Thursday, September 17, 2009


I was surprised to see J. M. Coetzee's Summertime shortlisted for the Booker Prize—not because I did not enjoy the book, but because I did not read it as a novel. The book's subtitle is "Scenes from Provincial Life," which is also the subtitle of Coetzee's memoir Boyhood, so I read Summertime as a memoir. (Note that the Wikipedia page on Coetzee lists it under his memoirs.)

Granted, as a memoir, Summertime is even more singular than Boyhood (and than the similar Youth, Coetzee's second memoir). As I have noted before, in Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee takes an unusual approach to autobiographical writing: the books are in the third person and the present tense.

Summertime begins with a section called "Notebooks 1972-1975," and at first it appears to be a memoir like the other two: third person and present tense are used again. A small difference is that these selections from "Notebooks" are dated, whereas Boyhood and Youth are both largely vague about dates (and about how old the protagonist actually is at any given time).

In addition, these notebook entries are followed by italicized comments on them, like this one (the first): "To be expanded on: his father's response to the times as compared to his own; their differences, their (overriding) similarities" (6). To all appearances, then, Summertime is like Boyhood and Youth, but with a few little twists.

What follows, though, is utterly different. The next section is called "Julia," and it is an interview with a woman who had an affair with one John Coetzee in the early 1970s in South Africa. The interviewer (at first anonymous, but later identified by the interviewee, Julia Frankl, as "Mr. Vincent" [43]) begins by referring to "the pages I sent you from John Coetzee's notebooks for the years 1972-1975," and on the next page a question from Frankl to Vincent leads to the clarification that the italicized passages after the entries were by Coetzee, "notes to himself, written in 1999 or 2000, when he was thinking of adapting these particular entries for a book" (20).

Julia then tells Mr. Vincent about her affair with Coetzee. At one point, she says, "And John was not a great talker, as you know" (34). If this implies that this John Coetzee is dead (which J. M. Coetzee is emphatically not), then Mr. Vincent's reply confirms it: "I don't know. I never met him in the flesh" (34). Not "I have never met him," but "I never met him": so this interview is about the late John Coetzee.

At this point, I could have stopped for a moment and thought, "Okay, this is not a memoir!" But this is Coetzee we're talking about, and Boyhood and Youth had already rewritten the rules about memoirs, so I just took this as a much more extreme variation on the memoir: Coetzee writing as if he were dead and a biographer, Mr. Vincent, was working on a book by interviewing people for it.

Five interviews appear in the book, followed by a last section called "Notebooks: undated fragments." In the fourth interview, with Martin, an academic colleague of Coetzee's in the 1970s, Mr. Vincent begins by reading "an account of his [Coetzee's] first meeting with you" (with Martin, that is), which Coetzee had written "in one of his late notebooks." Mr. Vincent goes on to add that he suspects "it was intended to fit into the third memoir, the one that never saw the light of day. As you will hear, he follows the same convention as in Boyhood and Youth, where the subject is called 'he' rather than 'I'" (205). A few pages later, Mr. Vincent then asks a question about what Coetzee might have said "if he had gone on with the memoir, if he had not stopped writing" (210).

Within the world of Summertime, then, John Coetzee worked on a third memoir after Boyhood and Youth, but he did not finish it—not because he died, but because he had stopped writing before he died. In the real world, J. M. Coetzee has continued writing, of course—but he has not published the third memoir. Instead, he has published Summertime.

One can speculate about what this might mean. Coetzee might have started writing a third memoir and decided that it would be boring to just write a third book like the first two. Then the form of Summertime would be an experiment by a writer who does not like to repeat himself. But it's also possible that Coetzee began the third memoir and stopped writing it—not because he stopped writing entirely, like Summertime's John Coetzee, but because he failed to pull it off for one reason or another. Somewhere between failure and experimentation lies the somewhat more down-to-earth alternative that J. M. Coetzee (not John Coetzee) simply decided that this material called for a different approach, an entirely new form, neither memoir nor novel, but a mixture of the two.

But what of these interviews? The strangest possibility of all is that Coetzee conducted the interviews himself! A slightly less strange variation would be that he had somebody else conduct them. A third possibility, odd in an entirely different way, would be that he imagined interviews with these people he had once known. A fourth possibility is that he invented the interviewees, and then I would finally have to admit that the book is an unusual novel, and not a memoir.

But that third alternative is intriguing: if Coetzee conducted imaginary interviews with five people he knew from the 1970s, then one has to grant him a capacity that he ahs not generally been seen as having (either by critics or even by himself—although perhaps his self-criticism in this respect is an ironic mocking of his critics): empathy. Even though the interviews are about John Coetzee, they are as much or even more about the interviewees themselves, and as musings about how others might have seen him, they demonstrate that Coetzee does have a good feel for his own weaknesses and their effects on others.

In the end, then, I find Summertime most interesting when I read it as an experimental memoir, as it were, much more then when I read it as a novel. As a novel, it fits nicely with his last two, Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year (though I would then say the latter is a much better book), while as a memoir, it is a unique and compelling book.


Hannah Stephenson said...

Sounds fascinating! I'll have to read this...

Donald Brown said...

Well, I don't think it's quite a matter of choice, as in chosing to see it as memoir or novel. A big part of that is determined by: if the interviewees actually exist. If they don't, it's 'entirely' fictional; even if they do, but are being used fictionally (i.e., they never said the things they're portrayed as saying or have done, much as John Coetzee hasn't died), then it's still fiction.

Clearly, when Coetzee makes a fictional character, Elizabeth Costello, 'give' a speech he gave, the speech is real (as might be some of the material in the interviews), but the use of it is fictive.

Andrew Shields said...

Strictly speaking, Don, you're right, of course, but there's something about "Summertime" that makes it seem less successful if you read it as a novel, full stop, without taking the memoir issue into account.

As far as I understood, Coetzee did not have Costello give speeches he gave; rather, he gave speeches that were the chapters (or "lessons") that make up the EC book.

Donald Brown said...

I was under the impression that Coetzee gave the speech about animals at Princeton before EC appeared in print. So that, when the book was available, EC, in the book, was giving a speech that JMC had already given.

But I know what you mean about the 'memoir' aspect of the novel complicating its fictiveness. Clearly, that's the effect he's going for. Look forward to reading it.