Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II by J.M. Coetzee

There is danger here. Along with David Mitchell, whose Ghostwritten was good, whose number9dream was superb, and whose Cloud Atlas is disabusing me of the idea that I should write anything, text messages and shopping lists included, J.M. Coetzee makes me believe in the concept of genius. I have not read extensively in his oevre, only enough to know I will read the rest.

My love affair with Coetzee began in 2003. I was browsing a book store, probably Barnes and Noble, and this little paperback had one of those stickers that reminds the buyer that the author has won an award. In this case, the sticker announed that J.M. Coetzee had won the Nobel prize. It was on that basis that I picked up Disgrace to see if Coetzee was worth so much fuss. Well, you will never hear me deride the Nobel Prize in Literature. Whatever else the Nobel committee has done or will do, it gave me J.M. Coetzee and I am forever in debt.

The cynic might say that I would have discovered Coetzee anyway. After all, I did not start blogging because of the Nobel. Through blogging, I would have been exposed to Coetzee and would have fallen in love just the same. But that isn’t true. Cynics are not always right. There are plenty of books and authors lauded by bloggers I respect and, yet, I can and do read only a fraction of those books. Could someone have described for me why Coetzee would be a perfect author for me? You know, the way that Cormac McCarthy is the perfect author for others. I don’t think so. To do that, they would have to know me, would have to describe me. Not my type, me. And, then, explain why Coetzee is a great author for me.

Ideally, I would do that here. But I will not. I could not. Mostly, I don’t want to. I admire Coetzee, in part, for what he has that I do not. He has the courage to lay himself bare, to allow his readers to poke his insides, examine his motivations, his quirks, his deficiencies. Give me my skin and a cloak too.

Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life charmed me. The boy is precocious and intelligent. Coetzee’s use of the nameless third person effectively evokes the distance of age and, yet, he manages to bring us into the mind of this child that will turn into the man who is J.M. Coetzee. But a great thing about Boyhood is that the subject is very much a boy and not a future artist. He is a boy growing up in South Africa. Boyhood is when I fell in love with Coetzee.

The plan after Boyhood was to read Youth and then Summertime, polishing off the trilogy in the intended order. My impatience for Summertime in January resulted in some skipping about. And so Youth waited for summer. The wait, its coming third, may have enhanced my enjoyment of it. It is not my favorite of the three. In fact, it is my least favorite, but it is still an excellent book.

Youth is an awkward as Coetzee shows anew. In boyhood, Coetzee was “a liar to the world in general, cold-hearted toward his mother.” His relationship to the world and to women has only matured, not changed. In Youth, he still poses for those around him, whether his employers, his friends, or his sexual conquests, and is cold-hearted toward the women in his life. He remains honest with himself, as honest as he can manage. That honesty is tempered by some delusions:

He is proving something: that each man is an island; that you don’t need parents.

So much of Boyhood is dominated by Coetzee’s complex relationship with his mother. She loves him, favors him even, and so he has the luxury of pushing her away.

It pains his mother, he can see, that he is steadily growing away from her. Nevertheless he hardens his heart and will not relent.

Early in Youth, Coetzee’s mother still suffers from his determined flight:

Whenever she sees him she tries to slip money into his pocket, a pound note, two pounds. ‘Just a little something,’ she calls it. Given half a chance, she would sew curtains for his flat, take in his laundry. He must harden his heart against her. Now is not the time to let down his guard.

He does not punish his mother for anything she has done, but what she would do, if allowed. He punishes her for being a potential obstacle in his quest for artistic greatness. That is the goal he has set for himself in Youth. His revelry in self-sufficiency is but a subset of his masochistic relationship with art.

Like Pound and Eliot, he must be prepared to endure all that life has stored up for him, even if that means exile, obscure labour, and obloquy. And if he fails the higher test of art, if it turns out that after all he does not have the blessed gift, then he must be prepared to endure that too: the immovable verdict of history, the fate of being, despite all his present and future sufferings, minor. Many are called, few are chosen. For every major poet a cloud of minor poets, like gnats buzzing around a lion.

And this, in some ways, is Coetzee’s immodest project. He shows some of his worst qualities, but they are all in service to this pursuit of artistic truth. “[F]ortunately, artists do not have to be morally admirable people.” He not only sacrifices his mother, but himself. At least, he is prepared to do so. Coetzee goes out of his way to emphasize his moral failings, but only to highlight his commitment to art. His cold-heartedness was necessary, he says. Perhaps. He is hardest of all on himself, he says. Perhaps. But he knows, by the time he has written this book, that he is the lion. And, yet, he knows we know he is the lion. Maybe he is hardest on himself.

Even his determination to take the test, to risk failure, by the end, is revealed as only bravado. He is like the rest of us. The final pages of the book relate his despair and frustration. He wants greatness, but he is not prepared, after all, to risk being less than great.

Now he is not a poet, not a writer, not an artist. He is a computer programmer, a twenty-four-year-old computer programmer in a world in which there are no thirty-year-old computer programmers.

Amidst the suffering, the awkwardness, the computer programming, and the making of an artist, there are books and poems and literary criticism. I was particularly pleased when, having just finished Ford Madox Ford The Good Soldier, Coetzee sets himself the challenge of reading Ford’s entire literary output. He does it for his thesis. Much of Ford disappoints him.

If Ford was such a fine writer, why, mixed in with his five good novels, is there so much rubbish?

The obvious retort is that rubbish is almost always inevitable. Five good novels is five more than most ever manage. Even the greats must try and fail. That’s what they say; what Coetzee says.

If Coetzee has failed, I have not seen it. This trilogy is genius.

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11 Responses to Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II by J.M. Coetzee

  1. Of the trilogy, I’ve only read Summertime, which was excellent, I thought. I loved the way he used the “researcher” to write his autobiography.

    I’ve only read four books by Coetzee (Disgrace included), and was blown away by his genius in all four. My favourite remains Diary of a Bad Year – again, the style of the book is so unique and executed almost to perfection. It’s also the first Coetzee I read, which might have something to do with it. Co-incidentally enough, even I picked up Diary of a Bad Year after seeing the little sticker that stated it was written by a Nobel Prize winner.

  2. Kerry says:

    I really really wanted to read Diary of a Bad Year and then didn’t. I have decided to return to the beginning, but I am happy to hear you praise it. Occasionally, I have read people suggesting it was a slight misstep. The concept seemed absolutely great to me, so I am looking forward to it. But I am going with an early work next.

    I would have a hard time choosing between Summertime and Boyhood for a favorite of the three. Both are brilliant in their own, very different, ways. I was going to give an answer, but I do find myself wavering between them. I can’t choose.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment!

  3. Anthony says:

    The more I learn of Coetzee, the more enigmatic and alluring I find his work. This wonderful trilogy is not biographical; Coetzee’s own life followed a dramatically different path. In all his books (those I have read) his mission seems to be to break down and test the limits of genre boundaries, purely for aesthetic reasons. His work shares many similarities with Joyce.

    • Anthony says:

      Apologies but of course I meant that this trilogy is not autobiographical.

      • What do you mean by “not autobiographical”? I haven’t read the trilogy yet but I thought that while they are fiction they also have an autobiographical element. I believe that testing genre limits and the fiction-nonfiction nexus are part of what his is doing. In Diary of a bad year, Senor C has certain similarities with Coetzee – both writers, both have last name starting with C, both interested in the some if not all of the same political issues. I think this is part of the game Coetzee is playing with us, part of what he is making us think about.

  4. Oh great post Kerry, and I’m there with you. I haven’t yet read this trilogy, but I have read Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a bad year. Loved them all, but particularly the first and the last. And the reason I love him is twofold: one is the laying himself bare thing that you describe, and the other is the risks he takes with the novel form. Elizabeth Costello has a strange mix of story and what feels like “lectures”, Diary of a bad year has an amazing tripartite structure/layout that makes you confront how you read a novel and how you define a novel. He teases us with autobiography in his work as well too (though he’s not the only one to do that). I’d also like to read The life and times of Michael K – and his other works.

    I am, I have to say, thrilled that he now lives in Australia – and I did attend an author event with him a year or so ago. It was great to see him but as an event it was a little disappointing. He’s a very shy man and took no questions. Fair enough – I don’t think an author should HAVE to do this but it would have been nice!

  5. Kerry says:

    Anthony,

    Yours is a good point. The trilogy is not autobiographical in the sense of fidelity to history. This is, of course, most obvious in Summertime which was written by J.M. Coetzee as an account of “John Coetzee” after John has died. I suspect Boyhood is closest to autobiographical, but would hardly rely on it for a perfect history. But, then, neither would I rely on Speak, Memory as being perfectly faithful to Nabokov’s childhood.

    Whispering,

    Thank you. You make excellent points about Coetzee’s distinctive genius. And you have exposed yourself more broadly to his work, so you have a better perspective to bring than do I. Michael K. is, I think, next on my list of Coetzees.

    I love your anecdote. It is nice when an author takes questions at those sort of events. I would have been disappointed too.

  6. Ha, Kerry, I think we were both commenting at the same time – and both saying something similar on the autobiographical issue.

    • Kerry says:

      You are right. It is fascinating what Coetzee has done/is doing.

    • Anthony says:

      My comments were not especially precise. Teach me to comment before my first coffee of the day.

      Whilst we assume these books are autobiographical, Coetzee has labelled them fiction. This is most notable in Summertime, written after John Coetzee’s fictional death. He also did not live with his widowed father in a ramshackle shack; at the time he was married with two children and his mother was alive and kicking. I have also assumed the other two were more faithful autobiographies. But I suspect Coetzee is making the point that even the most apparently exacting memoirs contain large doses of fiction and interpretation.

      • Oh, I understand that completely Anthony, this is, the making of statements that seem precise to me but are not read so by others because I say it too briefly. Your use of “autobiographical” threw me. When I use “autobiography” I mean that it is an autobiography, but when I use the word “autobiographical” I mean that it is not autobiography but has autobiographical elements. I think that is the point you are making – this trilogy is NOT autobiography.

        Another favourite writer of mine, Elizabeth Jolley, wrote an autobiographical trilogy. But, I think her purpoes are a little different. I don’t think she is self-consciously playing with genre and the idea of stories, truth and reality the way Coetzee is in his.

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