Summertime, By JM Coetzee

Portrait of the artist as loser
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The Independent Culture

Last year I heard the author of this book lecture about a documentary version of a writer's career that held the power to define, or even wreck, a life. With his customary precision, South Africa's Nobel Laureate – and double Booker Prize-winner - scrutinised some declassified reports to the censors of the apartheid regime during the 1970s and 1980s. They assessed the subversive potential of novels by a highbrow author and academic based in Cape Town. His name was JM Coetzee. The secret informers – Coetzee's university friends – often managed to persuade the agents of the apartheid state that this out-of-touch aesthete posed no threat to public order. Peter McDonald's eye-opening book, The Literature Police, tells the complete story.

Summertime extends a chain of fictionalised memoirs that began with Coetzee's Boyhood (subtitled, as here, "scenes from provincial life") and continued in Youth. Yet it also returns to the ironic, self-mocking – and always deniable - dramatisation of a parallel life that he recently undertook in Diary of a Bad Year. This book is presented as the research materials for a life of the late Nobel Laureate "John Coetzee", gathered by an English biographer. It does seem to stick close to some activities of our flesh-and-blood writer after he returned from the US to Cape Town in the early 1970s. Even the jacket photo, of Coetzee at that period, appears to match the lank-haired introspective drifter – "an alleenloper, as some male animals are: a loner" – that we meet through the unimpressed testimonies of lovers, relatives and colleagues that "Mr Vincent" collects.

Of course, Summertime is fiction above all – "auto-fiction", if you prefer. All the same, it dwells on a time and place where manipulated versions of character and identity could dictate not merely the difference between success and failure, acceptance and rejection, but even life and death. It matters decisively who tells an individual's story – and how they opt to tell it. Here we begin – in an extract from this John Coetzee's diaries – with a dubious report of a cross-border assassination raid on "terrorists" by special forces in 1972. Soon enough we confront the walls of Pollsmoor jail outside Cape Town: the "South African gulag" protruding "so obscenely into white suburbia". If the would-be writer we get to know in Summertime shuns politics, then his creator – albeit in his own highly oblique and elusive way – never truly has.

Slung out (so we assume) of the US for some unspecified misdemeanour arising from an anti-Vietnam protest, this Coetzee settles with his ailing father – a disbarred lawyer, now a book-keeper – in a shabby farm worker's bungalow in the suburban Cape. An ineffectual oddball to most who come across him, "lonely and eccentric", he looks after his prematurely aged parent, and goes in for cack-handed DIY around the house as a high-minded gesture to prove that white men should do their own "dirty work". He tries to get started as a writer – indeed, publishes a novel, the real Dusklands – and scratches a living as an under-qualified teacher of "Extra English" to pupils as strait-laced girls' school. "A figure of comedy. Dour comedy", this gauche and unappealing "misfit" ("not made for the company of women") frets and fiddles on the margins of South Africa's unfolding tragedy. Bleak, chilly but finely calibrated, a deadpan humour anchors Summertime: the human absurdity of a lofty nobody cultivating his "principles" at the edge of an abyss.

Much of the book takes the form of Vincent's interviews with three women whose paths did cross with this Coetzee's: his married lover Julia, the fiery, witty offspring of Hungarian Jewish émigrés; his warm and forgiving country cousin Margie, and Adriana, the proud and wary Brazilian dancer whose daughter this meek bachelor who has "lost his manhood" teaches, while the mother becomes an object of his fantasy. In Coetzee's recent work, the sheer tricksiness of the narrative ruses can sound off-putting. Rest assured that the artfully voiced self-portraits of these fully realised women yield all the pleasures of more traditional fiction.

Julia, for instance, recounts the story of how her clumsy swain, in a fit of over-cerebral passion, tried to get them to make love in time with Schubert's String Quintet: "the man who mistook his mistress for a violin". To her, with her psychotherapist's hindsight, he suffers from an "autistic" sexuality.

Adriana, her husband dying after a brutal robbers' attack on the warehouse where he found work as a migrant from Angola, fends off the attentions of this "disembodied" half-hearted hippie. Creepily, he shows up to her dance classes to learn Latin American grooves, but moves like "a wooden puppet". To her, told of John Coetzee's later reputation, "a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You also have to be a great man."

More affectionate, and the source of this book's most touching passages, cousin Margie fills us in on the slack, spineless, easy-going Coetzee clan – slapgat, in the Afrikaans that John doesn't much like to speak. With rare bursts of lyricism, she recalls her and John's childhood summer bliss in the lovely emptiness of the Karoo. The actual Coetzee, a supreme artist of nuance and fable, seldom gazes straight into the sun of history. So when we stumble over irony-free moments such as this big-hearted farmer's wife's silent prayer as a "Coloured" nurse takes her sick mother to the hospital that would turn away the carer – "Let the time come soon, O Lord... when all this apartheid nonsense will be buried and forgotten" – the effect is simply devastating.

Via Vincent's closing interviews, with fellow-teachers at the university where the fledgling writer will find work, we gain a more detached perspective on a cold fish whose books (for his French colleague and lover Sophie) remain "Too cool, too neat... too lacking in passion" – just like the under-powered man himself. Certainly, Summertime trips between reality and invention, self and mask, with a literary grace that "Coetzee" the hapless hoofer could never manage on the dancefloor. "Is it fiction?" Julia asks of "Dusklands by JM Coetzee". "Sort of" comes the reply.

The book will easily wrongfoot any naïve seeker of correspondences between art and life. That is part of its point – but so too is the tender and incisive portrayal of thwarted feelings in a time of troubles, and the robustly drawn women who give this anaemic anti-hero lessons in a tougher kind of truth. All meta-fictional gambits aside, feisty Julia can – on behalf of this trio - claim the almost-final word. She tells the biographer that "I really was the main character. John really was a minor character". Readers of Summertime may, in the end, be inclined to agree.