A young English biographer is working on a book about the late writer, John Coetzee. He plans to focus on the years 1972-1977 when Coetzee, in his thirties, is sharing a run-down cottage in the suburbs of Cape Town with his widowed father. This, the biographer senses, is the period when he was ‘finding his feet as a writer’. Never having met Coetzee, he embarks on a series of interviews with people who were important to him - a married woman with whom he had an affair, his favourite cousin Margot, a Brazilian dancer whose daughter had English lessons with him, former friends and colleagues. From their testimony emerges a portrait of the young Coetzee as an awkward, bookish individual with little talent for opening himself to others. Within the family he is regarded as an outsider, someone who tried to flee the tribe and has now returned, chastened. His insistence on doing manual work, his long hair and beard, rumours that he writes poetry evoke nothing but suspicion in the South Africa of the time.
by Mark Rubbo, Managing Director of Readings
‘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.’ These are the words of Sophie, a colleague of John Coetzee, quoted in the novel Summertime by the writer J.M. Coetzee. Does Coetzee’s assessment of his own writing, through the voice of one his own characters, truly reflect the writer’s view; is it our view? Summertime is weird – an unknown biographer is writing a book about the late writer John Coetzee focusing on the years 1972-75, when his first novel Dusklands was produced.
Summertime, apart from some pages from Coetzee’s own notebooks (are they really?) purports to be the record of interviews with five people who knew John during those years. There is Julia, with whom he had an ‘erotic entanglement’, although sex with him was mundane; Margot, his cousin and childhood friend with whom he used to write poetry; Adriana, a Brazilian dancer who spent several years in South Africa and was pursued by Coetzee; Martin, a colleague at the University of Cape Town; and finally Sophie, a French academic, with whom he taught a course in African literature and also had a brief affair.
The picture of this man, Coetzee, that emerges from these pages is of a person who is awkward, remote and a bit of a loner. When he does try to connect, his attempts are seen as bizarre and almost inappropriate. Coetzee the writer plays with us: when Julia reads the proof copy of Dusklands and comments to the John in the book, ‘I didn’t know your father was a historian’, to the reply ‘Oh that’s all made up’; when the biographer says that Coetzee’s notebooks can’t be trusted, not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer. So the reader can never be sure what (if anything) is true.
Adriana, the Brazilian, describes a man she could see as no good, with badly cut hair, poor clothes and an uneasy manner. This Coetzee is tutoring her daughter in English and he describes his methods as reconfiguring and encouraging the fire burning within the student so that the student and the teacher rise to a higher realm. ‘It comes out of Plato,’ Coetzee remarks. This is not the way she wants a teacher to relate to her adolescent daughter. His cousin Carol describes a family gathering in the dry and desolate Karoo where the Coetzees farmed. John is losing his Afrikaans and the things that used to bind them together. There is shame, too – John left the country, they say, to avoid the draft and only came back because he couldn’t get residency in the United States. His colleague Martin shared the view that although white South Africans had an abstract right to be in South Africa, their presence is underpinned by colonial conquest and apartheid. Sophie says that he ascribed to Africans the role of guardians of the truer and deeper being of mankind.
Who is this man – and what is the reader to make of this mosaic portrait of John Coetzee, a portrait that is largely unflattering? This Coetzee is a man who was gifted but not great; inept, personally and physically; cold and insensitive.
I can’t say that I understood Summertime, but it lingers pervasively in my mind. I would love to hear the real Coetzee talk about this book but I doubt that I ever shall … perhaps we can talk amongst ourselves.
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A rich, funny, and deeply affecting autobiographical novel from one of the world's greatest living writers.
Summertime shows us a great writer as he limbers up for his task. It completes the majestic trilogy of fictionalised memoir begun with Boyhood and Youth.
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