Scotland on Sunday
6 September 2009
This book brings to mind question and answer panels that pop up in Sunday magazines. “What three words would friends use to describe you?” a celebrity is asked, in the hope that loved ones will sum them up in a bite-sized and revealing way. In Coetzee’s case, the answer might be spineless, sexless and bookish, or perhaps gentle, reclusive and remorseful, depending on who he asks.
The South African author realises that for a truthful appraisal, he needs several character references. Summertime, the final part in his “fictionalised memoir” trilogy, continues his autobiography in the third person, where colleagues, relatives and lovers do the talking. Written as if Coetzee is already dead, the author sends an imaginary academic researcher into his past, to interview those who knew him well.
Julia, a married woman whom he had an affair with during the 1970s, first spots “John” in the supermarket. Baking brownies for this shy, scrawny oddball takes Julia’s mind off her own cheating husband. Although she tells the researcher how important her fling with John was, she realised they would never be in love. To Julia, real love requires two people fitting together like “an electrical plug and an electrical socket”. John, however, wasn’t designed for love; “wasn’t constructed to fit into or be fitted into. Like a sphere. Like a glass ball.”
Coetzee, 69, is in beautifully reflective mood here, tenderly mulling over what he has achieved, or more poignantly, not achieved. He wants forgiveness from his father, and understanding from disappointed girlfriends, as he looks back on his life with modest melancholy. It is hard to tell what successes he glosses over, as he seems more comfortable dwelling on his shortcomings.
This process of warping the truth, often painting himself in a worse rather than better light, allowed Summertime to make the Booker Prize longlist again this year as a work of fiction. Coetzee’s rewritten memoirs reveal a strangely sincere, self-critical and romantic man, drawn to poetry and classical music in apartheid-era South Africa, where “real men” laughed at his long-haired, vegetarian ways, and dismissed him as a pretentious wimp. Whether he likes it or not, Summertime shows, once again, he is an intense, outstanding and very enjoyable talent.
Harvill Secker, £17.99
Click here to listen to JM Coetzee reading a passage from Summertime for the New York Review of Books.