Book review: Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life
A youth memoir from JM Coetzee was never going to be a heady account soaked in rock ‘n roll ecstasy or soused in exuberant joy. The 2003 Nobel Laureate and twice winner of the Man Booker Prize is renown for his reclusion and dark saturnine narratives that could arguably have only been borne out of deep introspection and misery.
The first installment in his Scenes from Provincial Life series, Boyhood, was an honest chronicle of Coetzee’s early life in which the author, as a boy between 10 and 13, was already revealed to be cruel, solipsistic and auto-critical, that left confounded readers disgusted yet positively disarmed.
Youth continues with this self-portrait. While it offers another narrow glimpse into the writer’s jealously-guarded psyche, the second volume lacks the occasional jollity, however rare, that lent its otherwise gritty predecessor much needed relief. And if his earlier work was memorable because of its unforgiving, precocious voice, the latter will be remembered for its self-abhorrent and persistent, lugubrious tone.
Coetzee, 19, is an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town. Like most teenagers, he is angsty (despite his own denials), defiant in his determination to be independent of his parents, insecure in his own looks, and paranoid of others’ criticising eyes. His aim is to one day leave his birth country for the promised cities of Europe where he is convinced he will be transmuted and turned into a poet.
Interwoven through the novel is Coetzee’s search for art, and for love, two objects whose inextricability he explores to an excruciating fault: on one hand, he expects the Destined One to unleash the poetry welled up inside him; on the other, he believes he must first begin to write to nurture the inner fire, for “it is in quest of the fire … that women pursue artists and give themselves to them.” Still, he recognises that one feeds the other, that in turn fuels the former, to create something of a virtuous circle, before eventually writing as if art is love, and love, art.
In the wake of the Sharpville massacre, Coetzee finally leaves his homeland for England. With little more than a freshly obtained degree in Mathematics and English, he joins IBM as a computer programmer, wearing a black-suited uniform, “adding up numbers on a machine”, and bored into a mental torpor. And when the weekends come around, at the end of 13 hour working days, all on his own in a cold, dank, and dreary little pad, loneliness stalks, and he sinks into consuming despair.
Nevertheless, the determined Coetzee refuses to fail. Instead, he focuses on his aspiration to become an artist. He longs to have affairs, intimacy and passion that inspired Picasso; he vows to turn his back on morality if being immoral, like Henry Miller, will lead to the creation of art; he wants to follow his literary models in Ezra Pound and TS Eliot and sacrifice his life to art, “even if that means exile, obscure labour, obloquy.”
However, Coetzee lacks the temperament to live such a life. He knows that he does not have Picasso’s manipulative sensibilities and “hypnotic black eyes”, that his fastidious taste in women detracts from his philandering ambitions, and that his adversities in loneliness and misery will be as much as he is prepared to endure.
And when neither love nor poetry seems to be forthcoming, self-doubt starts to set in. Coetzee becomes associated with girls less desirable than the sophisticated European women thronging through London’s streets. He clings reluctantly to demeaning relationships, makes love for no apparent reason, shrugs off responsibility, and breaks innocent hearts.
There are lingering whiffs of his boyhood temperament. His behaviour towards his mother is as heartless as it was in the prequel, his love for her as begrudging, conflicted yet compelling. As riddled with contradictions as before, he may have been desperate to sever all ties with South Africa, and become as English as he can, for most of the volume, but by the end of the memoir, he finds himself yearning for his homeland of the old days, with a desire to write a book about the continent within the 1820s, from where seeds of his first novel Dusklands are perhaps sown.
There is clear evidence of the author’s fascination with Beckett’s works, whose trademark rhapsody on human existence and on the consciousness of an isolated character can be detected in many of his novels including Waiting for the Barbarians and the Man Booker Prize-winning Life and Times of Michael K, not to mention the 20th century writer’s spare and laconic writing style that permeates Coetzee’s prose.
Nonetheless, it is the technique of Ford Madox Ford — the writer he has chosen for his Master’s research thesis — that he most emulates here. Impressed by Ford’s “cunning with which a note, casually struck and artlessly repeated, will stand revealed, chapters later as a major motif”, Coetzee has deftly worked his theme of test into his narrative. He sees the “real world” of England as a constant test, with its exhausting monotony, its bitingly cold winter, its aloofness to foreigners, and the loneliness, guilt and brink of madness that it brings.
While Youth, which closes when Coetzee is still languishing in a creative drought aged 24, does little to reveal how he goes on to become one of the most respected writers of this century, the reader is suitably informed it might well have been “a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again.”