Book review: Summertime: Scenes From Provincial Life
It is 2007, and John Coetzee is dead. An Englishman, Mr Vincent, is working on his posthumous biography, unauthorised.
Having never met Coetzee himself, the biographer has made arrangements to speak with five people who knew his subject personally: some intimately, some professionally, or both.
Summertime is the third volume in the trilogy of what has been promulgated as Coetzee’s “fictionalised memoirs”. Unlike Boyhood and Youth which are both in narrative form, the final installment comprises a series of interviews bookended by notebook fragments that Vincent has managed to glean.
So, armed presumably with little more than Coetzee’s notes to himself, Vincent sets out on his research into the 2003 Nobel Laureate’s life in the 1970s — 1971 to (perhaps) 1978 or so, the specific period is not entirely clear — when the famous author was thought to be making a foray in the writing of his first novels.
We see Coetzee returning to South Africa as a young man in his 30s, after a chequered sojourn in America, to live with his prematurely ailing father. His mother has died, and his younger brother is overseas.
His notebook fragments offer glimpses into the tenuous relationship between father and son who maintain an austere existence in a decrepit house — he, as an underemployed part-time teacher; his father, a labouring bookkeeper. Quietly, he recognises prevalent Afrikaner injustice in his country, and quietly he desires to be “indifferent”, to be “an outsider”.
Then, we meet Julia, an ex-lover, now a therapist, who seems to have uncloaked the Coetzee we saw in Youth: selfish, fervently averse to intimacy, and cruel. However, revelations from the proud and conceited woman about how her then-lover “took fright, hurriedly strapped the armour back over his heart, with chains and a double padlock” when he felt he had completed his conquest of her, somewhat undermines her criticism of him as “not a prince, but a frog”. In the end, she is portrayed as a hurting, perhaps even spiteful, contributor.
Mindful that it is the author himself who has put words into the characters’ mouths (although the book pretends the interviewees are sharing their own stories), we are quickly assured that Coetzee is not a misogynist — far from it.
In Adriana — a Brazilian dancer, the mother of a student — we see an exceptional woman who beat the odds to raise her two daughters single-handedly when her husband had his face smashed in and died while working as a guard at a warehouse soon after they arrived in South Africa as new immigrants.
Interestingly, we discover that Adriana is the one who has inspired the character in the writer’s novel Foe. And even more interestingly, one wonders whether her rejection of Coetzee’s advances to the end played a role in that decision. Maybe (only maybe), the innate cruelty that Coetzee could not execute on Adriana had no choice but find its way into his writing.
If the author wishes, through Julia and Adriana, to be perceived as a “cold fish” whose lovemaking had an “autistic quality”, a “tepid” and “disembodied” “wooden man”, he has chosen to ridicule his political rectitude by juxtaposing it with his cousin Margot’s practical liberalism: while Coetzee naively believed he was breaking the taboo of white men doing manual labour by launching himself into rebuilding his house and fixing his truck (with consequences), Margot and her husband endured weekly separation away from their home so as to house their Coloured farm workers properly.
Coetzee longs for us — as he would have Sophie, another ex-lover, university colleague and teacher of French, tell us — to get his politics “from his books” rather than his autobiography. Okay, fictionalised autobiography.
Through her, he wants to tell us that his own political position is informed by helpless fatalism; that even if he sees the liberation of apartheid as just, the outcome is to him not ideal; that the society he dreams of is one free of politics altogether i.e. a romantic, unrealistic, Utopian society.
If the French teacher has an unflattering opinion of not only Coetzee’s politics, but his writing in general — “his work lacks ambition”, “too cool, too neat, “too lacking in passion” — another ex-colleague, lecturer of English, Martin, has a similarly dim view of his talent as a teacher: “a strain of secretiveness that seemed to be engrained in him, part of his character, extended to his teaching too”. Even if he cared deeply about some writers, the depth of emotion was not manifest. And when students think the discourse does not matter to the teacher, “you may as well go home”.
Finally, however, the reader is acutely conscious that Summertime is really no more than a work of fiction: John Coetzee is well and truly alive, not dead; in the 1970s, he was not living with his father but married with children; and the passing of his mother, that did not happen until 1985.
As if these alone are not enough to obfuscate, even the dates of the interviews appear to be out of kilter: Vincent tells Martin whom he interviews in September 2007 that he shall be seeing Margot next for the second time, when the first interview with her does not take place until December 2007.
In yet a further rebuff, a salutary advice, through Martin, Coetzee also warns that “It would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing (his novels) it had to be present in his life”.
So, it seems that the reclusive and exasperatingly elusive writer — one of the greatest in the English language today — is exhorting us to give up trying to know him: you may or may not understand him from his novels but you will most definitely not find him in his fictional autobiography.
And that is not a bad thing too, through Summertime he assures us, for the stories of others he has in store are many times more worthy than his own.
Still, even if my favourite author consigns to fiction the selfishness, aversion to intimacy, and cruelty that his Scenes From Provincial Life trilogy relentlessly suggest, I think we can attest to all of these traits in him ourselves — simply by being his ardent, but frustrated, fans.