Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

I opened the book expecting brilliance. Coetzee writes with a penetrating clarity that is refreshing and mesmerizing. Having thoroughly enjoyed Boyhood, I pragmatically and eagerly skipped Youth for Summertime. I will circle back to Youth and everything else I can find by Coetzee, but I am not sorry to have jumped ahead. It gives me an additional reason to read this one again. The first reason: Summertime is brilliant.

I cannot allow you to rely solely on my own enthusiasm for this work. After all, I am a huge fan of Coetzee. So, please, go read John Self’s excellent review, then Kevin From Canada’s also excellent review. They will more than adequately summarize the structure, introduce you to the characters, and encourage you with beautiful quotes. Because I cannot improve upon the reviews that have been written, I will merely try to contribute something to the conversation.

John Self and Kevin both discussed Coetzee’s use of others to criticize himself and question his life’s work. Being a fan of novels that ask existential questions (see, e.g., Camus, The Fall), I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of Summertime. In addition to examining the writer’s intrusion into the lives of those close to him, Coetzee questions the enterprise of writing itself. One of the fictional Coetzee’s lovers recounts the following dialogue:

‘Do you really believe that?’ he said. ‘That books give meaning to our lives?’

‘Yes.’ I said. ‘A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us. What else should it be?’

‘A gesture of refusal in the face of time. A bid for immortality.’

‘No one is immortal. Books are not immortal…..’

‘I didn’t mean immortal in the sense of existing outside time. I mean surviving beyond one’s physical demise.’

‘You want people to read you after you are dead?’

‘It affords me some consolation to cling to that prospect.’

‘Even if you won’t be around to witness it?’

‘Even if I won’t be around to witness it.’

‘But why should the people of the future bother to read the book you write if it doesn’t speak to them, if it doesn’t help them find meaning in their lives?’

‘Perhaps they will still like to read books that are well written.’

‘That’s silly. It’s like saying that if I build a good enough gram-radio then people will still be using it in the twenty-fifth century. But they won’t. Because gram-radios, however well made, will be obsolete by then. They won’t speak to twenty-fifth-century people.’

‘Perhaps in the twenty-fifth century there will still be a minority curious to hear what a late-twentieth-century gram-radio sounded like.’

‘Collectors. Hobbyists. Is that how you intend to spend your life: sitting at your desk handcrafting an object that might or might not be preserved as a curiosity?’

He shrugged. ‘Have you a better idea?’

You think I am showing off. I can see that. You think I make up dialogue to show how smart I am. But that is how they were at times, conversations between John and myself. They were fun. I enjoyed them; I missed them afterwards, after I stopped seeing him. In fact our conversations were probably what I missed most. He was the only man I knew who would let me beat him in an honest argument, who wouldn’t bluster or obfuscate or go off in a huff when he saw he was losing. And I always beat him, or nearly always.

This dialogue is delicious, so exquisite it sounds made up, polished. There are so many levels to this excerpt. “You think I make up dialogue”, but all the dialogue is made up by J.M. Coetzee for the characters talking to John Coetzee’s biographer. “In fact our conversations were probably what I missed most.” Ouch.

But the philosophical discussion is interesting. Will anyone be reading books, even “well-written” books five hundred years hence? She, the former lover, thinks John Coetzee lost this particular discussion, brags to the biographer about it. And yet her argument is flawed. As John Self pointed out with respect to descriptions of John Coetzee’s “cold, ill at ease, ‘stalled’” personality: “such self-effacement can itself be a form of vanity.”

Here, the proud former lover thought she won, but did she? Surely the logically sound comparison with the content of books would not be a gram-radio, but the music carried by a gram-radio. The failure of John Coetzee the character to seize on this is striking. J.M. Coetzee must see the defect. John Coetzee, while cold and ill at ease, “The Wooden Man” another character suggests, has a tenderness which he wields gently, subtly. He lets his former lover “win”, though she has won nothing. John is not merely magnanimous, he is caring. No other man, she claims, will allow her to win. John does when he need not. Even in this sometimes brutally self-mocking book, J.M. Coetzee slips in one of his virtues among the many shots at his flaws.

The philosophical point is made too. Books may not be read the way they are now, but there is little reason to believe that Bach and Beethoven, Shakespeare and Cervantes will become irrelevant anytime soon. Simply “well-written” work will not survive to be read by more than dedicated “hobbyists”, but great work likely will. John was (and J.M. is) striving for greatness. They are talented enough that they do have a chance at that immortality.

J.M. Coetzee, in Summertime, goes further than questioning whether “well-written” books are worth the effort. He attacks the very concept of truth in storytelling. At The Asylum, John Self pointed out several places where the biographer or his interviewees questioned whether a written work could capture some objective truth. Perhaps, this is J.M. Coetzee’s theory of the relativity of human relationships. The scientific analogy springs to mind not only because it seems apt, but because the language and imagery of science are prominent in both the reviews to which I have referred. KFC discussed how the act of a writer’s observing “impacts the observed”, an excellent summary of one aspect of quantum physics (which aspect led some to adopt the Copenhagen Interpretation). At The Asylum, you can read the quote describing John Coetzee as “like an abstracted scientist”.

The relativity of human relationships, or the human essence, is crucial to the Summertime project. An autobiography provides only one aspect of the man, an author’s work another, a biography another. There remains the question of how one person can ever know another. Through a conversation between John Coetzee’s biographer (in italics) and a former colleague of John Coetzee’s with whom he had a “liason”, J.M. Coetzee raises these questions:

Mme Denoel, I have been through the letters and diaries. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record – not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer. In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing much the same for his own eyes, or perhaps for posterity. As documents they are valuable, of course; but if you want the truth you have to go behind the fictions they elaborate and hear from people who knew him directly, in the flesh.

But what if we are all fictioneers, as you call Coetzee? What if we all continually make up the stories of our lives? Why should what I tell you about Coetzee be any worthier of credence than what he tells you himself?

Of course we are all fictioneers. I do not deny that. But which would you rather have: a set of independent reports from a range of independent perspectives, from which you can then try to synthesize a whole; or the massive, unitary self-projection comprised by his oevre? I know which I would prefer.

The answer here is far less than satisfactory. The biographer has made his choice, but his certainty suggests error. The multiple perspectives method certainly works for this book. We see John Coetzee in ways that we could not see him had J.M. Coetzee chosen any other method to tell his story. The fact that people are not only seen as different but, in important ways, are different in different relational contexts is fascinating. But is the multiple perspectives method superior, or simply a good one in this case. It remains the fact that none of the people interviewed seem to know or care a great deal about the fictional John Coetzee’s artistic work. This is simply another way to know him, but not a better way.

I have neither the competence nor the space to provide any convincing answer. I do find the question fascinating and this book is an excellent exploration of that and other themes. And the other themes are all enjoyable too. Even the imagery and the portrait of South Africa at that time make the book worthwhile. As Kevin From Canada said: “Summertime is only 266 pages long but it is a novel…of incredible complexity.” It is also a joy to read.

10 Responses to Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    You are too modest, Kerry, this is a great review!
    Lisa Hill (ANZ LitLovers)

  2. Kerry says:

    Thank you, Lisa. You are too kind.

  3. I second that : Great review. Read this book last year, and absolutely loved it. Coetzee’s prose is delicious, and I was struck by how this book is semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional… and how the reader is left to distinguish as to where one begins and the other ends.

    I’ve just read three of his books, but thought all three fantastic.

  4. I am really looking forward to reading this book now. Unfortunately it is only out in hardback over here, so I will just have to wait a bit. Which is not a problem, as I am going to read Youth in the interim, which is already on my shelves. I am one of those persons who very much like to do things in the correct chronological order 😉

  5. Kerry says:


    Thanks. I loved how he combined all those elements, tangling truth and fiction which only makes his point about how to ever get to an “objective” truth about a person is impossible. Perspective is everything.


    I meant to read these three (Boyhood, Youth, Summertime) in chronological order. I own Youth, but am pressed for time to read the Tournament of Books selections. My Summertime number came up at the library and I just couldn’t wait. I likely will eventually own it, but I am trying to be good about using our excellent library when it has what I need. So, those are my pragmatic reasons for skipping around. In my ideal world, I would have read them in order. But then, my ideal world looks very dissimilar to this one, so the book thing is only a minor detail of contrast.

    Thanks both for dropping in.

  6. A very thoughtful review, Kerry. I particularly appreciate the way you have developed the themes of the volatility, or at least imprecision, of both memory and observation. Your concluding remarks about what the best “method” is are particularly appropriate, since the book does seem to suggest you need them all and even that will be incomplete. I’ve come to conclude in the months since I read the book that this is its real value to me — unlike some readers, I don’t find much interest in the pure Coetzee biographical element.

    All of which suggests that reading the three volumes out of order (or in order) is not an issue. My impression is that Coetzee believes that using a variety of techniques brings him closer to whatever the real picture might be (although even that will be only partial) and that you need to apply them all. I was initially skeptical to the point of being critical of him for doing this — I now believe that it is not only a valid approach, it is the best way for him to develop his thesis.

  7. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I, of course, used your own observations as a starting point (assuming I didn’t just restate your own ideas) and I think it is a very interesting line of thought to which you exposed me.

    I think you are absolutely right that “it is the best way for him to develop his thesis” (my understanding of which is the same as yours). I cannot imagine a better way to demonstrate the thesis than Summertime or, for that matter, a better way to state it than you have.

    Thanks are to you (and John Self) for excellent reviews that deepened my own appreciation of the work both as I read it and then again when I re-read the reviews. If I was a Booker judge, I am pretty sure this would have been my pick (though I only read a handful of the actual contenders, I read your and others’ reviews of them all).

  8. Sarah says:

    Thoughtful and sensitive review, Kerry. I read John Self’s review some time ago (amongst others), and have been keen to read Summertime ever since. I suspect that the layering of all these reviews will greatly enhance my perception of the book when I finally come to read it. Thanks for a great review.

  9. Kerry says:

    Thank you, Sarah. I look forward to reading how much you enjoy it (a lot or a little), because you will undoubtedly enjoy it.

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