JM Coetzee - ‘Summertime’, 2009
Is it a cheat to suggest this quasi-memoir by a South African–born Nobel Prize winner as the best work of Australian fiction since the dawn of the new century? Perhaps it shows how problematic those categories have become.
Whatever the case, the third volume in the autobiographical trilogy Scenes from a Provincial Life is the best thing Coetzee has written since Disgrace (itself a signal novel of the last quarter-century). A fictional examination of the author’s life between 1972 and 1977, constructed by a curious biographer following Coetzee’s death, Summertime is built from archival fragments and the invented testimony of men and women who knew him well.
The conceit of posthumous authorship permits a liberation of sorts after the grimly censorious third-person perspective of predecessors Boyhood and Youth. Coetzee’s trademark melancholy and self-laceration remain, of course. But there is joy here, particularly in those passages dealing with his return as an adult to the Karoo, the harshly beautiful land of his forebears: “This place wrenches my heart, he says. It wrenched my heart when I was a child, and I have never been right since.” To read lines such as these from Coetzee’s pen is like watching a cold-climate plant slowly swivel toward the sun.