Summertime by J.M. Coetzee is labeled "fiction," not "a novel," or "a collection of autobiographical investigations disguised as a story cycle," or some other generic propositon. Just "fiction."
Ok, it goes this way: there is a biographer, an academic, who goes through the deceased John Coetzee's notebooks and focuses a lot of effort on five extended interviews with four women and one man who were important in Coetzee's life. Two of the women were sexually involved with him; one was a cousin; one did everything she could not to accept his advances. The man is presented as a literary friend, an academic.
Spun out at novel-length, this manuscript effectively uses the apparent nonentity of John Coetzee as he saw (sees) himself in the form of a blank canvas upon which the five interviewees can talk about themselves. We learn more about them than him. About him we learn he's resevered or shy, well but generally educated, something of a utopian, something of a romantic, a dutiful son who dislikes being a dutiful son when his father's health begins to break down…and so on.
About the interviewees we learn that they managed to live without receiving a great deal from the likes of John Coetzee. We hear about their affairs, their childhoods, their complications living in South Africa, and the limits of being human. One denounces Coetzee; one finds him a family misfit; one had some good times with him…The book goes on this way.
The notion that this is Coetzee fictionalizing Coetzee while also probing for that elusive being--the author "behind" the books--isn't overplayed as Philip Roth would overplay it. There's no grand theory as to the interpenetration of the real and the fictional, or their interchangeability. As a consequence, the articulate documentary quality of Summertime, a title whose meaning eludes me, feels thin.
This is an idea book by a writer who can take just about any idea and do something highly professional with it. It's not a lot more than that. It lacks heat, plot, cunning, and a willingness to do more by way of introspection than put the author across as as something of an introverted clutz.
I haven't read it in a while, but I recall John Updike's memoir in essayistic fragments, Self-Consciousness, as a great deal more engaging and enlightening. He does his best to tell "the truth" about himself, a very hard thing to do. Coetzee, on the other hand, skillfully diddles with the post-modern notion that the author, Coetzee, isn't the point, his political views aren't the point, his lack of engagement with women isn't the point…the point is in his books, and this book, a fiction, isn't really a book, it's a thematic exploration…but of what?
The other day a friend asked me about a book we were discussing, "But don't you think it's well-written?" I said, "Yes, of course, the sentences are solid, the pace is good, the imagery is appropriate…but there's something to fiction that goes beyond that." I meant that fiction must have an internal dynamic and objective that is more than skill in managing words.
Late in this book, a former colleague tells the interviewer that where Coetzee fell short was in not taking chances, in deferring to the precepts of genre, in not wrecking conventional expections in the interests of passion. The larger reference here was to Russian writers of the 19th century--Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I would think. Since Coetzee is playing the character being interviewed about him, it appears he has understood his own limitations well.
What's truly curious is that Summertime was "a finalist for the 2009 Man Booker Prize," which we hear about all the time as Great Britain's highest literary award. Why? Because even though a book about Coetzee by Coetzee isn't alive, it still deserves to be on such lists…because Coetzee is Coetzee?
I'm not trying to damn the book, just put it in perspective. It's sort of a readable, articulate book on a par with middle-grade wine, which is okay on a weekend when you're looking for a way to pass the time.
For a collection of my comments on contemporary fiction, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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