Summertime, By JM Coetzee

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The Independent Culture

A curious novel, in which fiction and biography are mingled, leaving one to wonder fruitlessly how much is true. The story begins with a few notebook extracts, dated from the 1970s, by the late writer "John Coetzee".

The rest of the narrative comprises five interviews by a biographer with people who knew Coetzee at that time: a married woman with whom he had a brief affair; his cousin; a Brazilian dance teacher with whom he was infatuated; two university colleagues.

What's amusing is the way they all resolutely refuse to say anything complimentary about him: he was awkward, his beard didn't suit him, his hair was too long, he couldn't dance, he didn't feel enough affection for his father, he didn't have the ability to be intimate, he knew a little about a lot but not much about anything in particular, his Afrikaans wasn't very good, neither was his French, his writing lacked ambition...

The result is a pitiless self-portrait. It's also a portrait of South Africa in the 1970s, and the guilt, fear, and desire both to escape and to cling to the past that it produced in white South Africans. And the prose is as clear and refreshing as a cold glass of water.