Telling It Slant: On J.M. Coetzee

Telling It Slant: On J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime and the fictions of self-deception.


In his memoir Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, published in the United States in 1997, John Coetzee is a young boy living on a housing estate outside the town of Worcester in South Africa. To his impressionable mind the world is a cruel place where those in authority take sadistic pleasure in the beatings they dole out. He watches a teacher fly into a rage and whip a student who can’t keep up with his schoolwork. He watches a white man thrash a colored boy who has tried to run away from his chores. John is appalled by the brutality around him. Coming of age in provincial South Africa in the 1950s, he decides that childhood is "a time of gritting the teeth and enduring." He grows ever more inward and solitary. His earliest memory is of watching his mother release a scrap of paper out the window of a bus. For years he thinks of the scrap of paper, "alone in all that vastness." He dreams of the day when he will find the paper and rescue it.

In Youth, published in 2002, John Coetzee is a young man working as a programmer at IBM in London. Though he has focused his university studies on mathematics, his real love is literature. He discovers Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and learns from them that "he must be prepared to endure all that life has stored up for him, even if that means exile, obscure labour, and obloquy." He follows Pound’s recommendations for reading. The more he reads, the more confident he is in his tastes. He prefers Chaucer, who "keeps a nice ironic distance from his authorities," to Shakespeare, who gets "into a froth about things." He is suspicious of the "easy sentiment" in the Romantics and Victorians, and he considers Joyce "too bound up with Ireland and Irish affairs." He reads all of Ford Madox Ford–a writer known for mixing fiction and autobiography–because Pound "promoted Ford as the sole heir in England of Henry James and Flaubert."

He carries a book of poetry to read on the train, in hopes that an "exceptional girl will appreciate what he is reading and recognize in him an exceptional spirit too." He fantasizes about going to bed with Emma Bovary. Women, John believes, will be his inspiration. "In a perfect world he would sleep only with perfect women, women of perfect femininity yet with a certain darkness at their core that will respond to his own darker self." It turns out to be easy enough for him to find women to sleep with, but "the perfect woman" eludes him. He grows more isolated and at the same time more idealistic about the importance of literary expression. He longs to write poetry and looks for the right mistress who, "by means of an instinctive faculty," will perceive the "sacred fire" burning in him. He’s hopeful that sex, along with those other two worthy subjects for a poet–madness and suffering–will give him something to write about.

It’s convenient for this aspiring writer that women, at least as he understands them, do not have what it takes to be legitimate artists. And because women "do not have the sacred fire" of artistic creativity (he names Sappho and Emily Brontë as exceptions), they seek it in male artists and "give themselves to them." During this period, when John Coetzee is in his larval stage as a writer, he develops a rather elaborate mystical system around this notion: "In their lovemaking artists and their mistresses experience briefly, tantalizingly, the life of gods. From such lovemaking the artist returns to his work enriched and strengthened, the woman to her life transfigured." But at least within the pages of Youth, John is never treated to this divine inspiration. He ends on a note of despair, admitting that he is afraid of women, writing and failure.

By the time we meet up with John Coetzee in Summertime, he is dead (the main character is survived by the author, the real J.M. Coetzee). But John has lived long enough to distinguish himself as a writer and earn a place for himself as "public property." Summertime, which is described on the cover as "fiction," is cast within its pages as "a seriously intended biography" that concentrates, the biographer explains, "on the years from Coetzee’s return to South Africa in 1971/72 until his first public recognition in 1977…an important period of his life, important yet neglected, a period when he was still finding his feet as a writer."

The novel opens and closes with short fragments from John Coetzee’s notebooks, but the bulk of the narrative is organized around a set of interviews conducted by the biographer, Mr. Vincent, with five people who knew John during the years when he was back in South Africa after doing graduate work in the United States. Unconvinced by conventional methods of literary biography, Mr. Vincent prefers to construct a portrait made up of a range of perspectives. Among the four women he speaks with, two are John’s former lovers, one is a woman who was repulsed by his advances and one is his cousin. The only man Mr. Vincent interviews is John’s former colleague at the University of Cape Town.

In this "important yet neglected" period of John Coetzee’s life, he is single and living with his widowed father in a mud-brick house with walls "so rotten with damp creeping up from the earth that they have begun to crumble." Hoping to insulate the foundation against further dampness, he decides to put a belt of concrete around the periphery. He orders the sand, the stone and the cement, and sets out to follow a plan in a home improvement guide. He works without assistance–a gesture that signals his refusal to participate in apartheid’s degrading economic system.

It’s an emblematic effort not just because it reveals how even the most basic action can bear political weight but also because it involves a new confrontation with failure. At least when it comes to mixing concrete, John Coetzee is inept. He confuses cubic meters with square meters; a job that he expected would take a few days threatens to last for many weeks. But instead of giving up, he persists with the effort.

The young man who is afraid of failure at the end of Youth seems to be a little less afraid in Summertime. He’s more tenacious, more willing to risk humiliation in order to finish what he’s started. While he blames himself for his "feeble" response to the moral dilemma posed by the ruling regime of South Africa, he finds a new satisfaction in independent labor. It’s revealing that once he realizes he has made a mistake in measuring the materials for the concrete, he applies himself to the task with renewed energy. He tells himself that the "slabs he is laying will outlast his tenancy of the house, may even outlast his spell on earth." He sounds a similar note later, when, in a conversation with a woman named Julia Frankl, one of his former lovers, he describes a book as "a gesture of refusal in the face of time. A bid for immortality." In his determination to produce something lasting, John is much more willing to face up to a mistake and get on with his work.

Compiled by Mr. Vincent, the excerpts from the notebooks and the five interviews offer a fractured portrait of an "unemployed intellectual" who is ambivalent about his emotional isolation. John is keen on defending himself against the incursions of society and writes in his notebook, "if you want to succeed in the world and have a happy family and a nice home and a BMW you should not try to understand things." On the other hand, he feels a responsibility to the world. Viewing himself as an outsider, he is looking for ways to defy taboos.

While there’s no description of him at his desk, we learn that he publishes his first work of fiction, Dusklands, following his return to South Africa. He is growing up, becoming the man who will one day be described by his biographer as "a great writer." Yet he still has more growing to do. One of his lovers from this period reports that there was "an air of failure" about him. He remains undistinguished as a lover ("he could perform the male part perfectly adequately," Julia says). And he still thinks women are all the same, or at least he gives the different women in his life this impression.

In the first interview, Julia Frankl recounts the details of her affair with John in South Africa in the early ’70s. Isolated in her own marriage, she spots John shopping in a supermarket. "He was scrawny," she tells Mr. Vincent. "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." She launches the affair not because she’s attracted to him (she says he "was not easy to take to, his whole stance toward the world was too wary, too defensive") but because she is stuck in a bad marriage and needs to prove her seductive powers. In her most unsettling judgment of John, she describes Dusklands as "self-administered therapy." With a little prompting from Mr. Vincent, she expands: "He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life–including his love life, I might say–and channel them into his writing."

The second woman Mr. Vincent interviews is John’s cousin, Margot. Her interview is recast into narrative form by Mr. Vincent, with Margot referred to in the third person. (He defends his method by insisting that "changing the form should have no effect on the content.") Margot is more forgiving of her cousin than Julia was, describing him as "an odd character." Of everyone interviewed by Mr. Vincent, she’s the one who gives voice to the ambition that John is too modest or skeptical to express. She says to him, "You could change your fate tomorrow if you would just put your mind to it." Most important, she articulates a clear moral position in the face of apartheid. Reflecting on the racial designations used to legislate the interactions of South Africans, she prays, "Let the time come soon, O Lord… when all this apartheid nonsense will be buried and forgotten."

One of the stories Coetzee tells in this book is about responses to apartheid and the evolution of strategies of opposition. John has moved from the position of silent witness in Boyhood to the struggle to communicate his "rage and despair" in Summertime. It’s a story that has clear moral demarcations and yet, when explored through a series of lived experiences, is full of entrapping ambiguities. Margot can do no better than to describe apartheid as "nonsense." In his early years after his return to South Africa, John can do no better than to shore up the periphery of his crumbling home on his own. Profound injustice is as difficult for them to understand as it is to overcome. As the exhausted Magistrate says toward the end of Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians, "I have lived through an eventful year, yet understand no more of it than a babe in arms."

Through the "summer" of his life, John Coetzee is learning to risk failure in order to write books that will outlast "the nonsense" of his time. He is also learning to risk failure in his relationships with women. This story is prominently developed in the third interview in the novel–an interview with Adriana, a Brazilian dance teacher whom John pursues with the same doggedness with which he mixes and pours the concrete around his house.

When Adriana and John meet, John is working as a tutor at a Catholic girls’ school in Cape Town. Adriana’s daughter is one of his students. Without much prompting from Mr. Vincent, Adriana launches into an account of John’s obsession with her. In a haze of infatuation, he pursues her during the months when her husband is dying. After she refuses to meet John alone, he sends her a series of letters, some of which she doesn’t even read. She goes so far as to tell him she detests him. "He forced me to detest him," she explains to Mr. Vincent. "He was a little man, an unimportant little man," she declares. "Was he really a great writer?" she asks. But she can’t answer that question because she has never bothered to read his books.

As harsh as this assessment is, it’s consistent with sentiments expressed by the other women in the book. To Julia Frankl, John is an adequate lover who is using his writing as "self-administered therapy." Margot, who knows John best, finds him odd. Sophie, a French professor at the University of Cape Town and the last woman Mr. Vincent interviews, describes John as a tortoise who would withdraw into his shell when he sensed danger. Regarding his work, she says that it "lacks ambition": "The control of the 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." But she, like the others, hasn’t read all his books. She claims to have lost interest.

There’s a troubling uniformity to the responses of these women that is expressed not just through their criticism of John’s character but through their dismissive attitude toward his whole career. While the communication of their contempt might seem like brave, unsparing self-assessment on the author’s part, their judgments are based, at best, on partial knowledge. They reveal that they haven’t read all his work, or haven’t read it carefully. Two of them, Sophie and Julia, express surprise or resentment that they hadn’t appeared as characters in his books.

By the time the interviews are being conducted, John has written all the books he’s going to write, among them Boyhood and Youth. He also has left behind notes for a third memoir. Within his incomplete autobiographical work, then, he presumably stands by his early theory of woman-as-muse who ignites "the sacred fire" in the male artist.

Given Coetzee’s generally cautious prose, this flimsy metaphor stands out as deliberately garish. But for the fictional writer who is trying to turn his artistic yearning into great literature, it remains a convenient paradigm, and it’s reinforced in Summertime by the structure of the narrative. From one interview to the next, the women are at the mercy of the biographer, who both asks the questions and chooses how to arrange the answers. These women may earn our sympathy with their accounts of their personal struggles, but their access to the creative process is limited, at best. Only the one man interviewed, Martin, hints at real engagement with John’s literary work. While using the same qualifiers to describe John’s teaching that Julia uses to describe his performance in bed (Martin calls John a "perfectly adequate academic"), he worries that the form Mr. Vincent has devised for his biography may privilege John’s personal life "at the expense of the man’s actual achievements as a writer." In a sense he’s right; the form does privilege the personal life. It’s only appropriate, then, that four of the five people interviewed aren’t much interested in the writer’s "actual achievements."

While there’s obvious overlap, the circumstances of the novel do not correspond completely with the biographical facts of J.M. Coetzee’s life. During the same years being investigated by Mr. Vincent, the author was already married and had two children. The history of John’s love affairs and unrequited obsessions might share some aspects with the actual life, or it might be a complete invention. At any rate, the disclosures can’t be the point, since most readers won’t be able to keep track of the differences between the lived life and the made-up one. The uncertainties and discrepancies only underscore the premise of the book: John Coetzee is an invention.

Summertime is presented as an imaginary portrait written by Mr. Vincent, an impresario in his own right who takes liberties with the facts. Yet since the fictional John Coetzee is cast as the author of the books that the real Coetzee has written, it follows that his role in Summertime is more complex than it initially appears. Perhaps John isn’t just the evasive subject being explored; he might well be the implied author who has concocted the ruse of this "biography" in order to observe this period of his life from a remove.

This accomplished writer is reluctant to reflect on the genesis of his work. Yet over the course of the memoirs, he has been reflecting on the genesis of his work. He has been explaining how he came to be a writer. Rather, he has been writing about the impossibility of explaining how he came to be a writer. As Martin observes, John is reluctant "to probe the sources of his inspiration, as if being too self-aware might cripple him." Thanks to the indifference of the women Mr. Vincent interviews, he doesn’t have to probe too deeply.

With all the paraphrases and interruptions and hasty judgments that fill the interviews of Summertime, Coetzee seems to be leading his readers farther from the subject he purportedly set out to explore. Mr. Vincent is supposed to be investigating an important yet neglected period in the life of a major writer. But what do we end up learning about this writer? We learn that he is viewed with indifference, contempt and puzzlement by the same women he’d hoped would inspire him. He can’t tell when they’ve had enough of him. They can’t recognize his genius.

Yet to the extent that Summertime is self-portraiture, it is permeated with John’s sensibility. Whether or not he is the implied author of Mr. Vincent’s biography, he shares the real author’s name. Even if the book isn’t strictly autobiographical, it is by an author named J.M. Coetzee and at least pretends to be about him. And this connection raises the specter of motive: why would a writer choose to represent himself in this fashion, through the unflattering comments of shortsighted women?

By drawing attention to the choices the author has made, the novel ends up moving closer to the subject that the character would rather avoid: his evolution as a writer. He continues to cling to a restrictive notion formulated in his youth; at the same time, he is ready to expose the consequences of this position. While this "biography" is presented as a fiction, the implications are harsh. Since John can think of using women only for his writing, he fails repeatedly to develop any satisfying intimacy with them.

I’m reminded of a question posed in another novel that explores a writer’s sources. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the narrator, who supposedly is explaining how a poet comes to write his greatest poem, is asked, "How can you know that all this intimate stuff about your rather appalling king is true?" The narrator’s grand answer is, "the stuff will be true" once it’s transmuted into poetry. It may be an absurd claim, but as we read on, we find that it isn’t entirely mistaken. As with all artfully elaborate lies, the narrator’s hoax takes on a reality of its own, one that we can read as self-expression even though it remains defiantly false.

In Summertime, Coetzee follows his fictional self through the early years of adulthood. This character, we know, goes on to write more books–books that through ingeniously slanted approaches delve deeper into the workings of a writer’s mind than we ever could have hoped to go. One of this writer’s later inventions, Elizabeth Costello, may even disprove the claim that women lack what it takes to produce great art; or perhaps, like Sappho and Brontë, she’s one of the exceptions. But if Coetzee’s new novel reinforces a reductive formula for the creative process, it is his revealing way of examining the effects of problematic motivations. And it looks forward to the provocative books that Coetzee will go on to write. He’s only just begun to get at the heart of his work. It’s only summer, after all.

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