Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee

Two of my all-time favorite books are autobiographies. Of course, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has the contradictory subtitle: “As Told to Alex Haley”. Regardless, it is a powerful work. The insights into the arc of Malcolm’s life, the way his beliefs were formed, and the reasons those beliefs changed over the course of his too-short existence, are fascinating. As the best such works, it uncovers the making of a man, flawed, intelligent, and reflective.

Speak, Memory is even better. Nabokov is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant artists ever to work in the English language. The book is less revealing of the man than his artistry. But this, in itself, is another demonstration of his genius. Even in autobiography, Nabokov is uniquely inventive. And the prose smiles.

Boyhood fits nicely between these two works. Coetzee, like Malcolm (via Alex Haley), tells his story chronologically, but does not write a hagiography. Coetzee, again like Malcolm, discloses in almost frightening frankness some of his formative flaws. We see, as in the Malcolm X work, a progression of character overtime. There is growth, but sometimes it is a twisting, deforming growth.

Boyhood is not a conventional telling. Coetzee writes of himself in the third person. Brilliantly, I think. As intimate as this work is, the third person provides distance, a remove from the subject. We are not shown the author, but a boy the author once was. The effect is to free the reader to judge, to empathize, and to evaluate. And, like Nabokov’s work, the prose of the master is displayed in full. The work is not only the story of the author, but an independent work of art.

What has emerged, both man and book, is something beautiful. Terribly beautiful.

J.M. Coetzee is unflinching in his self-portrait. Always first in his class, the young Coetzee is a brilliant little misfit. The class, caste, and social systems of South Africa parse up the boys until Coetzee is left alone. He has an Afrikaaner surname, an English upbringing, no religion, a bookish disposition, and no interest in the male bonding rituals of youth. When his family moves, he is further isolated in the provincial town of Worcester, not least by the division of school boys according to religion during assembly. As a new student, he and several other boys are taken aside and asked their religion. The young Coetzee is at a loss, so the teacher gives him three choices: Christian, Roman Catholic, or Jew. Amusingly in Coetzee’s telling, he chooses Roman Catholicism.

He chose to be a Roman Catholic, that fateful morning, because of Rome, because of Horatius and his two comrades, swords in their hands, crested helmets on their heads, indomitable courage in their glance, defending the bridge over the Tiber against the Etruscan hordes. [Later], he discovers from the other Catholic boys what a Roman Catholic really is. A Roman Catholic has nothing to do with Rome. Roman Catholics have not even heard of Horatius.

The young Coetzee becomes the target of the Christian boys for being a Catholic and the Catholic boys for being an imposter. Still, he is ultimately satisfied with his choice. Coetzee the man provides this brilliant glimpse into the boy’s mind:

If being a Christian means singing hymns and listening to sermons and then coming out to torment the Jews, he has no wish to be a Christian. The fault is not his if the Catholics of Worcester are Catholic without being Roman, if they know nothing about Horatius and his comrades holding the bridge over the Tiber (‘Tiber, Father Tiber, to whom we Romans pray’), about Leonidas and his Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae, about Roland holding the pass against the Saracens. He can think of nothing more heroic than holding a pass, nothing nobler than giving up one’s life to save other people, who will afterwards weep over one’s corpse. That is what he would like to be: a hero. That is what proper Roman Catholicism should be about.

The young Coetzee is oblivious to the irony so skillfully deployed by the author Coetzee. I find the quote hilarious and profound. Coetzee manages to unveil the hypocrisy within and the emotional foundation for the sacrificial religions in one breezy memory.

The more frequent target of Coetzee’s penetrating insight is the young Coetzee. The boy can be petulant and cold. His treatment of his mother is atrocious. He covets her love, wants it all for himself:

He wants her to behave toward him as she does toward his brother. But he wants this as a sign, a proof, no more. He knows that he will fly into a rage if she ever begins hovering over him.

At the same time, he returns no affection to her:

His rages against his mother are one of the things he has to keep a careful secret from the world outside. Only the four of them know what torrents of scorn he pours upon her, how much like an inferior he treats her. ‘If you teachers and your friends knew how you spoke to your mother…,’ says his father, wagging a finger meaningfully. He hates his father for seeing so clearly the chink in his armour.

This quality is not endearing. Coetzee has a purpose in showing us this aspect. He is not simply showing us his flaws. His relationship with his mother is borne of his essential character, not only the author suffers for his art:

He is a liar and he is cold-hearted too: a liar to the world in general, cold-hearted toward his mother. It pains his mother, he can see, that he is steadily growing away from her. Nevertheless he hardens his heart and will not relent. His only excuse is that he is merciless to himself too. He lies but he does not lie to himself.

There is much more, and exquisitely written. Coetzee’s dissection of his childhood manages simultaneously to be coldly clinical and warmly touching. We see both the boy and the beast. The reader is shown every facet of the boy who grew into the author Coetzee.

I picked this book up so that I could read Coetzee’s biographical trilogy (Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime) in order. I already admired Coetzee as a writer, but my experience with Boyhood pushes him up my literary rankings. I was already eager to get my hands on Summertime, now I am feverish with booklust. But Youth first.

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9 Responses to Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee

  1. Sarah says:

    I am sometimes suspicious of autobiography, and more so of biography, but your wide-ranging review gets to the heart of what an author’s autobiography can and(I think)should be. I would want to know how a writer’s life has developed the author, not the private individual. (Making an assumption that these two facets are separate and distinct.)

    Your observation of twisting, deforming growth is fascinating… and I can’t figure out why darkness exerts such an appeal. Likewise the quote regarding his calculated need for his mother’s regard. Even without the benefit of personal experience the prose evokes a powerful feeling of recognition.

    Next time I think about reading Nabokov I will recall his autobiography as a promising candidate, and I had promised myself that I would read several more Coetzee before Summertime. Which has now extended to several straight fiction, and the two you mention! As with your Willa Cather odyssey, this could be a long job.

  2. Kerry says:

    Thank you, Sarah.

    I tend to share your suspicion of autobiography, but the books I mention in this review manage to transcend the individual, each in a unique way.

    It sounds like we are on a similar Coetzee program. I also felt like I needed to read more Coetzee to get the full Summertime experience. I am, obviously, thrilled I read this one and am looking forward to Youth. Then, should I read another one or two of his novels? I originally planned to go to Summertime next, but now I am wondering. I would read a novel or two, but I am not sure I can wait that long…

  3. anokatony says:

    Autobiography is not a genre I’ve ever had much interest in, but you make a strong case for “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, “Speak Memory”, and “Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life”. In your entry, I was especially struck by your quotes regarding religion. Although I was brought up in a quite religious Protestant household, I no longer give people a free pass just because they are religious. There is a huge amount of evil that goes out in the world under the name of religion. One must realize that many of the Nazis were devout Protestants and Catholics.
    This book does sound fascinating, and I may need to reconsider my prohibition against reading non-fiction.

  4. Kerry says:

    Tony,

    Thanks, as always, for your comments. I do really admire each of the autobiographical works mentioned. Your upbringing sounds similar to my own. And I agree with you that being “religious” should not be a free pass for intolerance, discrimination, or any other form of evil.

    It is difficult for me to recommend which of these would be best for you as a foray into non-fiction. Malcolm X is sufficiently fictionalized and feels almost as much like a novel as autobiography (thanks Alex Haley), Speak, Memory is the most brilliant, and Boyhood sits somewhere in between.

    I think you might like Boyhood, particularly as it begins the road to Summertime which, from KFC’s and John Self’s reviews, sounds like a masterful blending of autobiography and fiction. My top recommendation based on what I know of you from your blog: Boyhood.

    I hope you do try one, because I would love to get the benefit of your perspective.

  5. I already have Youth in my tbr pile, but you are making such a good case forBoyhood that I just ordered that one as well. Besides, Coetzee’s Disgrace is one of my favourite novels of all time.

  6. Kerry says:

    Disgrace was my first Coetzee and instantly became one of my favorites as well. I hope I have not oversold Boyhood, but I do not believe so.

  7. I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I read Summertime this year. Glad you enjoyed this one, and now, I can’t wait to read it.

    I admire Coetzee’s fictional works, and for obvious reasons, was tentative when I picked up Summertime. However, luckily, I wasn’t disappointed, and that makes me impressed me much more than his fiction – believe you me, that’s saying a lot.

  8. Kerry says:

    My impression is that Youth and Summertime, neither of which I have yet read, are even better than Boyhood. If that is so, I will definitely prefer this series to the Coetzee fiction I have read, as good as that fiction is. Youth is next and I intend to get to it by the time Summertime is officially out in the U.S. I only hope my expectations have not been raised too high.

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