Scenes From Provincial Life by J M Coetzee

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Scenes From Provincial Life by J M Coetzee

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Bringing together the three parts of JM Coetzee's fictionalised memoir series, the effect is somehow greater than the sum of the parts. How much is the socially awkward, alienated John Coetzee of the book really the same as the author, only he will know.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Harvill Secker
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846554858

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'Scenes from Provincial Life' is a compilation of JM Coetzee's three fictionalised memoirs: 'Boyhood' first published in 1997, 'Youth' published in 2002 and Summertime published in 2009. In one sense they clearly belong together in this single edition and yet they were initially published separately. What strikes the reader of this compilation is the change in style and focus of the third book in the series.

'Boyhood' starts in rural South Africa in the 1940s and focusses on a young boy. Written in the third person, it later becomes apparent that this is supposed to be written by that young boy later in life. We have to wait for around half the book to learn that the boy's name is John Coetzee. There are clearly autobiographical aspects to this life although the extent to which John is JM is necessarily open to some debate. The portrayal of a boy trying to make sense of his place in the world, stifled by his mother's love and with a distant relationship with his father, is quite brilliant, although at times harrowingly painful. Add in the complexities of being an English speaking child with an Afrikaner name and it's little wonder that the boy feels isolated. The writing is superb and feels like an authentic voice of a loner child. John doesn't help his feelings of alienation by signing up as a Roman Catholic at his Protestant school on the basis that he likes Roman emperors!

When 'Youth' opens, John is a mathematics student who writes poetry. Told very much in the same style as 'Boyhood', he plans to leave South Africa to escape to Europe where he dreams of an artistic life. However, the reality is far from that and he finds himself in London working as a computer programmer. Once more there is a strong image of an outsider and his experiences are almost as sad as those of his boyhood. The sense of migrant alienation is palpable.

The third part/book, 'Summertime' comes with a shift in style. It begins with some notes apparently written by John, but the bulk of the book takes the form of a certain Mr Vincent, a biographer of what has now become the novelist John Coetzee, and his interviews with people who knew the writer. If there is any doubt that the John Coetzee mentioned is merely a coincidental naming, reference is made to a number of JM Coetzee's books. The fiction is that John has written his first two memoirs, covering his life before he was a novelist, but once he returned to South Africa to live with his widowed father, he never completed the series. Why this might be, you will have to read to find out for yourself.

While the first two books site comfortably together, sharing the same style, the third comes as a shock and the implications of it start to play tricks with the reader's mind. To what extent do these other people really know John's views? Are the views really the real or indeed the fictional author's. What's more one of the testimonies has been re-written by Mr Vincent and the style is identical to John's earlier style.

It's a book that will confound future biographers of JM Coetzee. In part, he seems to be offering his reasons for not specifically addressing the political issues of apartheid in his books. Certainly both John and Mr Vincent present a less than flattering picture of the subject and he comes over as deeply socially awkward, repressed and alienated. JM Coetzee has a reputation for being somewhat secretive and perhaps this is the reason. What better way to keep one's views obfuscated than writing a fictional memoir to further confuse the plot. The point is asked to what extent a well known writer's life is public property if his works are seen that way.

I'm glad I held off reading the series until they were all presented together. While the parts themselves are beautifully written, certainly the first two, the three taken together as a whole adds to the reader's experience. I'm particularly pleased that I didn't read the third one alone because I'm not sure I'd have appreciated it as much out of context. If you've read any of the individual books before then it is a matter of economics if reading the full collection is a prudent decision, but if you haven't, then this is a terrific book that plays tricks with your mind. If you like things cut and dried, then this might not be the best choice but I loved the concept. It's infuriatingly clever. JM Coetzee is not to everyone's taste - but he is to mine.

Our huge thanks to the kind people at Harvill Secker for sending us this book which is also beautifully presented in hardback form.

If you haven't already done so then you might want to check out Disgrace. Still, for me, his best work.

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