by J. M. Coetzee
Reviewed by Jeremy Garber
As a work shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize, much has already been made about Summertime. It is being billed as the third volume of Coetzee's autobiographical Scenes from Provincial Life (after Boyhood and Youth), yet is not mentioned as being such anywhere on the dust jacket or title page of the American edition. While the first two volumes were clear examples of creative nonfiction, Summertime is a work of fiction (however many autobiographical elements it may or may not contain).
The book begins from the premise that Coetzee himself has already passed away and an interviewer attempting to write a critical portrait of the author's life is left to track down surviving individuals who knew him best (colleagues, a former lover, a cousin). The main body of the book is comprised of five of these fictional interviews, and each portrays Coetzee as an altogether unremarkable, shy, emotionally stunted, and loveless man. Yet for those at all familiar with J. M. Coetzee's life, they will notice some obvious factual liberties employed in the writing of Summertime. For example, the Coetzee of the novel is without wife or children, yet, in reality, Coetzee was once married and had both a son and a daughter (although his son was killed in an automobile accident in his early 20s). Having read all of Coetzee's fiction, and much of his nonfiction, I was excited to read another autobiographical work in hopes of gaining further insight into this remarkable writer. Yet now, having had some time to reflect upon the book, it almost seems as if I know less about the Nobel laureate than I did before I began. I cannot help but think that this was, perhaps, Coetzee's goal all along.
"It would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life," one of the fictional interviewees responds when questioned about how much they thought Coetzee's fiction reflected his real life. Another offers, "He was just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but, frankly, not a giant....from other people who knew him you will get a different picture, I am sure." Coetzee, well known to be a private, if not reclusive, individual, attended neither of the Booker Prize banquets at which he was to receive his award. For a man who appears to value his privacy greatly, it would seem somewhat contradictory for him to write a traditional autobiography that dispels decades of rumors and speculative judgments. Hence, we are instead offered Summertime, described on the book's jacket as:
...an inventive and inspired work of fiction that allows J. M. Coetzee to imagine his own life with a critical and unsparing eye, revealing painful moral struggles and attempts to come to grips with what it means to care for another human being.
Perhaps what Coetzee was striving for with Summertime was not so much an autobiographical offering but an affront to those who doggedly pursue the personal details of a man who authors such convincing works. Maybe Summertime is merely an inside joke on Coetzee's behalf, insofar as rather than ignoring ongoing pleas for insight into his personal life, he instead serves up an account of his days commingling fact and fiction wherever he sees fit. By recasting his past in a fictitious future, one is left unable to determine where the threads of truth begin and the tangles of imagination end.
Whatever his intent, Summertime is another compelling, layered, richly imagined work by the great literary master. With a command of prose that borders on tactical precision, Coetzee, as always, employs pathos and refined morality to craft a story that is captivating, thought provoking, disquieting, and often humorous. Summertime may confound or frustrate a few of Coetzee's more ardent followers, but only because they could not allow the story to be told as the storyteller himself intended.
Consider. Here we have a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect, or can connect only briefly, intermittently. Yet how does he make his living? He makes his living writing reports, expert reports, on intimate human experience. Because that is what novels are about -- isn't it? -- intimate experience. Novels as opposed to poetry or painting. Doesn't that strike you as odd?