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.

My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: August 14, 2009

August 14, 2009

J.M. Coetzee reads an excerpt from his forthcoming Summertime. Alternatively, you can read it yourself here thanks to the New York Review of Books.

For some fun, you can check out a related excerpt. This excerpt is the Dutch translation of Summertime re-translated to English via Google Translate.

Having read and enjoyed Ghostwritten (please check my review), the Bat Segundo show caught my eye. The fictional character preceded this podcast, if you have not read Mitchell’s first novel. Plus, if you like author interviews and are willing to listen rather than read, this is a great place to go. I am only sorry I did not find it sooner. David Mitchell was, appropriately, Bat Segundo’s first interviewee. Bat gets better.

[Edited] In the future, My Favorite Lit-Blog Things will be posted on Wednesdays, but I did not want to wait to share the above. Hope there’s something you like.