In JM Coetzee's latest work, an Englishman named Vincent is writing a biography of the great South African writer John Coetzee. Summertime is a series of interviews and fragmented, annotated entries from John Coetzee's journal that could pass as an outline draft for what Mr Vincent admits will be an "obscure book", focusing on the years 1972-1977, when the subject was in his thirties.
Describing Coetzee as a "fictioneer", Vincent largely dismisses any evidence that might be gleaned from the writer's published works (which are variously name-checked) for consideration in his biography. His preference is to track down old acquaintances of Coetzee's, purportedly seeking the anecdotal human angle that seems to be absent from the man's opaque literature. The interviewees generally remain suspicious of this approach, and slightly baffled; since most of Coetzee's peers have by now died, Vincent's collated result is always destined to be highly partial.
What we know of Coetzee's situation leaks out in contextual notes and asides, gradually pooling into a grey reflection of a diminished life. After a mediocre academic career that ended when he was expelled from America, Coetzee returned to part-time, low-level teaching in Cape Town, where he lives with his ailing father, a debarred attorney, in a shabby house he is slowly renovating, petulantly claiming that his manual labour is in part to break the South African taboo of whites undertaking "Kaffir" work. His liberal but timid opinions and unkempt physical appearance conspire to amplify his social awkwardness.
Of far more interest than John Coetzee's scratchy existence are the tales told by the interviewees of their relations with him. Julia, a neighbouring bored housewife, falls into an affair with him that she sums up as lacking all sexual thrill. His cousin Margot, a childhood sweetheart, is forced to pass the night with him after his truck breaks down in the veldt; while Adriana, the fiery Brazilian mother of one of John's students, finds herself petitioned with love letters from him after a disastrously misconstrued picnic. "Perhaps this is how these Dutch protestants behave when they fall in love," she exclaims: "prudently, long-windedly, without fire, without grace."
All the testimonies converge on the idea of John Coetzee as a misfit, estranged from love, socially inept, unresponsive and possessed of a sexual autism that might, it is implied, derive from the emotional neutering of a Dutch Calvinist upbringing. In JM Coetzee's deft prose, John's weaknesses and inability to open himself up to people – to confess what is in his heart – is strongly resonant of South Africa's national isolation and staunch denial of history in that restless apartheid period.
Billed as the third instalment of a trilogy of fictionalised memoir begun with Boyhood, these "scenes from provincial life" are evocative rather than literal, the impressionistic testimonies forming a stylised work far removed from the conventional nuts and bolts of a curated life. JM Coetzee flourishes within this ambiguous literary distancing, which he used to great effect in his last novel, Diary of a Bad Year, whose subject was also a crotchety old writer and Coetzee cipher.
How far the reader wants to map the somewhat wintry lament of Summertime back on to JM Coetzee's life depends on how far one is willing to extrapolate plausible fact from nuanced, many-layered fiction. What Summertime offers is a subtle, allusive meditation: an intriguing map of a weak character's constricted heart struggling against the undertow of suspicion within South Africa's claustrophobic, unpoetic, overtly macho society.
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