That this is a book by J M Coetzee about a dead and not entirely successful writer called John Coetzee will surprise no one who knows the work of the real Coetzee. Perhaps the only defence left to a writer as highly regarded and relentlessly pursued as the (real, not fictional) J M Coetzee, and as insistently reticent, is to offer himself up in sacrificial fiction.
The work for which J M Coetzee is best known comes from his early and middle period: The Life and Times of Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians, Disgrace. In these and other works, Coetzee revealed himself as a chronicler of history—including but not limited to the history of South Africa—who was willing to deal in history’s ambiguities as well as its certainties. Each of these novels was an exploration of the human history of pain, broken by moments of compassion but rarely optimistic of redemption.
Some years ago, Coetzee, pursued by fame, began to create a different kind of fiction. His Nobel speech, built around the character and voice of a modern-day Crusoe, remains one of the strangest acceptance speeches ever in the history of the prize, written in the dispassionate third-person. He turned a fictionalized lecture on ‘The Lives of the Animals’ into a book about a fictional writer called Elizabeth Costello, and wrote two fictionalized memoirs: Boyhood and Youth.
Summertime is a companion volume to these two, the last in a trilogy of strange and unsettling works, where the novelist becomes his own subject. There is a biographer of John Coetzee, unnamed and largely unidentified except through the medium of his questions, and his silences. He seeks to understand the life of the fictional Coetzee through the writer’s encounters with women, and what we are offered is a series of interviews and reflections on relationships that run the gamut from affair to misunderstood encounter to close friendship.
“He was not what most people would call attractive. He was scrawny, he had a beard, he wore horn-rimmed glasses and sandals. 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.”
This is the voice of the married woman who has an affair, ambiguous and not entirely satisfactory, with John Coetzee; she sees him as a loner living with his father, both stumbling with ineptitude around the empty spaces of their lives. She is startled to hear that Coetzee has written a book; it is not a usual accomplishment in her circles. Her marriage breaks up, and to her, it’s the story of her life, her independence, that is central, with the writer an appendix, not the main chapters.
The women offer different perspectives, all remarking on the writer Coetzee’s essential strangeness, his talent and need for distance. A cousin, Margot, remembers his brilliance but also his remoteness from family: “John sitting on the stoep of that dreary little house making up poems!” A Brazilian woman who meets him as a teacher is unimpressed, by his teaching and by his letters to her: “That is what I ask: how can you be a great writer if you are just an ordinary little man?”
It would be a mistake to read too much into Summertime’s presentation of John Coetzee, poet, writer, possibly a failed man and perhaps even a mediocre practitioner of his work. But in these critiques—and the women in John Coetzee’s life are his reviewers, more than his biographers—the writer emerges as dry, reserved. The central question, as one woman asks, is whether a writer who cannot connect as a human being can truly write something that demands intimacy—the novel being perhaps the most intimate of all ways to examine the human life.
Summertime is an uneasy read, intensely rewarding but also deeply disturbing. Coetzee offers, through the fictional Coetzee, a more intimate look at his own life and passage through the world than a standard biography might reveal. But this intimacy is fictional, about an alter ego to whom intimacy is alien and uncomfortable, and it is hard to draw a line between Coetzee the writer, and his creation, Coetzee the writer.
It’s when he appears to be most open, in his fictionalized biographies, that Coetzee is also trying to tell us to trust nothing. Memoirs and biographies are compelling, but the truth of a life is elusive; and by opening up his own life in fictional form, he keeps it firmly hidden from any would-be seeker after that truth.