Together, Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life, Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II and now Summertime constitute one of our time’s greatest testaments to the full development of a writer’s consciousness.
Little written recently competes with the depth and artistry of these three fictionalized memoirs (or memoiristic fictions) in illuminating the stages of this Nobel Prize-winning and twice Booker Prize-winning author’s maturity.
In Boyhood — one has to look as far back as the great 19th century classics of childhood or James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for apt comparisons to this monumental effort — Coetzee identifies his conflicted feelings toward his Afrikaner heritage. When he visits the ancestral farm in the rugged Karoo terrain, an unfamiliar expansiveness opens up in him.
He enjoys being mistaken for a Catholic in a puritan Christian school in his native Worcester. His father is a dissolute and disbarred attorney, from whom Coetzee gets his reticence, which can be mistaken for cruelty.
Youth takes us to Coetzee’s years in England as a failing poet, literary scholar and IBM computer programmer. In the early ’60s, Coetzee goes against the libertine atmosphere by pursuing a writerly life of extreme restraint and discipline. His great fear is to have to return to South Africa as a failure.
Summertime deals with the years from 1972 to 1977, when Coetzee had returned to South Africa (after having practiced linguistics in America and having been thrown out of the country for protesting the Vietnam War) to live in the Tokai suburb of Cape Town while taking care of his ailing father. These were years of relative obscurity, when he had written Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country and was leading up to Waiting for the Barbarians while teaching at the University of Cape Town.
Boyhood and Youth are written in objective third-person, but Summertime is more formally experimental, reminding us often of Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year.
Vincent, a young English biographer, is interviewing five people who knew the now-deceased Coetzee. They include a married woman named Julia Smith with whom he had a brief affair; his cousin Margot (earlier seen in Boyhood), now happily married, whom he visited along with the rest of his family at their ancestral farm; and a Brazilian dancer, Adriana Nascimento, on whom he had an unrequited crush and whose daughter Coetzee taught English.
Summertime begins and ends with fragments of Coetzee’s diary, as though these were the limits to which Coetzee was willing to go to satisfy his readers’ curiosity about his personal life.
In all three books, Coetzee is haunted by whether he is too cold and distant for normal human relations, particularly with women. Is he suitable marriage material? Can he perform well in bed? Julia’s verdict in Summertime is that “he was not a prince but a frog… he was not human, not fully human.”
His cousin Margot wonders: “Is her cousin, if not a moffie (homosexual), then a eunuch?” And when Coetzee’s truck breaks down near the deserted town of Merweville, and the two have to sleep together in the cabin, Margot asks, “Is he by nature as heatless as he is sexless?” The Brazilian dancer is the harshest: “No, not sexless. Solitary. Not made for conjugal life. Not made for the company of women.”
Thus Coetzee takes care of the superficial indictments of his character that any future biographer might undertake; he shifts the focus to his ethical discipline instead. In all instances, the women emerge as practical and pragmatic, condemning Coetzee for being in love with abstract ideas of them.
Julia mocks Coetzee for his coldness, but he is taking care of his father at considerable cost in autonomy. He is always busy repairing their ramshackle house because he loathes the white caste’s shunning of manual labor. His vehicle breaks down with Margot because he insists on doing the repairs himself. As for the Brazilian dancer, Coetzee admires her for being the culmination of cultural melange — all of us ending up as “colored”.
The final, short interview transcript is with Sophie Denoell, Coetzee’s university colleague who judges his writing thus: “His work lacks ambition… Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before… Too lacking in passion.”
Unlike the other women, Sophie is an intellectual, a stand-in for Coetzee’s critics. Sophie is misjudging Coetzee’s writing, just as in earlier sections women intimate with him have misjudged his character.
Coetzee’s biographer is focused not on his writing but on the fissures in his character, as biographers are apt to do. Coetzee has successfully executed the high-wire act of prejudging his life and work before his own death, in essence setting up an impossible roadblock for would-be biographers. He wants us to worry about how the writer today can be ethical, despite the purely unethical nature of politics.
Coetzee today takes vocal stands against torture and humiliation; we now see that he has arrived at his convictions after enduring the hardship of living by the sparsest possible principles. Some may misjudge his character and writing as cold, but warmth and compassion of a rarefied kind overflow these books. He may not want to believe it, but he is a giant among giants.