Youth, by J M Coetzee

A great writer's life in Sixties London fails to swing Geoff Dyer
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By the mid-Eighties, J M Coetzee had established a reputation both as a great novelist – on the basis of Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K – and as someone "reluctant to speak about himself". That reluctance appeared to end in 1997 with the book from whose blurb I am quoting: Boyhood, a collection of "scenes from provincial life", in which Coetzee wrote about his South African childhood "and his own interior life".

It was simultaneously an apparently frank and rather strained confession, not least because the protagonist is referred to throughout as "he" (though we overhear him being addressed as "John"), thereby causing syntactical entanglements when "he" has to share a sentence with other male characters. Perhaps the third person allowed Coetzee a novelistic distance from the experience in which the work was grounded, but it was a pretty unengaging exercise. When "he" is reading Scott of the Antarctic the young boy soon gets fed up: "it is boring, it is not a story". That's part of the problem with Boyhood – but only part.

This became clear with his next novel, Disgrace, a densely compacted masterpiece that rightly gained Coetzee the Booker Prize for the second time. The prose of Boyhood was fastidious, stark, flat, but checking back I see now that it is not so different to the tense, exacting style of Disgrace. In both, Coetzee's prose minutely examines a destiny in the process of formation. The difference is that while the sentences of Disgrace ostensibly do no more than itemise David Lurie's actions, his story becomes freighted with the larger history of South Africa. To the end, we are unsure if Lurie will shed the title's prefix and attain a state of grace but, from the beginning, are privileged witnesses to an unequivocal vindication of the craft of fiction.

Hoping, presumably, to capitalise on this achievement, the proof copy of Youth claims it as Coetzee's first "novel" since Disgrace. The finished copy is agnostic, avoiding both the N-word and the revelatory claims of Boyhood to which it is self-evidently the sequel. Once again the central character is simply a "he" whom we sometimes hear being addressed as "John".

In Boyhood, "he is convinced that he is different, special". In the early stages of Youth, while studying mathematics at university, that sense of specialness has taken on a more specialised quality: he now burns with the "inner flame" of someone destined to be an artist, a writer. Partly in pursuit of this goal and partly to get away from post-Sharpeville South Africa, he travels to London where he finds work as a computer programmer for IBM – a job that ends up draining the ambition the move abroad was intended to fulfil. Feeling "like a bored clerk in Dickens", he decides to lead a more Bohemian metropolitan existence. But that translates into poverty and inertia, and so he gets another job in computers, this time in Berkshire.

Failure and frustration accumulate as he is rendered artistically impotent by the scale of his intentions. "Such anxiety; such ambition": that is how Naipaul summarised his own beginnings on arriving in London from Trinidad, and you half expect "John" to bump into young Vidia.

Except by the time he gets there, Naipaul has become the writer he aspired to be. It's easy to forget this: "he" is there in the Sixties and London is about to start swinging, but it still feels like the grim, smoggy, bed-sit and crumpet city of The Secret History of Modernism, C K Stead's recent novel-cum-memoir of Fifties would-be literary life.

Sexual intercourse may, as Larkin claimed, have begun in 1963 but, on the evidence of Youth, it would be years before anyone enjoyed it. "He" makes a number of joyless sexual conquests; his treatment of women is shoddy, cold, abusive, cruel. This is not the only respect in which "he" seems like an earlier incarnation of the seducer Lurie.

Lurie intends writing a study of Byron but gets "bogged down in tedium". "John" gets fed up with his study of the novels of Ford Madox Ford, and falls prey to fits of boredom. In a surge of inspiration, he becomes "captivated by stories of ventures into the interior" of South Africa and contemplates writing his own fictive account of such a trek.

The project sounds not unlike "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee", part of Coetzee's first book, Dusklands. Youth, in other words, points ahead both to the achievements of the "real" Coetzee and to one of the most vivid embodiments of his imagination. The "he" of Youth is in many ways a repulsive figure. Whether his coldness can be transmuted into "the cruel precision" of art – whether, like the flawed protagonist of another recent novel, he will achieve atonement in his work – is never revealed. That depends, of course, on whether you read it as a fiction or as memoir.

In this respect Coetzee's observations on two other writers from his part of the world are helpful. In Stranger Shores, a book of essays, he quotes Nadine Gordimer's complaint that testimony amounts "often to no more than 'thinly disguised autobiography'". The problem, for Gordimer, is that it lacks a "transforming imaginative dimension". Youth shares this lack with Boyhood.

In another essay, Coetzee considers Doris Lessing's autobiography. He praises the first volume for its depiction of childhood while expressing reservations about the second, which deals with the author "arriving in London". Since Coetzee quotes Lessing's observation that "fiction makes a better job of the truth" than a memoir, it feels safe to use his conclusion about Lessing's undertaking as a verdict on his own: "However one may qualify the term, it does, in the end, constitute a confession."

Coetzee also asks if Lessing believed that her autobiography "could yield deeper truths about herself than her fictions of 30 years earlier". In Coetzee's case, we do not have an earlier fictive version. We simply have the present volume, which is not wholly satisfactory as either novel or memoir – nor, for that matter, as both.