Summertime

summertimeWhen is an autobiography not an autobiography? At first glance, J. M. Coetzee’s Summertime looks like an autobiography. It appears to be an account of Coetzee’s life from 1972, just after he moves from America to his childhood home of South Africa, to 1977, shortly after his first book is published. But it’s couched in a strange conceit. Instead of straightforward narration, Coetzee chooses to have a fictional biographer tell his story, and Summertime itself is not the biography but the interview transcripts and journal excerpts that the fictional biographer intends to use. And so what we have is not an autobiography at all but a reflection on the difficulty of writing a life story.

This was my first Coetzee, and I think that worked to my advantage because I was able to easily put aside questions of fact and fiction. Because Coetzee himself is entirely unknown to me, I wasn’t looking for hints at the truth behind the biographer’s notes. As far as I was concerned, the John Coetzee of the novel is a fictional invention. And so in the interest of keeping the author and the character separate, I’ll be referring to the author of Summertime as Coetzee and the subject of Summertime as John.

The unnamed biographer relies on a small number of journal entries and interviews with a handful of people who knew John in the 1970s. He talks to a former lover, a beloved cousin, a dance instructor, and some professional colleagues. Together, these sources depict John as a socially awkward man who is difficult to get to know. Their observations give a vague sense of the man, but it’s never quite clear whether their accounts can be entirely trusted, not because they are being deliberately obtuse, but because they cannot know his story. Julia, the first interview subject and one of John’s lovers, points out that the only story she can tell is her own story, in which John happened to play a role. Her story cannot be John’s story:

You commit a grave error if you think to yourself that the difference between the two stories, the story you wanted to hear and the story you are getting, will be nothing more than a matter of perspective—that while from my point of view the story of John may have been just one episode among many in the long narrative of my marriage, nevertheless, by dint of a quick flip, a quick manipulation of perspective, followed by some clever editing, you can transform it into a story about John and one of the women who passed through his life. Not so. Not so. I warn you most earnestly: if you go away from here and start fiddling with the text, the whole thing will turn to ash in your hands. I really was the main character. John really was a minor character.

The interview transcripts frequently do reveal more about the person being interviewed than they do about John. Some of the subjects are remarkably candid—so much so that they are sometimes startled by what they reveal about themselves. One interview subject in particular seems so attached to her own notions of John’s motivations that I wondered if anything she said about him was accurate.

One might imagine that John’s journals would be a better source, but the journals themselves reveal their lack of reliability because they include his own notes about what needs to be elaborated on. His biographer recognizes the difficulty of relying on his journals:

What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record—not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer. In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing much the same for his own eyes, or perhaps for posterity. As documents they are valuable; but if you want the truth you have to go behind the fictions they elaborate and hear from people who knew him directly, in the flesh.

There’s also good reason to believe that the finished biography, by a potentially unbiased outside observer will be lacking. In one section, the biographer shares his written narrative with an interview subject, and she is quick to find flaws: “Something sounds wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it,” she says. “All I can say is, your version doesn’t quite sound like what I told you.”

Although the idea of the slippery nature of biographical or autobiographical writing strikes me as the dominant theme of Summertime, Coetzee leaves some room for consideration of familial attachments, the nature of love and passion, and the writer’s temperament. It’s all masterfully done, and I was very impressed. In fact, without having read the Byatt or the Mawer, I’d be willing to say that, with this book, Coetzee has earned an unprecedented third Booker prize. In Summertime, he has pushed the limits of what a novel can do and has done so successfully. This is a great book.

See additional reviews at Vulpes Libris, dovegreyreader scribbles, Paperback Reader, Savidge Reads, Asylum, KevinfromCanada, and Farm Lane Books.

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13 Responses to Summertime

  1. blissbait says:

    if i gave prizes
    you’d get a great big fat one
    for your blog title!

    That is seriously one of my all time favorites! Brilliant. Cheers!

  2. TJ says:

    I really need to read this author one day. Three Booker prizes is quite amazing.

  3. Nicole says:

    It never occurred to me that Coetzee’s first name was John. I have only read one of his books, so I would probably be a god candidate to read this one as well, not knowing anything of his life, I wouldn’t be distracted by the details either. Interesting way of going about things.

  4. adevotedreader says:

    Summertime sounds fascinating and I am looking forward to reading it.

    Have you listened to the NYRB podcast of Coetzee reading from Summertime? If not I’d highly recommend it- the link I used is http://news.book.co.za/blog/2009/08/12/podcast-jm-coetzee-reads-from-summertime/

  5. Claire says:

    After reading this I too thought that Coetzee had won his third Booker but then I read Mawer and now I’m not so sure… we’ll know soon enough!

    I was blown away by the sheer intelligence of this novel and think that the conceit worked wonderfully well tackling the theme of authorial privacy and who literature and the writer belong to.

  6. Rachel says:

    This sounds very much like Coetzee’s earlier novel, ‘Foe’, which retells the story of Robinson Crusoe and uses several narrators, who all have a different take on what has happened, questioning what is truth and what fiction, what is created and what is fact, and whether the story, and the narrator, even exists at all. It was a very disconcerting reading experience. Coetzee is certainly a very clever and original writer and I like the way he reflects on the nature of truth and authorial authority in his books.

  7. Steph says:

    I haven’t heard much about this book, perhaps because it won’t be released in the U.S. until January. BUT, as you know, I recently read Disgrace and was really impressed and moved by it. That book alone has made me want to read more Coetzee, and your thoughts on this one in particular have really intrigued me. I especially liked you last paragraph where you talk about how the novel really pushes the boundaries in terms of our concept of the novel and what it can achieve. I’m really looking forward to this one!

  8. I read this book, and absolutely loved it. In fact, it’s ironic, but I found that reading a couple of Coetzee’s prior to reading this book actually worked to my advantage, for I appreciated some of the comments/his writing a little bit more… specially as it was a skewed perception of the self, in a semi-fictional sense.

  9. Teresa says:

    Blissbait: Thanks!

    TJ: He doesn’t have the three yet. We’ll know tomorrow, but I won’t be surprised.

    Nicole: I never knew his first name either, but that’s how most people refer to him in the book.

    adevotedreader: Thanks for the link! I haven’t listened to it, but I will.

    Claire: I’m about 1/3 of the way into the Mawer now and might finish it tonight since it’s proving to be a quick read. So far, Coetzee still has the edge for me (as nice as it would be to see someone new win it).

    Rachel: Foe is mentioned in Summertime. In fact, one of the more interesting characters is said to have possibly inspired a character in Foe. I had planned on making Disgrace my next Coetzee, but your comment makes me think Foe would be a good choice.

    Steph: The way he put this together is really interesting. If you like his writing style, which I know you do from your Disgrace review, you’ll probably like this.

    uncertainprinciples: I’m sure by not knowing his work at all, I missed some references, but I was glad not to have any reason to be tempted to work out the difference between fact and fiction. It might be interesting to come back to this after reading some more of his books.

  10. Rebecca Reid says:

    I love the question you pose in the first line of this post. It really makes me want to read this to see what he’s trying to say about his life.

    I think a problem with all autobiographies is that the person writing it is only getting one side of the story. This sounds very interesting since it sounds he’s trying to give everyone their time to talk.

    wonder what his former lovers think about it. Did he really go and talk to them?

    I’m adding it to my tbr list! You’ve intrigued me.

  11. Teresa says:

    Rebecca: I don’t think he actually went and talked to anyone. I think the whole thing is a narrative construct and that the John Coetzee of the book is a fictional character loosely based on the real J.M. Coetzee. So we have him putting words about himself into fictional versions of people (real people or fictional?) who knew him. It’s very interesting. Very meta, but still readable, and it never feels pretentious.

  12. Pingback: White African Authors « Diversify Your Reading

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