Summertime by J M Coetzee

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Summertime by J M Coetzee

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: A postmodernist novel that presents research evidence gathered by a fictional biographer on the years when the deceased semi-fictional John Coetzee was finding his feet as a writer. Too clever by half, perhaps, but very readable and thought-provoking to boot.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978-1846553189

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Summertime is the third of a series of fictionalised autobiographies by J M Coetzee, following on from Boyhood and Youth. There, that sounds straightforward enough, doesn't it? Except, in this 'autobiography' (or 'autrebiography' as one critic described the earlier volumes) the subject is dead. So, clearly, this story isn't 'true'. But then, how true is an ordinary autobiography? And to what extent is it a function of the novel to use fiction to reveal truth? So many questions, and I haven't even begun.

Summertime is, intriguingly, a book without a narrator. The only introduction is the dust jacket summary, which tells us that a young English biographer is working on a book about the late writer, John Coetzee. The dust jacket also has a photograph of Coetzee that seems to have been taken around 1972-1977, which is the period the biographer is focusing on because this, he senses, is the period when Coetzee was 'finding his feet as a writer'.

The book itself is a catalogue of 'evidence'. It opens with a section called 'Notebooks 1972-75'. Are these fictional notes by the young 'John Coetzee' or actual extracts from J M Coetzee's journal of the time? There are italicised notes after some entries which appear to be later comments by John Coetzee himself ('To be expanded on', 'To be explored', and so on). This is subsequently confirmed in the next section, which is the first of a series of transcribed interviews by Vincent with characters who knew John Coetzee – lovers, relatives, colleagues. Every time a new interviewee was introduced I found myself wondering whether this character was a 'real' person (in the sense that the fictionalised Coetzee is based, however loosely, on a real person). Or were they a purely fictional character, perhaps even taken from one of Coetzee's earlier novels? And, if they were 'real', how far were they telling the 'truth' about the Coetzee character?

I have not read the two earlier volumes of this trilogy (I did order them but, alas, they did not arrive in time) so I came at Summertime with no relevant previous knowledge. And the only other book by Coetzee I had read was Disgrace (which is why I was asking myself whether characters might have appeared in earlier novels). But I have read a lot of Paul Auster, and it seemed to me that because Auster often has a character in his books called Paul Auster (who is usually but not invariably a writer) I wouldn't have too much trouble reading Coetzee's slant on the postmodernist novel. But, I must confess, I did have trouble. The character of John Coetzee is not one I could warm to. He is a hopeless lover. A hapless failure who just happened to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is cold, humourless, separated from the world by 'a membrane', gloomy to the point of listing 'Ways of Doing Away with Oneself'.

And perhaps this character self-assassination is in a way an attempt by J M Coetzee to 'do away' with himself, in a literary sense. Coetzee the character is dead; those who knew him have little good to say about him as a man. Even his writing is described as 'Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion.' Is this, I wondered, what J M Coetzee really thinks of himself and his work? Or is this some kind of elaborate joke by the 'humourless' man? Because the irony is that the writing is, of course, very good indeed.

Despite my difficulties warming to the principal character, and all the questions constantly going through my head, I did enjoy reading the book. Ultimately, though, I was left with an odd feeling that I had been the victim of some kind of literary scam carried out by a very clever author. Coetzee made me think but then left me with no answers. And perhaps that is the point. Summertime is a book that raises the sort of issues about the nature of fiction, biography and the postmodernist novel that will no doubt make it a serious contender for this year's Booker Prize.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: An even better book by Coetzee (in this reviewer's opinion, at least) is Disgrace, which won the Booker Prize in 1999. You might also appreciate A Preparation for Death by Greg Baxter or My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster.

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Booklists.jpg Summertime by J M Coetzee is in the Man Booker Prize 2009.


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