Book review: Summertime by JM Coetzee

The third and final installment of JM Coetzee's "fictionalised memoirs", Francesca Mari writes, is a masterfully choreographed consideration of the process by which life is wrangled into literature.

Coetzee splays his alter-ego, John, open, preserving the sharp pain of each emotion he experiences.
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JM Coetzee, Harvill Secker, Dh108

Perhaps the most taxing aspect of personal narrative is the very thing that gives it value: the truth. It costs to realise that a protagonist is a real person with an ego like an egg; readers feel an obligation to coddle the author with empathy. Empathy isn't burdensome, but obligations are, particularly when it's implied that letting them go unfulfilled might constitute a moral failing. This looming duty intrudes on escapism. Memoirists who do rid their work of implicit pleas for sympathy often do so by way of equally tedious self-deprecation.

In his trilogy of "fictionalised memoirs", JM Coetzee largely pushes beyond self-deprecation with flashes of self-loathing and egoism. Instead of shielding his protagonist - his alter ego, John - from criticism with a dulling hum of rote self-critique, Coetzee splays him open, preserving the pain of each emotion experienced. The most effective tool in this process is the third-person: he. That one word does wonders to distance Coetzee from his own narrative; the reader is liberated to appreciate his work as literature.

The trilogy's first book,


(1997), tracks Coetzee's school days in Worcester and Cape Town, South Africa. Young John worries endlessly about being "normal". He despises his irresponsible and oppressive father, a disgraced lawyer, and relies on the unwavering love of his mother. But, unable to return the intensity of her love, he also resents it, as he later comes to resent the affections of the various mistresses he suffers in the second instalment.


(2002), begins with John, an aspiring poet, studying maths at the University of Cape Town, then follows him to London on his quest for culture. Severing himself from his family, John works as an IBM computer programmer. He longs for an idealised abstraction of love, but stiffens at the slightest sign of affection or dependency. Throughout this period, John's anxieties define him more than anything else. He fixates on the liberating promise of sex and the burden of love, and ruminates endlessly on the extent to which literary expression might transmute the sting of past wounds into something of lasting worth.

When, in


, the 19-year-old John's 30-year-old girlfriend digs out his diary and reads all the ugly things he's written about her, Coetzee writes: "If he is to censor himself from expressing ignoble emotions - resentment at having his flat invaded, or shame at his own failures as a lover - how will those emotions ever be transfigured and turned into poetry?" John doesn't regret his ignoble thoughts nearly as much as he regrets not having voiced them more honestly in the first place. Convinced that what's done is done, he seeks less to apologise than acknowledge - and, ultimately, to aestheticise his acknowledgement, transfiguring the truth into art.



, the third and final instalment, Coetzee's struggles with the possibility of honest acknowledgment hijack the very structure of the book. Though consumed by questions of truth,


is less true - or more explicitly fictionalised - than




. First fiction: John is dead. Second fiction: an enigmatic biographer named Mr Vincent plans to publish the departed author's working fragments for his third memoir (notes to self and all) along with an account of his life from 1972-1977, years when he was publishing but had not yet achieved real recognition. The biographer's portrait is to emerge from a collage of interviews with five people the biographer has gathered from John's diaries and documents meant something to him (one man, two women John slept with, two he likely wanted to sleep with).

Vincent never knew John, and he imagines this makes him unbiased: "I never sought him out," he says. "I never even corresponded with him... It would leave me free to write what I wished." The biographer's obsession with his own objectivity leads him to distrust even John's letters and diary entries, believing them to be little more than heavily made-up faces. "If you want the truth," he insists, "you have to go behind the fiction they elaborate and hear from people who knew him directly, in the flesh." Nevermind that the people who knew John directly see him as "a wooden puppet", disembodied, fleshless. Nevermind that such aspirations ring a little lofty (or incoherent, given that his interviewees were chosen with help from John's untrustworthy notes). Coetzee maintains intrigue by never revealing the extent to which Vincent believes what he says.

Objective biography is, of course, impossible. Coetzee demonstrates this by playing telephone with his life, relaying it imperfectly through his characters. But


isn't just a critique of a biographer's delusion to know his subject. It's also an admission - an acknowledgement of the manipulation that necessarily figures in autobiography. Countless authors have realised this and played with memoir along similar lines - Most notably Margaret Drabble with

The Peppered Moth

, Nabokov with

Speak, Memory

, and Philip Roth with

The Facts

. The innovation of Summertime is the way in which John is at once so near, speaking to us directly through his drafts, and so far - dead, in fact, a person to be memorialised in interviews.

Because John's voice hovers at the covers, these interviews feel like intimate conversations eavesdropped. But Coetzee remains the ringmaster choreographing the show, and he has trained his troupe of characters to trample any illusions we may hold about impartial narratives. Each subject knows John only in the way that John specifically reacts to him or her. Take, for instance, Julia, who seduces him with a child under one arm and cookies under the other. She shapes her narrative to place John as a "minor character" (and "autistic lover") whom she long ago shelved in her mind. In recalling John to Vincent, she attempts to reconstruct dialogue, which she presumes "is permitted, since we are talking about a writer". If her account is not true to the letter, she says, it is true to the spirit. When she asks if she may proceed anyway, the transcript records the biographer meeting her with an inscrutable silence.

Later, Vincent himself engages in a similar reconstruction. After interviewing John's favourite cousin, Margot, he recasts their conversation in a third-person narrative reminiscent of Coetzee's first two memoirs, but with dialogue. "Your version doesn't sound like what I told you," Margot protests. This concern - that so much of truth, the feel of truth - comes down to the texture of wording, is central to


. When Vincent's narrative abruptly finishes, Margot is puzzled:

"The end? But why stop there?' 'It seems a good place... a good line.'" The would-be impartial biographer is, we see, just as guilty of minor manipulations as his interviewees, as Coetzee, as John, as every storyteller. All select and arrange for effect. Pointing this out may sound, in summary, pedantic on Coetzee's part (indeed, John is frequently described as a serious stickler). But he presents the thicketed hike towards truth with such considered lushness that its every aspect - who said what when, and how that compares with who said what later - is fascinating to observe.

At the sentence level, Coetzee is clean and precise without being stylistically stellar or descriptively distinct. "In general, I would say that his work lacks ambition," Coetzee has a colleague and lover, Sophie, say of John in an interview. "The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of a great writer. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion."

While this may be a fair evaluation of Coetzee's earlier writing, and an apt description of his tonal tendencies, his later work is all about deformation.

Slow Man, Diary of a Bad Year, Foe

, (a rewriting of

Robinson Crusoe

) and

Elizabeth Costello

(a series of fictionalised "lessons", a couple of which he had previously delivered himself at Princeton), to name only a few, are all about denaturing narrative forms to reveal infinite interpretation. Coetzee's stories have become so odd, in fact, that most writing on his recent works (including this review) tend to revert to summary, iterating and attempting to grasp various ungraspable angles.

Thankfully, Coetzee's structural ambition is lightened by his sense of humour (something one might not expect based on his portrayal of John as dour and didactic). In John's notes on his memoiristic fragments ("To be explored: his father's response to the time as compared to his own") Coetzee shows us that ideas - even a future Nobel prize-winner's - look alarmingly like clichés. And by means of the interview subjects, he mocks himself and the irresistible pheromones he used to be convinced seeped out his fingers as they twittered on a typewriter. When Julia lists his assets, generously adding, "'Good in bed too,' though that was not strictly true," John says: "'And an artist to boot?. You forgot to mention that.' 'And an artist to boot,'" she says, "'An artist in words.'" It's clear from the diminishing distinction, "in words", that she fancies writers quite a bit less than he does. Adriana, the Brazilian dance instructor who infatuates John, sceptically states: "To my mind, a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You have also to be a great man." This is one of very few observations that strikes as too thematically relevant. In


, John clenched onto the notion that if he could manage to be a great writer, he'd naturally be a great man. Summertime seems meant to let that belief loose.



, John wondered what to do in the short-term to make his writing great in the long-term: move to London, take a mistress, drink, room in a flat with other struggling artistes? In


, Coetzee inverts this line of questioning. Rather than wonder how a life can build sentences, he wonders how sentences might reconstruct a life. What form - interview, third-person narrative, diary, memoir - does justice to the subject? And who ought to decide?

"A great writer becomes the property of all of us," Vincent tells Sophie. Do you think it good that your memories should pass away with you?" The exchange that results speaks volumes about Coetzee's project: "'How John would laugh if he could hear you! The day of the great writer is gone for ever, he would say.' 'The day of the writer as oracle - yes, I would agree, that day is past. But would you not accept that a well-known writer - let us call him that instead - a well-known figure in our common cultural life, is to some extent public property?'

'On that subject my opinion is irrelevant. What is relevant is what he himself believed. And there the answer is clear. He believed our life-stories are ours to construct as we wish, within or even against the constraints imposed by the real world.'" John, or John as understood by Sophie, might believe the day of the great writer gone, but Coetzee certainly believes in preservation, in keeping memories, even if the intent of doing so, and the meaning of the memories kept, isn't possible to definitively unpack.

Of course, examining one's own memories under the pretence of having died, then proceeding to debate one's own writerly merits aloud - all this reveals a resilient bit of ego. And ego is a welcome relief: the author seizes his own story before it's over, proving that even if the day of the great writer is done, the day of the writer as oracle lives strong.

Francesca Mari has written for The Believer, The New York Times Book Review and The New Republic.