Year of Publication: 2009
The protagonist of J.M Coetzee’s newest novel is John Coetzee. John Coetzee, as presented to the reader, shares a great number of similarities with the author. My first contact with the author’s corpus of famed books matches up with his 1999 winning booker prize book, Disgrace, which left a great, positive impression on me. With his newest book, Summertime, which was an early favorite to have won the 2009 booker prize – of which I certainly believed so – rather dropped off to the ranks of yet another shortlisted book of his.
Summertime appears at a point when the protagonist, John Coetzee, is long dead and gone, he is late, deceased. A young British biographer, Vincent, plans on writing a book about this late writer, John Coetzee. The structure of the book therefore seems to have been informed by the path Vincent seeks to trail upon – thus – setting up interviews with John Coetzee’s acquaintances, of which he considers key people like Julia – a married woman with whom he had an affair with, Margot – his cousin, Adriana – a Brazilian dancer, past friends and colleagues – Martin, Sophie. And so the story progresses with the responses given to the young biographer from each of the people he selects to interview. While some of the responses are precise and straight –forward, there are others that prove to be expansive, carrying the story further and it is at such points Vincent interrupts with [Silence] or further questions arising from what he is listening to. The period Vincent chooses to focus on is in the seventies, a period when the writer, John Coetzee, was ‘finding his feet as a writer’. (p225) At certain points of interviewing, some of John’s acquaintances are unsure of what kind of book Vincent wants to write. Sophie, for instance, remarks: ‘Is it a book of gossip or a serious book?’ She is concerned about what authority the biographer has to carry out an interview. ‘Does one need authorization to write a book? From whom would one seek it? I certainly don’t know. But I can give you my assurance; it is a serious book, a seriously intended biography.’ (p225)
Various aspects of the story concentrate on John Coetzee’s relationships with his father and in the wider sense, with women and so the reader get the juices out of what the interviewees tells Vincent. Julia, the married woman with whom John Coetzee had an affair with, gives an account of some of the similarities and differences between the father and the son. ‘His father was smaller and slighter… he drank on the sly, and smoked and generally did not look after himself, whereas John was a quite ferocious abstainer. (p20) With regards to any parallels between the two, she remarks: ‘they are both loners. Socially inept.’ (p20)
After John Coetzee’s sojourn in abroad – thus – in the United Kingdom and United States, he returns to South Africa with next to nothing, he ‘lives with his father, but only because he has no money. (p127) He would later on take up small teaching jobs; precisely in the field he has a degree in – English and then begins to write.
Of his relationships with women, John is labeled with tons and tons of unfavorable descriptions, painting him as the weaker vessel and seen as a failure on his part. Adriana, the Brazilian woman, describes him as ‘Soft’ (p170) and ‘Solitary. Not made for conjugal life. Not made for the company of women.’ (p171) Of this description emerges the possibility of John tainted as homosexual but Adriana is quick to decline, ‘I am not suggesting anything… That is why I say he was soft. He was not a man, he was still a boy.’ (p171) John’s relationship with Adriana grows sour because the later suspects of him playing with the feelings of her daughter, Maria Regina, his student. Of the letter Adriana sends to teacher John, one could nearly feel her rage: If you wish to expose your feelings, expose them outside the classroom.’ (p164)
The question of how John fared in his teaching career was a welcome necessity to the construction of Vincent’s book. John’s trait, as a soft, loner and socially inept person makes one wonder how he was able to bear with the teaching profession. But Martin, his colleague, tells us that, ‘a strain of secretiveness that seemed to be engrained in him, part of his character, extended to his teaching too.’ (p212) And whether or not John spent his life in a profession (teaching) for which he had no talent in, Martin has the answer, ‘He told me once that he had missed his calling, that he should have been a librarian.’ (p212)
Anybody familiar with J.M Coetzee’s autobiography is likely to come to terms with a heavy dose of autobiographical details captured in this seemingly – labeled work of fiction and even if so, John is dead as the reader is well-informed of; a key feature that distinguish the author, J.M Coetzee from his protagonist, John Coetzee. With the author’s current move to Australia – which in itself is a reality, John Coetzee on the other hand, moved to Australia and died there. ‘John left South Africa in the 1960’s, came back in the 1970s… then finally decamped to Australia and died there. (p209)
Coetzee’s Summertime, is an embodiment of John Coetzee’s diaries, letters and notebooks (some dated, others undated) of which Vincent, the biographer has to his advantage yet he places so much emphasis on the interviews he is conducting. Sophie is concerned with why he is keen with interviews. In response, Vincent labels John Coetzee as a fictioneer. ‘I have been through the letters and diaries. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record – not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer… making up a fiction of himself… for posterity.’ (p225)
As the interview lingers on, the question of whether John Coetzee was a great writer or not emanates and we hear responses of what his acquaintances make of it. Adriana, for instance, has an opinion on this: ‘He was nothing and his words were nothing.’ (p193) She does not end there. ‘Maybe he could write well, maybe had a certain talent for words, I don’t know. I never read his books, I was never curious to read them. 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 have also to be a great man. And he was not a great man. (p195) Sophie gives another angle of what Coetzee would say if he heard the label, ‘a great writer.’ – ‘The day of the great writer is gone for ever.’ (p226)
What a book? What a well – constructed piece of work? On completing, I could not but to cling to the many levels at which Coetzee’s mixture of autobiography with fiction talks to me – almost directly. I loved John’s character to the extreme. Coetzee’s sentences seem to me coiled – like, of which the reader wanting to make meaning of them ought to uncoil. I bet Summertime is worth the read!