Sunday, October 20, 2013

'Summertime' - J. M. Coetzee

Mr Vincent,  an English academic, is writing a biography of J. M. Coetzee, the deceased Nobel prize-winning author. The book covers the mid-seventies when Coetzee had returned to Cape Town from America and was eking out a living as a teacher while caring for his widowed and ailing father.

We start with fragmentary diary entries from the period, which Vincent has manage to obtain from Coetzee's estate. The bulk of the book then consists of interviews between Vincent and various people who knew Coetzee during this period.

A picture emerges of the author as a withdrawn, passive intellectual - a man without presence. The women (and two had affairs - flings - with him) describe a person incapable of warmth, closed-in, almost asexual.  'How can a man be a great writer and yet be so ordinary, even weak, as a person?'  asks one interviewee.

I find the self-referential writing dazzlingly paradoxical. His characters are beautifully-drawn 'conventional people' who think that Coetzee is a solitary, over-intellectual misfit and loser, incapable of competent social interaction.

The Wikipedia article suggests this is not too far from the truth (at least as regards his extreme antisociality) yet it is the author himself who is telling us all this, with consummate skill. Not so much a fictionalised biography as an exploration of how people judge others, especially those unlike themselves.