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

July 10, 2010

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.