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.