When 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.