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Book - Summer Time The Fictionalising of JM Coetzee Early on in Summertime, one of the characters Julia says of the protagonist John Coetzee, “Coetzee really was a minor character” and this, in a sense, points a likely direction for the book. For John Coetzee may ostensibly be the protagonist here but he is a protagonist in absentia. Summertime is the latest in a series of fictionalised memoirs (or auto-fiction books) written by JM Coetzee. The first, Boyhood, looked at Coetzee’s childhood years in apartheid South Africa, Youth explored his tormented twenties first in Johannesburg and then in New York where he worked for a technology firm. Both were written in the third person. Summertime departs from this in that the narrative is fragmentary and varied, and sometimes more interesting for it. An English biographer called Vincent is researching the life of dead, Nobel prize-winning author John Coetzee. He has decided to look at the years from 1972-1977 when Coetzee lived in Cape Town with his widowed father and was “finding his feet as a writer”. Vincent has never met Coetzee and wants to understand him from the outside-in. The narrative unfolds as a series of interviews with people who were important to Coetzee—ex-lover Julia, a favourite cousin Margot, Brazilian dancer Adriana whom he loved, former colleagues and friends. The interviews reveal aspects of him, yes, but more importantly, they are stories about the narrators. Coetzee is a minor character in a book where the other characters, especially the women, loom large.


First is Julia, a divorced psychiatrist who initiated an affair with Coetzee in the days when her marriage was crumbling. She comes across as blunt and wise, possessing the sort of strength and irony that any of us would pray to have. “We used the marital bed,” she recounts. “If I’m going to desecrate my marriage, I thought, I may as well do so thoroughly. And a bed is more comfortable than a sofa or the floor.” She remembers Coetzee as cold and mechanical with an autistic quality to his love-making. There are some scathingly funny bits about his love-making style, his inability to come out of himself. Country cousin Margot’s account of John is kinder but gives the same sense of a man who is uncomfortable in his skin, especially when that skin is raw to the gaze of family members among whom he is a misfit. On a family holiday in the Karoo, John appears irresponsible and ill-at-ease. Margie is both generous and forgiving but even she loses patience in the end. Adriana is harshest. In her story, John comes across as somewhat pitiful. English teacher to her young and pretty daughter, he falls for Adriana and pursues her with all the sexiness of a limpet. To her, “he is nothing, was nothing, just an irritation, an embarrassment.” Some of the interviews seem less memorable—Martin’s account of John as a colleague, for example, or ex-lover Sophie’s explanation of his politics. What emerges is certainly an unflattering image of the young John, a man with a gift for words, but unexceptional in every other way. But here is where one must pause and remember two things: one is that this is John M Coetzee creating the fiction of John M Coetzee and two, that the reliability of the narrator is a consistent and urgent question in many of Coetzee’s books. How the story changes depends on who is telling it. How reality shifts itself depends on who’s seeing it. This was significant in Disgrace, for example, where father and daughter saw the situation—and the solutions—to her disgrace very differently. What must we make, for example, of Julia or Adriana as people? How reliable are they as narrators? Julia is undeniably strong. She is also a psychiatrist, trained late in life, and possibly the more zealous for it. Her entire account of Coetzee sounds like a careful psycho-analysis, one undertaken without the patient’s involvement. By her own admission, she was in a dreadful marriage, stuck with a child in a lonely and stifling existence. How much of John’s coldness was a product of her own inability to respond to another human being in the midst of all this, a reflection of her own coldness? How much of her strength is a cover for a certain sort of hard pragmatism that arranges truth to convenience? Adriana was a woman in mourning when John chose, ill-timely, to pursue her. A recent immigrant to South Africa, she was wounded and battling. Her husband had been attacked by a gang of thieves. He was comatose in hospital. She had two young daughters to bring up in a foreign and dangerous country with little money and no help. If she found John’s attentions irritating to the point of detesting him, how much of this was because he was inherently detestable? These are the sorts of questions that the narrative throws up and this makes it an interesting inquiry into aspects of human perception and experience. Meanwhile, the fictionalising of John Coetzee is a constant thread running in the background. The tone of this is almost self-flagellatory. In each account, John comes across as inadequate in some way, or in many ways. One wonders if this is Coetzee’s attempt to keep what could be construed as a narcissistic venture overtly humble. Too much erring on the side of doubt, perhaps? Or a smoke-screen that obscures the man rather than illuminating him? Coetzee is known to be reclusive, after all. Indeed there is a sense of grasping at shadows through the book. There are more gaps than earth, more questions raised than answered. The book begins and ends with the dead author’s memos to himself. These are half-formed as


memos tend to be. In the last section, there is a moving account of his father being diagnosed with cancer. He undergoes surgery and is sent back home at which point the young Coetzee wonders where he will minister to his needs or abandon him. We are left here with the question. We are left to wonder. It is from ambiguities that Summertime derives its power but there are times when one would have like a little more to go on, a little more meat on the bones, so to speak. There is a lightness to the book because of its fragmentary narrative. But on the whole, it is a fitting book in the trilogy, an experimental and brave book. It is certainly worth reading for another look at some of Coetzee’s pre-occupations and hints about how some of these may have originated. To know more about Summer Time by JM Coetzee and read more reviews, simply logon to Justbooksclc, the best Online book library in Bangalore.


Summer Time at Book Store Bangalore