Book Review: Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

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First appeared in The Globe and Mail

In Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume, protagonist Jean Baptiste Grenouille is born on a stinking hot day in July, 1738, under a gutting table in a fish market in Paris. Abandoned amid the swarm of flies and offal and then orphaned, he subsequently legs his way through a succession of wet nurses, each of whom, in turn, refuses and rejects him in disgust because he “doesn’t smell human.”

According to the composite profile we get in Summertime, deceased writer “John Coetzee” gives off much the same inhuman whiff. The novel, about an academic, Mr. Vincent, who is undertaking research for a biography of Coetzee, consists primarily of interviews with five people – friends, lovers, cousins, colleagues – those Vincent deems “important” to the deceased during the 1970s.

The fictitious Coetzee is variously described as cold, unmanly and incompetent in matters of the heart; a gloomy, cautious outsider; a solitary, weak, wooden man divorced from his body; an embarrassment, an irritation; a fool; a writer of reports on intimate human experience who is unable himself to connect; more frog than prince.

In short, a miserable git.

Are we to accept this consensus opinion as the truth, or, as Martin – the only male among the five interviewed – puts it, nothing more than “women’s gossip”?

In line with all of Coetzee’s work, much of the ice in Summertime is submerged. Reading it is like operating a computer. You’re easily able to utilize and benefit from it, but you know there’s way more you could be doing if only you knew how.

It’s a good bet that we’ll not see a traditional memoir from Coetzee

Beneath the W.B. Sebald-smooth surface, this novel takes a pickaxe to the “biography” genre. In The Novels of J.M. Coetzee (1988), Teresa Dovey claims, adeptly, that his works fuse novelistic and critical discourse; “like the nouveau roman, they are criticism-as-fiction, or fiction-as-criticism.” Like Magda, the narrator of In the Heart of the Country, Coetzee is a hermit crab “that as it grows migrates from one empty shell to another.” That, when the host is dying, “scuttles anxiously about the cooling entrails wondering whose tissues it will live off next.”

So, for example, in Dusklands, Coetzee inhabits anthropological/historical/fictional writing or, as Dovey calls it “journey[s]of exploration”; in In the Heart of the Country, romantic pastoral; in Waiting for the Barbarians, the liberal humanist novel; in Foe, the intersection of feminist, postcolonial and postmodern discourses.

Summertime, playing with and questioning perspective, fact, narration and character development, exposes with dark irony the shortcomings of “biography.” In the same way David Lurie gets it wrong at the beginning of Disgrace, when he claims to have “solved the problem of sex rather well,” it is quite plausible that our five storytelling interviewees do an injustice to Mr. Coetzee. For as Martin once again informs us, “it is not in the nature of love affairs for the lovers to see each other whole and steady.”

A hundred years ago, Proust took up this debate with the then-deceased literary biographer St. Beuve: “He continued not to understand the unique, enclosed world, incommunicado with the outside, which is the soul of the poet.” He misguidedly believed that the key to understanding the poet or writer “[lay]in questioning avidly those who knew him, who frequented him, who may be able to tell us how he behaved in the matter of women, etc., that is … on all those very points where the poet’s true self is not involved.”

The experience of reading Holmes on Coleridge, Marchand on Byron, Ellmann on Joyce and Steegmuller on Flaubert, for example, puts me firmly contra Proust. Knowing about Byron’s life struggles, his politics, his relationship with women (assuming at least a degree of accuracy in the research, despite our all being “fictioneers”) enriched my experience of his work, influenced the way I understood it, and increased my appreciation and enjoyment of it (as it did Disgrace, incidentally). The text remains the same, the reception is what changes. Biographical information adds layers of interpretive possibility. Biography doesn’t replace close reading, but it does expand its scope.

Based both on Summertime and its depiction of John Coetzee as a “fool,” and the fictitious personas that J.M. Coetzee adopts and plays with when accepting prizes and delivering public lectures in real life, it’s clear he stands, in a cork-lined world, with Marcel Proust.

It’s a good bet that we’ll not see a traditional memoir from him, as we have recently from his compatriot Andre Brink.

In taking the additional step away from an already impersonal (“he” versus “I” ) approach to “fictional autobiography,” in Boyhood and Youth, and by killing himself off and having others tell their versions of his life story in Summertime, Coetzee presents an unreal, unreliable, unflattering picture of himself to illustrate the folly of “biography.” Judge me on my work, he tells us with this book, not my life; “there is no third way.”

Summertime contains a breeze of poetic Coetzeean prose that virtually reads itself; for this and its clever conceit, its shell-bound criticism, the book is worth encountering. However, for those wanting to learn more about the real J.M. Coetzee, who hope and expect to know him better, to connect with he who writes and thinks so well, who feels and expresses so much of what they do, this book, by intent, is guaranteed to disappoint.

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