[Did a version of this review for The Hindu]
The central premise of J M Coetzee’s Summertime is that the South African writer John Coetzee – a Nobel laureate, author of such novels as Dusklands, Foe and Disgrace – has recently died in Australia and that a young Englishman named Vincent is trying to write a book about him. However, Vincent’s book is a limited, even whimsical undertaking: it will focus only on the mid-1970s – a time when Coetzee was living with his aged father in the suburbs of Cape Town – and it won’t be a comprehensive biography so much as a collection of impressions gleaned from five people who knew Coetzee to varying degrees during this period.
These people include a Brazilian dancer named Adriana who believes that Coetzee was attracted both to her and to her young daughter (whom he taught English), a married woman named Julia, with whom he had a liaison, and his cousin Margot. Summertime consists largely of their recollections – including a narrative rendering by Vincent of what Margot tells him – and the portrait that emerges of Coetzee is an unflattering one: a dull, asexual, socially awkward, self-absorbed man. One respondent describes him as a sphere, a glass ball, because "there was no way to connect to him...he wasn’t made for love, wasn’t constructed to fit into or be fitted into". "He was not a man of substance," says another, likening him to a block of wood that has neither rhythm nor soul. He is variously derided or pitied.
Inevitably, the discussions reveal at least as much about the interviewees themselves as they do about Coetzee. One woman insists, somewhat shrilly, that John was nothing more than a peripheral character in her grand life-story; another uncomfortably wonders why Vincent wants to know so much about her life when the book should really be about John. The question of why a celebrated author’s life should inherently be of more value or interest than the lives of “ordinary” people runs through Summertime, as does the question of whether one should even attempt to “understand” an author outside of what his work tells us about him.
Vincent has with him excerpts from notebooks maintained by “John Coetzee” in the 1970s, excerpts where the author (speaking of himself in the third person) hazily reflects on the troubles of his country and on his own lackadaisical attempts to achieve immortality through his writing. “Why does he persist in inscribing marks on paper, in the faint hope that people not yet born will take the trouble to decipher them?” At one point Vincent explains that he doesn’t want to rely on his subject’s diaries and letters, 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...if you want the truth you have to hear from people who knew him directly, in the flesh”.
To which one of Vincent’s interviewees asks, “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?” As a reader, it's possible to get so involved with passages like this that you might briefly forget that Summertime is written by (the real-life) J M Coetzee, who is very much alive, and that Vincent and his respondents are the fictional creations. I found this happening on more than a few occasions.
So what is Summertime, really? It’s been widely described as a "fictionalised memoir”, and at times it reads like an exercise in masochism, a harsh self-examination that is dismissive not only of the man but also the writer. (“He had no special sensitivity, no original insight into the human condition,” says one of Coetzee’s colleagues, “Nowhere in his work do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium to say what has never been said before.”) The reticent Coetzee in this book could be a version of the real-life author (who is known to be reclusive and unsmiling), but some important details don’t match: the real Coetzee was married and had children at the time, for example. And there’s no particular reason to believe that the interviewees are based on real people.
For all these meta-complexities, this is best treated as a novel that eventually tells us as much (or as little) about Coetzee as his other, more obviously fictional books do, and with all the qualities that mark his best work. Coetzee has never been known for richly descriptive prose, yet his writing, through its interiority, vividly depicts a place, a time and a mood (in this case, the inertia of life in the African veldt). Despite its spare structure and conversation-driven narrative, Summertime is a book of ideas, full of reflections not only about the relationship between an artist’s life and his work, but also about the functions, possibilities – and limitations – of literature itself. It’s a reminder of how difficult (perhaps impossible) it is to satisfactorily transform the complexities of human experience into words on a page (“Something sounds wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it. All I can say is, your version doesn’t sound like what I told you,” one of “Coetzee’s women” tells Vincent). And it’s both ironical and entirely appropriate that this reminder comes from someone who does it better than most others.