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.


Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

January 24, 2010

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.


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

November 28, 2009

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.