I wasn’t there when Summertime was chosen for the Book Group, and might well have argued against it. I’d read some bemused discussion about its mixing of truth and fiction and multiple perspectives that made it sound like the kind of clever writing that disappears up its own whatsit – you know, technically challenging but otherwise as gripping as batshit.
It turned out I loved it, and put in orders at the library for the two previous volumes in Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life series, Boyhood and Youth. It’s autobiographical writing, covering the years when Coetzee was teaching at school and university in Cape Town and writing his first novels. It’s not straightforward autobiography, though. The John Coetzee character is dead, so who knows in what other respects the narrative here differs from the factual record? The book consists mainly of transcripts of recorded conversations between an (almost certainly invented) academic biographer and a handful of people. I have no idea what relationship any of the interviewees have to actual people, but I am persuaded that there’s a genuine project here on Coetzee’s part of imagining how he was seen by a number of key people in his life at that time. ‘Coetzee’ doesn’t exactly emerge covered in glory. In fact, if this had been told in straightforward narrative, even in third person, some of it would have been cringingly embarrassing; and some of it, removed from the realm of hints and suspicions, might have laid the author open to criminal investigation. Coming mainly from women who had, or in one case (if she is to be believed) didn’t have, sexual liaisons with him, it’s funny, and for me at least very engaging. I’m in awe of Coetzee’s feat of creating self-portrait from the point of view of people he’d had unsatisfactory intimate relationships with, most of them much more interested in themselves than in him. It’s an act of great imagination and unsparing self scrutiny.
At the risk of appearing excessively diligent, I managed to read Boyhood before the Group met. At least on the surface, it’s a much more conventional piece of work, a possibly fictionalised memoir of the author’s childhood told in the third person. (We don’t learn that the boy’s name is John until about the halfway point.) Unlike the unreliable interviewees of Summertime, the narrator appears to be omniscient, though he reports the young John’s understanding of things without signalling to the reader when the boy has got it wrong. This sometimes results in a straightforward irony, as in matters of reproductive physiology. Elsewhere, as the boy struggles to make sense of his relationships to his parents, of the English, the Afrikaans, the Coloureds and the Africans, of South African history, of religion and his own preadolescent stirrings, the narrator leaves us alone with the boy’s painful sense of his own peculiarity. The effect, for me at least, rang very true to what childhood is like, stripped of the gloss of nostalgia and self-preserving sentiment. An unexpected bonus from having read the book out of order was the poignant discovery that the father for whom ‘John’ cares in Summertime was an object of his contempt and intense dislike in Boyhood.
Tonight we discussed Summertime in the book group. There were ten of us, fairly evenly divided between those who loved the book and those for whom it did nothing except perhaps induce sleep. A couple of guys turned up with their books bristling with sticky yellow papers, and argued for particular ways of reading the book. Over melon and prosciutto and then strawberries, the conversation tended to take the form of them what enjoyed the book telling them what didn’t about what had given them pleasure or illumination. One man talked about the theme of embodiment – that the struggle of the character was to find a way of being in the body, of having a voice, and the structure with its multiple filters and distancing devices fitted the theme brilliantly. Another read it as an extended build-up to the passage towards the end where a woman says of the John Coetzee character that people may be interested in him because he’s won the Nobel Prize and is seen as a brilliant writer, but to her he is just a man, and not a very interesting one (though others saw that passage as a bit of almost mechanical rounding out of things). Yet another was interested in it as a portrait of a man whose masculinity was under attack. And so on. It was a terrific evening; the book is perfect for that kind of free-ranging discussion.