J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003, but in his recent autobiographical novel, Summertime (Harvill Secker), an intimate sums up the author this way: “
After Disgrace I lost interest. In general, I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing.”
In Summertime, “John Coetzee” is dead. The novel is made up of discrete sections, each an interview conducted by a biographer struggling to understand his biographical subject before “Coetzee” became a writer of renown. Among the interviewees is Sophie, who offers the devastating critique quoted above. A Frenchwoman with whom the young “Coetzee” taught a course in African literature at the University of Cape Town, Sophie, knew him in the early 1970s, when he returned from the United States after American authorities denied him permission to stay.
Other interviewees include Martin, a teaching colleague who abandoned South Africa for England; “Coetzee’s” cousin, Margot, who remains entangled with her family, many of whom live in obscurity on the barren landscape of the Karoo, north of Cape Town. Among them, too, is Julia, whose Jewishness is expressed through her easy use of Yiddish slang and with whom “Coetzee” has a short, failed affair. For each female interviewee, “Coetzee’s” unfinishedness, or naiveté in relation to women is a constant and unsettling theme.
What, readers might wonder, is the point of presenting a semi-fictionalized “John Coetzee” in a novel rather than writing a memoir? By penning his own mock biography Coetzee may succeed in short-circuiting efforts by critics and literary journalists to mine his life for their own work. And Coetzee might argue that novels are often thinly veiled autobiography, without any overt acknowledgment of this.
Summertime offers glimpses that resonate with Coetzee’s earlier work. Martin tells us that the writers that “mattered deeply” to his compatriot include “the 19th-century Russian novelists.” To find out more we might turn to Coetzee’s fictional portrait of Dostoyevsky in The Master of Petersburg. When Sophie is asked about her response, upon reading Coetzee’s second work, In the Heart of the Country, she admits her surprise at not finding herself in it, at being excluded from the writer’s “imaginative universe.”
The South African predicament comes sharply into focus in Summertime, both as it stood in the early 1970s and in its transformed condition in recent years, when the novel’s interviews take place. “Coetzee’s” bond to his homeland is expressed in the interview with Margot. Having grown up together, they share the same sense of connection with the harsh landscape of their childhood, the kontrei, as the Afrikaans language designates the particular character of the Karoo.
Margot believes they were “granted to spend” their “childhood summers in a sacred space. The glory can never be regained…” This is one of the few passages where the novel’s title takes on clear relevance. Margot’s farmhouse kitchen on the Karoo has an almost sacred quality, as a place “she married into and has come to love, with its huge old fireplace and its ever-cool, windowless larder whose shelves still groan with jars of jam and preserves she laid in last autumn.”
In Margot’s recollection of her cousin we learn of the young John’s decision to do work for himself, in a country with a “long history of making other people do our work for us while we sit in the shade and watch.”
There is nothing programmatic about “Coetzee’s” politics in relation to his homeland. Sophie describes him as “anti-political,” frustrating her interviewer’s aim to uncover his subject’s relation “with black people in general.” These themes are introduced in ambiguous and devastating ways. The Afrikaans language is an important presence in Summertime. And “Coetzee” expresses an urge to learn the largely lost Khoi dialects: “I am interested in the things we have lost, not the things we have kept,” he says. His goal is to “speak with the dead… who otherwise are cast out into everlasting silence.”
As part of the interview with Martin, we are offered a summation of one view of South African identity held by “Coetzee’s” generation: “our presence there was legal but illegitimate. We had an abstract right to be there, a birthright, but the basis of that right was fraudulent. Our presence was grounded in a crime, namely colonial conquest, perpetuated by apartheid. Whatever the opposite is of native or rooted, that was what we felt ourselves to be.”
This is a devastating indictment from an author who left his parents’ country in 2002 to teach and write in Australia. It is a view that has gained Coetzee his share of detractors in South Africa. But the craft and impact of its presentation in fiction marks him as a writer who deserved the Nobel Prize for his writing alone, and not for the positions that his writing takes on political or social issues.
Norman Ravvin chairs the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. His new novel, from Gaspereau Press, is The Joyful Child.