Being John Coetzee
Summertime by J.M. Coetzee
Recommendation Level: No with a but/Yes with an if
Status: Ready for you
LIKE MOST OF MY FELLOW AMERICANS, the only Coetzee I’ve ever read is Disgrace. Since then, I have often paused in front of Coetzee’s thin, orange-spined volumes on the bookstore shelf, wondering which I should read next and worrying about how to actually say the author’s name. Summertime jumped to the front of the line as a Christmas gift and, like most of Coetzee’s books, is the right size for a plane ride. On my connecting flight to San Antonio, an attendant stopped to tell me that she read Disgrace and asked if Summertime was any good. I think she tuned out before I got to the words “postmodern meta-fiction,” which is fine since I ignored her instructions on how to get out of the plane in the unlikely event of an emergency.
Not that it mattered to me at the time, since Summertime is no cheerful read. The book itself is the compiled research for a biography about a deceased, Nobel-prize winning contemporary author named John Coetzee. The biographer, “Mr. Vincent,” is a mostly-offstage British man writing for a small academic press. Presumably it is Mr. Vincent who has arranged the chapters of Summertime, placing sections from John Coetzee’s notebooks at the front and back end of a series of interviews: with a lover, a cousin, an unrequited love, an Afrikaner academic and a lover/colleague. All the material covers a short period in the early 1970s, when John Coetzee was still “finding his feet as a writer,” living in apartheid Cape Town with his aging father and writing with little success, and little hope of any. There is also a consistent theme of people in hospitals waiting to die.
If a struggling author, an aging father, apartheid Cape Town and hospice aren’t dour enough, the mood is reinforced by the fact that no one seems to be all that fond of, or even interested in, John Coetzee. The lover is roundly unimpressed with him, characterizing his lovemaking as having “an austistic quality” and concluding that “sex with him lacked all thrill.” The cousin goes from curious to awkward to irritated to pitying. The unrequited love is basically just annoyed, and convinced that Coetzee has aims on her young daughter. The academic seems distracted from the interview itself, and the lover/colleague concludes that “[John] had no special sensitivity that I could detect, no original insight into the human condition.” Of his writing she says, “After Disgrace I lost interest. In general I would say that his work lacks ambition.”
Despite all this, there is something – not exactly a story or a narrative, but something – that shines through. Even though these kinds of idiosyncratic structures are typically used when the author has nothing else to offer, Coetzee (the real one) manages to produce amped-up but accessible postmodern meta-fiction.
Peeling away the layers is like an LSAT primer. Coetzee drops an early hint on the second page of the novel, with the appearance of the phrase “Agenbite of inwit” in a 1972 notebook entry by John Coetzee. A brisk Googling reveals that: “The Ayenbite of Inwyt (also Agenbite of Inwit, literally Prick or Remorse of Conscience) is a confessional prose work written in a Kentish dialect of Middle English.” Both the real Coetzee (J.M.) and the fictional Coetzee (John) are recalling Joyce’s Ulysses and Stephen Dedalus, another authorial stand-in in another book heavy with allusions. Both Stephen Dedalus and John are thinking about colonialism in their usage of “Agenbite of inwit.” In other words, we have a multi-valent (John=colonialism; J.M.=meta-fiction) reference from a text (Summertime) to another text (Ulysses) about yet another text (Agenbite). Should we consider, too, that John’s “Agenbite” is in notebooks being used as the source for a book about him, and Stephen’s comes in response to someone mentioning collecting a book of his sayings?
This all happens on page two, and is pretty much par for the course of the rest of Summertime.
Digging in: The author (J.M.) is creating the notes of an autobiographical project, being written by another author (Mr. Vincent) about a fictional author (John Coetzee). The materials are primarily in the form of interviews, adding another level of storytelling. In the interview with John Coetzee’s cousin, Mr. Vincent reconstructs the transcription into a linear narrative, and our reading of it is his re-reading of it to the cousin, who interjects occasionally to suggest or insist on changes. To really pile it on, the unrequited love is Brazilian and speaks through an interpreter.
It continues. The inter-textual lines are further crossed by extra-textual elements. Most notably, J.M. Coetzee has published a series of memoirs in recent years, and the fictional Summertime carries on the approximate timeline of those non-fiction pieces. While John Coetzee is fictional, his story is not distinct enough to separate him from the real author, tangling him up with what we know about J.M.
And because John writes the same novels as J.M. and has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, there is another great tangle of meaning between both writers and the works and characters they have created. There are slight hints that John has engaged in the kind of teacher-student amour im-propre that bedeviled the central character of Disgrace (the cousin relates that John returned to South Africa “under some cloud or other, some disgrace.”) Mr. Vincent tells the unrequited love that in an early draft of Foe, the heroine was Brazilian. Are these things true? Of John or J.M. or both? What’s the story? It seems like we are supposed to come out on the other end of Summertime with some new knowledge about the real author, J.M. Coetzee. But ultimately it feels like we are playing a game of Who’s On First on a baseball field designed by M.C. Escher.
All of which brings me back to myself, standing in front of an array of thin orange spines at the bookstore. These books likely hold the keys to unlock Coetzee’s latest novel. Picking up one or five or all of them might lead me back to a more rewarding reading of Summertime. In the meantime, its dark humor and strong heart make it pretty rewarding already.