong opinions regarding the biographies of writers, and so opens the way for a long literary interlude. He tells her that just as he had chosen not to meet Coetzee when Coetzee was alive, he has also chosen to give small weight to the substantial Coetzee archive. Why? Because “what Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted 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.” Sonia raises what might be thought to be a terminal difficulty (“Why should what I tell you about Coetzee be any worthier of credence than what he tells you himself?”), but the difficulty is waved away as biographer and academic agree that “we are all fictioneers”. Therefore the novels, being certainly fictions, can properly be ignored too. The conclusion: the interviews, being “a set of independent reports from a range of independent perspectives”, are to be preferred to “the massive, unitary self-projections comprised by his oeuvre”. And we, contemplating the “unitary self-projections” of the Coetzee oeuvre, with its gleeful dismantlings and refractions and repressions and rearrangings of slivers of the authorial self, don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The humour here is perhaps heavy-handed (or do I simply not like seeing my academic tribe mocked?), but it certainly is funny, just as the compounding debacle with the utility in Margot’s story is funny, as almost everything in Adriana’s story is funny – and also, of course, sad. Against the odds, Vincent has turned out to be right: each interview follows its idiosyncratic path, but taken together they yield a sufficiently coherent account of the outward shape of a man and his hand-crafted survival strategies within his shrunken society.
At this moment I am finding Summertime less consistently exhilarating than Diary of a Bad Year, but that could be because this is a Federer game we are watching, all touch, balance and fluency, and its shapes need time to settle in the mind.
There remains, as Coetzee intends, the question of authorial intention. Here I recommend a source not considered by Vincent: the critical writings of JM Coetzee as published in Stranger Shores (2001) and Inner Workings (2007). Read him on VS Naipaul, on Breyten Breytenbach, on TS Eliot, on the autobiography of Doris Lessing, on the wildly dissembling, self-fracturing Philip Roth. Then you will know what we earnest believers in the fiction of autobiographical truth are up against.
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