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Summertime ~ by J M Coetzee

SummertimeReview by Sam Ruddock

31 May 1975

South Africa is not formally in a state of war, but it might as well be.  As resistance has grown, the rule of law has step by step been suspended.  The police and the people who run the police (as hunters run packs of dogs) are by now more or less unconstrained.  In the guise of news, radio and television relay the official lies.  Yet over the whole sorry, murderous show there hangs an air of staleness.  The old rallying cries – Uphold white Christian civilization!  Honour the sacrifices of the forefathers! – lack all force.  We, or they, or we and they both, have moved into the endgame, and everyone knows it.

Summertime is the third of John Coetzee’s fictionalised autobiographies, taking up its story ten years after Youth. Following the premature end to his six years in America, John has returned to South Africa to live in a dilapidated shack on the outskirts of Cape Town with his father. He is chastened by his experiences abroad, embarrassed by the country he has had to return to. It may be titled Summertime, but this is no tale of a man in the prime of his life. The Coetzee we meet here is lonely and frustrated, uncomfortable with almost everything about who he is and where he lives. The decade since Youth seems not to have changed him much, save that perhaps the hint of optimism which illuminated the ending of that work seems now to be thoroughly extinguished.

The biggest change from Boyhood and Youth, is in the structure of this work. Whereas they followed a straight forward linear narrative told through an incisive third person singular voice, Summertime sees a more stylistically adventurous approach. It is narrated by a young biographer who is writing a biography of the late John Coetzee. He decides to focus on the period between 1972 and 1977 when, he suspects, Coetzee was finding himself as a writer. In order to get an idea of the man he was, the biographer embarks upon a series of interviews with people who were significant to him at this time, whether they knew themselves to be or not. Through their stories emerges an impression of a less than ordinary man, an eternal outsider: shy, recalcitrant, uncomfortable in his own skin, his family, and his country. He takes up dancing to try to woo a woman only to make a fool of himself; he is regarded with mistrust by his family; he struggles valiantly (though ineffectively) to assuage the guilt he feels about the society around him. We see him engaging in manual labour as penitence for his country’s long history of “making other people do our work for us while we sit in the shade and watch.” He mends his own car, badly, leading to an awkward and cold night alone in the middle of nowhere with his cousin Margot. He takes up brickwork to protect the house from rainwater. His love of the Coetzee family estate in the Karoo remains as passionate as ever it was in Boyhood but everywhere else he is lost. South Africa has become a “loud angry place.”

Yet the problem is he does not belong anywhere. He has tried England and struggled, been rejected citizenship in the United States. For better or worse South Africa seems to be the only place that will have him. So he channels his frustrations, fears, and tentative hopes into his writing. While we do not get much of a view of Coetzee the writer, his passion occasionally pokes its way through his flaccid persona. At one point he tells a women with whom he is having a passionless affair: “There is always something or other I am working on…If I yielded to the seduction of not working what would I do with myself? What would there be to live for? I would have to shoot myself.” At another he describes books as a “gesture of refusal in the face of time. A bid for immortality.” Yet despite this there seems little evidence of the writer he will become. As one of the women states: “How can you be a great writer if you are just an ordinary little man?”

Summertime is a fascinating portrait of life, and like most lives it is full of contradiction and dichotomy. It is biographical in most of its content yet largely fictional in the manner of its telling. It is meant to be about one man, but spends more time being about other people. The story is largely told by women who he felt were significant in his life, yet there is no passion there whatsoever. Then there is the contradictory title itself. But far from spoiling the portrait, the result of all this dichotomy is a stunning character study which manages to present a compelling and vivid account of a man stuck in a rut, struggling to find his place in a society in which he doesn’t want to fit in. Through the eyes of the other characters we get fascinating little insights into his character. One of the most enthralling pieces comes from a former colleague at the University of Cape Town who reflects upon his political standpoint, shedding light on the always present basis of his fiction.

“’He thought that politics bought out the worst in people. It brought out the worst in people and also brought to the surface the worst types in society. He preferred to have nothing to do with it…’”

What would have been Utopian enough for him?” the interviewer persists.

“’The closing down of the mines. The ploughing under of the vine-yards. The disbanding of the armed forces. The abolition of the automobile. Universal vegetarianism, Poetry in the streets. That sort of thing…’

‘In other words, poetry and the horse-drawn cart and vegetarianism are worth fighting for, but not liberation from apartheid?’

Nothing is worth fighting for…because fighting only prolongs the cycle of aggression and retaliation.”

It is a wonderful passage, reminiscent of that beautiful phrase towards the beginning of Waiting for the Barbarians in which his narrator reflects: “I believe in peace, perhaps even peace at any price.” It is this sort of simple-yet-laden-with-significance phrase which has marked Coetzee’s career. He has that uncanny Hemingway-esque knack of stripping things to their very essence and presenting them clearly, functionally, yet poetically.

That is why Coetzee’s recent experimentation with complicated structure do not suit his work. As in Diary of a Bad Year the style serves only to hamper his fluent and poignant prose. The shifts in narration jar the reader. The most evocative and enjoyable passages are those annotated diary entries which make up the beginning and end of the book. Through them we travel back in time to a South Africa present in much of his fiction, a South Africa in which social atrocity is reflected in individual guilt, where things change yet everything seems to stay the same.

Most of all Summertime recounts the plateau in John Coetzee’s life, before literary success transformed everything. It is a period in which he seems to be living the fate he always felt destined to live: “with an ageing parent in a house in the white suburbs with a leaky roof.” There is no sense that anything at all is about to change. And with his father just diagnosed with cancer, the book ends with the probability of many further years of struggle:

“It used to be that he, John, had too little employment. Now that is about to change. Now he will have as much employment as he can handle, as much and more. He is going to have to abandon some of his personal projects and be a nurse. Alternatively, if he will not be a nurse, he must announce to his father: I cannot face the prospect of ministering to you day and night. I am going to abandon you. Goodbye. One of the other: there is no third way.”

Summertime is over. Coetzee is about to achieve his first mainstream success with In the Heart of the Country. It is all beautifully set up for volume four of these wonderful fictionalised autobiographies. Summertime is the best book Coetzee has written since Youth was published seven years ago. It does not matter that there are big gaps which do not fit the reality of his biography. An entire marriage may have been wiped from the record books, as it was in Youth, but that only serves to make the blurring of fact and fiction more poignant. In style and character, one gets the feeling that this portrayal is true to the man Coetzee feels himself to be. It is this self aware honesty which has made his autobiographies such a joy to read. They take the ability to convey what it is like to be alive which is prevalent in all the best fiction and match it with a clarity of thought and analysis derived from biography and mesh them together. The result is a thoroughly readable account of the life of one of our greatest contemporary writers. I just hope a fourth volume is not too long coming.

Harvill Secker. 2009. ISBN: 978-184655319.  272pp.

7 comments on “Summertime ~ by J M Coetzee

  1. Lisa
    August 14, 2009

    Thanks for the excellent review, Sam.

    “What would have been Utopian enough for him?” the interviewer persists.

    “’The closing down of the mines. The ploughing under of the vine-yards. The disbanding of the armed forces. The abolition of the automobile. Universal vegetarianism, Poetry in the streets. That sort of thing…’

    Great extract.

    A few laugh out loud moments too, particularly:

    “How can you be a great writer if you are just an ordinary little man?”

    I was tempted to buy this, but can’t quite justify buying books these days unless I review them for VL, as I have so much in the TBR pile. Could you recommend another Coetzee? I’ve read Foe but that’s it.

  2. Sam Ruddock
    August 16, 2009

    Hi Lisa, glad you enjoyed the review. It will be a pleasure to recommend some Coetzee.

    By far the best known of his work is the 1999 Booker winning novel, Disgrace, which is about a aging college lecturer in Cape Town who has an impetuous affair with a student and has to face the concequences. It is beautifully written and incredibly powerful and may be the best place to start.

    Alternatively, there is his other Booker winning novel, Life and Times of Michael K which is about a man fleeing from a wartorn world and seeking a simpler life with nature. It has some slight structural problems but as a portrayal of a wonderfully different character it is utterly beautiful.

    Or how about option three: given the quote you picked out you might want to try Waiting for the Barbarians. I think it is my second favourite of the novels of his I have read (behind Disgrace) and is a wonderful tale of complicity in acts of violence and tyrrany.

    These are all reviewed on my blog if you wish to have a look before you chose. He is a wonderfully resonant author – I envy you just setting out on your Coetzee adventure.

  3. Lisa
    August 17, 2009

    Many thanks, Sam. I will check out the reviews on your blog. At the moment I’m leaning towards Waiting for the Barbarians (great title btw).

  4. Moira
    August 18, 2009

    Another Coetzee ignoramus checking in here. I got part way through “Disgrace” and then, to my eternal shame, sort of wandered off to do something else never to return.

    Your thoughtful and eloquent review has made me feel I should have another go at JMC.

  5. Sam Ruddock
    August 24, 2009

    I think JMC is one of those Marmite writers. I can see many flaws in his work but there is a sort of quiet steely strength and lyrical simplicity which, at its best, I absolutely love. He came to Norwich for New Writing Worlds 2008 last summer and I was able to have some fascinating chats with him while he was here.

    I do know quite a few people who’s tastes I respect greatly and who just don’t like him. Each to their own, I think when it comes to Coetzee.

  6. Pingback: Summer reading and Summer Reads « Vulpes Libris

  7. cwanderson
    June 9, 2014

    Yes , I think I may have found a new place to spend some time –here w you @vulpelibris. This review is all I have needed to settle into Coetsee’s “Summertime.” I recall reading “Disgrace” in nearly one sitting having encountered it upon a public library’s shelves, but then being a bit lost as to what to read next. Coetsee writes about serious subjects seriously and is someone we readers should be reading today, in my opinion (in addition to our other great finds).. Thanks for the guidance, cheers.

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