Tag Archives: J M Coetzee

Southerly 73/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 3 2013: The Naked Writer

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Alain de Botton was on the ABC recently arguing that we need to reclaim art (and by extension literature) from the academies and museums, to recognise its role in our ordinary lives. He was annoyingly persuasive, and had me wondering whether I really needed to read Southerly, which is after all solidly grounded in the English Department of the University of Sydney, largely written and edited by academics for academics. It seems to have stopped publishing poems by Jennifer Maiden, the regular appearance of which led me to re-subscribe a couple of years ago. So despite the fabulously daring cover, I approached this issue warily. What was in it for me?

It seems I enjoy reading about friendship. Alex Miller’s ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ is a moving account of biographer Hazel Rowley’s career, seen through the prism of Miller’s long friendship with her, which they conducted almost entirely by email. Ann-Marie Priest’s ‘“Colour and Crazy Love”: Gwen Harwood and Vera Cottew’ explores a deep friendship between two women that has been sidelined in most discussions of Gwen Harwood’s poetry. It’s a beautiful essay, explicating some of the poetry and exploring the complex possibilities of friendship between women.

Scott Esposito’s ‘The Gate Deferred: J.M. Coetzee and the Battle against Doubt’ is interesting for similar reasons: at heart it’s about the relationship between readers and writers. The essay explores Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Far from writing dry academic analysis, Esposito begins by telling us how as a child of non-religious parents he (Esposito) experienced his own version of Pascal’s ‘le silence eternel des espaces infinis m’effraie’ (the Pascal reference is mine), then gives us a beautiful account of how in Coetzee he found someone with a similar sense of things, expressed in part by Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Coetzee, Esposito writes,

gives us not an answer to Kafka, nor an interpretation of him, but rather his experience of dwelling within Kafka’s mysteries.

Esposito comes close to dwelling within Coetzee’s mysteries. (I haven’t read enough of J M Coetzee – just Disgrace and the three volumes of quasi-memoir – to have an opinion on the validity or otherwise of Esposito’s reading, but that seems beside the point.)

Rowena Lennox’s ‘Head of a Dog’ is about another kind of relationship – that between dogs and humans. Her account of walking her dog made me wonder if she lives near me: could my collie be the one she describes as driving her kelpie-cattle dog cross to such paroxysms of exhilarated rage simply by existing behind a fence? Dogs ‘are the closest we have come to living with and knowing another species’, she writes, and whatever the cat brigade may say I think she’s right. The essay ranges widely, drawing on, among others, Frank Dalby Davison (Dusty), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), and Aboriginal elders Tim Yilngayari and Daly Pulkaa (as quoted by Deborah Bird Rose in Dingo Makes Us Human).

There are fine poems: Tracy Ryan has four on a hoard hidden and centuries later found;  Judith Beveridge (‘Peterhead’), Geoff Page (‘Angus’) and Stephen Edgar (‘The Sense of an Ending’) lend lustre (and just watch that Stephen Edgar use rhyme!); Ali Jane Smith (‘The Galapagos’), Simeon Kronenberg(‘Death of a Bull’) and Ross Donlon (‘Storm Water’) each do narratives it will be good to spend more time with.

There are fine reviews. I was especially glad of Anne Brewster on Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Mullumbimby, which I plan to read, and John Tranter being generous, illuminating and a little gossipy on Pam Brown’s Home by Dark.

That’s just some of the highlights for me. Other people may fall with cries of joy on the 42 page offcut from a forthcoming experimental novel by John A. Scott, Michael Buhagiar’s elegant discussion of Christopher Brennan’s debt to A. C. Swinburne, Robet Darby’s explication of the homoerotic content of a Martin Boyd novel, or … well, there’s quite a lot that I haven’t mentioned.

I’m going to finish with some whingeing, so feel free to stop reading now.

• First, does Southerly deliberately follow US spelling conventions for things like centre/center or the verb practice/practise?

• Second, is it just a little disrespectful to display a poet’s naked body on the cover and make no reference to him or his work except in the photo credit? If you’re interested, here’s a video of spoken word poet Randall Stephens full frontal, clothed and performing:

• Third, was it inattention or editorial illiteracy that allowed Ann-Marie Priest to go into print saying that

there is no mainstream literary tradition of female friendship, as there is with male friendship (think of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., Achilles and Patroclus in The Illiad, and Jonathon and David in the Bible).

Maybe Ruth and Naomi just a few pages over from David and Jonathan ‘in the Bible’ don’t constitute a tradition, but surely they deserve a mention; even spellcheck knows how to spell The Iliad; and however many people name their children Jonathon, it’s Jonathan in the Bible. Even if you don’t count the ‘with’ that really ought to be an ‘of’, that’s an impressive error count in so few words.

Coetzee on Murray

J M Coetzee has a very fine article in the 29 September issue of the New York Review of Books. Titled ‘The Angry Genius of Les Murray’, it has lots of insight into what makes the poetry so good …

Murray is not a poet of the inner life. Instead he relies on an acute sensitivity to sensory impressions and an extraordinary capacity to articulate them.

… plenty of guidance to new readers on where to start, some lucid explication of the cultural context, and a judicious account of Murray’s troubling bitterness. It ends:

The time has perhaps come for Les Murray to let go of old grudges. Now in his seventies, he has received many public honors and is widely acknowledged to be the leading Australian poet of his generation. His poems are “taught” in schools and universities; scholars write learned articles about them. He claims that he is read more abroad than at home. This may or may not be so. But even if it were true, he would not be the first writer to suffer such a fate; and it’s a better fate than not being read at all. If there are a handful of purists who for political reasons will have nothing to do with him or his works, so much the worse for them—the loss is theirs.

China Miéville at Kinokuniya

There are wordy conflagrations in Melbourne around about now that are sending occasional sparks up Sydney way. The Melbourne Writers Festival is letting Val McDermid do an evening at Gleebooks, and last night China Miéville, in Australia for AussieCon 4, made an appearance at Kinokuniya. There was a bit of a Neil Gaiman rockstar feel to the event, with a pec hugging white T shirt in place of Neil’s trademark black jacket.

The Miévillians

After a brief introduction, China M stood on the tiny stage by himself for an hour, reading and fielding questions.

He read a chapter from his latest book, Kraken, pretty much a self-contained short story that was very funny, though more to be savoured than guffawed at. I loved the term retro eschatonaut: if you can figure out what it means you’ve got the bulk of the story.

An earlier plan to have a fishbowl Q&A session having been ditched, CM chaired the question time deftly. You could tell we weren’t at a Writers Festival because all the questioners had clearly read at least some of his books, and he didn’t have to do any obvious mental gymnastics to come up with interesting answers to dim questions. I noted down a couple of gems.

On atheism: After stopping the questioner in mid-sentence to prevent spoilers, he said, ‘I don’t think you choose whether you believe or not,’ and talked about CS Lewis’s account of his own conversion to Christianity: he had convinced himself that he had to believe, and knelt and prayed, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. ‘I like the idea of an atheistic character who resents his lack of belief.’

On film adaptations: Any book involving a secondary world invites the collaboration of readers. A film destroys all the readers’ mental worlds – and the author’s – and replaces them with the director’s.

Advice to young writers: Start from an assumption that nothing you write will be worth publishing. Then falsify that assumption.

On writing a book set in an already established universe: Every book you write in someone else’s world is one less you can write in a world you make up yourself. He won’t ever be writing a Star Trek or Star Wars tie-in, but if he gets a phone call asking him to do a Doctor Who script, he’ll drop everything. (That last was delivered with a pinch of salt.) He wondered aloud what would happen if a publisher approached a distinguished author, J M Coetzee for example, asked them to write a Star Trek novel, and kept putting more money on the table until they said yes. (‘Star Wars by Coetzee?’ I muttered to the man standing next to me. ‘Better than Lucas,’ he muttered back. Someone should write it.) It would be a win-win: the Nobel laureate expands his readership, the publishing house cashes in on the controversy, the literati get to read some science fiction and/or enjoy their outrage, etc.

The role of politics in his work: He’s a socialist, and if his fiction introduces people to political ideas he’s thrilled, but a 500 page fantasy novel is a hugely inefficient vehicle for propaganda. ‘If you’re a Red, the Paris Commune is a very inspiring story. If you’re not a Red, it’s still a very exciting story.’ The revolutionary politics is there in his books because it gives their worlds texture, makes them more realistic.

I left, a happy camper,  as the audience was transmogrifying into a huge queue for the book signing. My Book Group is currently reading The City and the City (the book of his that he would most like to see made into a movie), so I’ll be posting about China Miéville again in a couple of weeks.

NSWPLA dinner

There’s a quote from James Tiptree Jr I’ve been wanting to sneak into my blog for some time. When an editor asked her to write an afterword to her short story, ‘The Milk of Paradise’ she wrote that some authors are ‘walkie-talkie writers … who are named Mailer and Wolfe when they are good’ and went on:

But the rest of us, poor carnivores whose innards meagrely condense into speech. Only at intervals when the moon, perhaps, opens our throats do we clamber up on the rocks and emit our peculiar streams of sound to the sky. Good, bad, we do not know. When it is over we are finished, our glands have changed. Push microphones at us and you get only grumbles about the prevalence of fleas and the scarcity of rabbits.1

That, in short, is why I’ve become a dedicated paying guest at the annual  NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner. I love to see those poor carnivores clamber up onto the podium to be honoured, even the ones who can’t manage any more than ‘Thank you’.

I nearly didn’t go this year, fearing that the dreaded PowerPoint’s incursion, begun at the shortlist announcement, would continue. I was also trying to think like a grown-up about the expense, and then there was the Dîner des Refusés precipitated by the nul prize for a playscript. But here I am again, home from the Art Gallery, out of pocket but flush with the inside dope, even though the on-the-spot tweeters and newspapers (with self-promoting or surprise-upset hooks) have beaten me to publication.

It turned out, no surprise, to be a pleasant evening. The company was convivial, the setting brilliant, the food excellent. There was no PowerPoint as such, but sadly the dinner has become an Event, the creation of Events Organisers, with glossily impersonal results. There was a would-be witty typewriter centrepiece on each table. Two huge television screens told us who was talking to us at any given moment, threatening but thankfully not quite managing to distract us from the mere humans on the stage between them. And the pause between the announcement of each winner’s name and their arrival at the microphone – that is, the time it took them to reach the stage, be photographed kissing the Premier and cross to the mike – was now filled, not just with applause and a buzz of conversation, but with a blast of fanfare from the sound system. I hope someone whispers to the Organisers that this isn’t the Oscars, still less the Logies.

Auntie Sylvia Scott welcomed us to country. As last year, she told us she was an avid reader, and revealed that though Nathan Rees had promised her a pile of books, she never saw any. As she left the stage Carol Mills, Director General of Communities NSW and MC for the evening, promised her a pile this year. She was gracious enough not to look sceptical.

Richard Fidler gave the address. He was funny, and with enough meat to be satisfying, with quotes ranging from Neil Gaiman (about the joys of being a writer), by way of Stalin (writers are the ‘engineers of the soul’) to the unnamed Bush aide (‘probably Karl Rove’) who derided the ‘reality based community’. He advise women in quest of a man to look to their bookshelves – men don’t care so much about appearances, it’s the books that count: ‘Ladies, if we see a copy of a book by Deepak Chopra or Erich von Daniken, we’re out of there.’ He recommended The Moth podcast, and inveighed against Twitter as the ruination of literature – all those writers being witty in 140 characters instead of being at work: ‘Get back to your desks you Gen Y bastards!’ (At that point I saw my Baby Boomer friend misrule discreetly tweeting.)

On to the awards:

The UTS Glenda Adams Prize for new writing: Andrew Croome – Document Z
I started to read this a while back but couldn’t bear to read yet another book on the subject. Perhaps seduced by the sub-Oscaresque music that accompanied him to the mike, Andrew Croome gave a straightforward thank you speech, an example followed by most of the award recipients. In particular he acknowledged his debt to University creative writing courses. The book started out as a PhD – ‘But that doesn’t mean it’s boring.’

The Community Relations Commission Award: Abbas El Zein – Leave to Remain: A Memoir
A lovely book. He said, ‘I never thought I’d shake hands with the Premier and be paid for it,’ introducing another recurring motif of writers responding to Kristina Keneally’s physical presence.

The NSW Premier’s Prize for Literary Scholarship: Philip Mead – Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry
I hope to read this hefty volume some day. The very tall Philip Mead (nickname ‘Tiny’) commented that it was lovely to stand next to someone of normal height. The Premier leaned over to his mike and said it was lovely to stand next to someone who was taller than her. He went on to thank, among others, independent Australian publishers, who are like tussocks: ‘we do everything we can to destroy them and they keep coming back.’

The Play Award: Controversially not awarded

The Script Writing Award: shared by Jane Campion for Bright Star and Aviva Ziegler for Fairweather Man
Jane is abroad. In accepting the award for her, the film’s producer Jan Chapman threw us the pleasing tidbit that in the absence of any letters from Fanny Bryce to Keats, Jane looked for inspiration on her character to her own teenage daughter. Aviva spoke about the ways writing a documentary is of its nature so much more a collaboration than other forms of writing.

The Kenneth Slessor Prize for poetry: Jordie Albiston – The Sonnet According to ‘M’
I bought the last copy of this on my way home.

At this point in the evening, the main meal was served. I was the only one at my table vulgar enough to want to trade fish for meat. One of my fellow guests was gracious enough to do so. The steak and mushroom and mashed potato was delicious, though it didn’t look a bit like the way my mother used to do it. Then on with the show:

The Ethel Turner Prize for young people:Pamela Rushby – When the Hipchicks Went to War
Pamela Rushby wins the Me fail? I fly! award for the best acceptance speech. She may have been the only recipient who began with the formal ‘Distinguished guests’, but she recovered from that slightly distancing moment by telling us she had pitched the book to publishers as Apocalypse Now meets A Chorus Line. Apart from giving us some little known information about young women who went to the Vietnam War as entertainers, she thanked her family, ‘without whose support the book would have been finished in half the time’.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for a children’s book: Allan Baillie – Krakatoa Lighthouse
Allan writes with remarkable precision, but he speaks with difficulty – so he can be difficult to follow. I thought he said that on this project his wife had to endure more than most writers’ wives because he’d been carrying on with an orang utan. I probably misheard, but he does have an unsettling sense of humour. He definitely did say that his wife climbed Son of Krakatoa with him.

The Douglas Stewart Prize for non-fiction: Paul McGeough – Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed Hit … and the Rise of Hammas
‘Madame Premier, Ms Premier?’ ‘Kristine.’ He mainly thanked his editors, and said very little about the book.

The Christina Stead Prize for fiction: J.M. Coetzee – Summertime
Unsurprisingly JMC wasn’t there. Meredith Purnell (?) from Random House read a brief note: ‘Whether I deserve to hold my head up with the esteemed previous winners is something only time will tell.’ So Summertime!

The People’s Choice Award: Cate Kennedy – The World Beneath
‘I can’t believe my luck that all this has come about from just telling stories.’

Book of the Year: Paul McGeough – Kill Khalid
This time, without notes, he spoke about the vulnerability of writers in these late-capitalist times (my term), and daringly drew a parallel with the Taliban, a ragtag collection of warriors holding at bay the great technological firepower of the USA, the closest the evening came to ‘the prevalence of fleas and the scarcity of rabbits’.

The Special Award: The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature
This may have been an inevitable award, but it was sad that we didn’t get to honour an ageing lion, who would have responded memorably.

I didn’t realise until this morning how many of the writers receiving awards were born and partly educated outside Australia: Abbas El Zein of course, but also Jane Campion, Aviva Ziegler (I’m guessing from her accent), Allan Baillie, Paul McGeough and J M Coetzee. That’s at least six out of eleven. Does this mean, as a friend of mine insists, that Australians can’t write? I don’t think so. Does it mean anything at all? I don’t know.

The main pleasure of the evening for me, and I suspect others, was catching up with friends. I was sitting with people I didn’t know well, and that was another pleasure, especially as the three people I could talk to most easily were judges who managed to be gloriously indiscreet about some of this year’s processes. It’s often said that literary awards are given to compromise candidates, books that are no one’s favourites but that no one objects to. It seems this was not the case with these awards. There were sharp divisions of opinion over a couple of them, and my impression is some of the uncontroversial decisions had their share of anguish.
——
1From the collection, Meet Me at Infinity, edited by Jeffrey D Smith, 2000, p 238

Coetzee’s Youth

J M Coetzee, Youth ( 2002)

This is the second of three (so far) novels in Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life series, which are fiction, but also by strong implication unsparing autobiography. It takes up our hero as an 18 year old student and aspiring poet living in a one-room flat in Capetown and drops him again as a 24 year old computer programmer living in an upstairs room in a house in the depths of the Berkshire countryside, convinced that he is a total failure.

It’s the 1960s. The young Coetzee is committed to escape being defined by his family, trapped in the dullness of colonial life, and torn apart in what he sees as the impending revolution in South Africa. He aspires to the status of poet, and theorises endlessly to himself about how he should live (as opposed to write) to achieve that aim. He agonises over his incompetence in relationships with women, over which writers and artists he should emulate (Ezra Pound presides over his pantheon, and Beckett the novelist is a late apparition), over how to shake off his colonial identity. He rationalises his moments of appalling behaviour and then berates himself for his rationalising, and for his general coldness. He aspires to Angst, but realises his sole talent is for ‘misery, dull, honest misery’.

I loved this book. There are two possibilities: either Coetzee’s interior life as an adolescent/young adult was uncannily like mine, or he has turned a searing light onto his experience of that time of his life and laid bare something essential about the collision of adolescent romanticism with the demands of reality. Given that the externals of his life weren’t noticeably similar to mine, and I never had his overarching sense of destiny, I’m guessing it’s the latter. Young Coetzee’s misery, confusion about sex, self castigation, romantic theorising and bitter disillusion are all presented without commentary, but with a gentle irony – which may derive partly from the reader’s knowledge that this pathetic youth went on to win the Nobel Prize (and possibly that an idea that comes and goes on page 138 was the seed of his first novel), but which also simmers in the prose, bubbling to the surface as humour often enough to suggest, without invalidating the character’s intensely felt experience, that an older, wiser head is constantly there, shaping the story. My favourite bubble pops up when young Coetzee, who lives alone and feeds himself with classic adolescent male incompetence, is ruminating on Ford Madox Ford:

Ford says that the civilization of Provence owes its lightness and grace to a diet of fish and olive oil and garlic. In his new lodgings in Highgate, out of deference to Ford, he buys fish fingers instead of sausages, fries them in olive oil instead of butter, sprinkles garlic salt over them.

We do wonder if he misses the point about so much else by quite so wide a mark.

Young Coetzee was writing an academic thesis on Ford. The paragraph after the one I just quoted describes the thesis as involving ‘the task of reducing his hundreds of pages of notes in tiny handwriting to a web of connected prose’. My sense is that this book has achieved something very like that: whether Coetzee has drawn on actual diaries from the period or on the virtual pages of his recollection, he has created from the material a shiny, elegant narrative web.

Early in his stay in London, young Coetzee hears a BBC talk about the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and is enraptured by his poetry. He reflects on what Brodsky and a handful of other poets mean to him:

they release their words into the air, and along the airwaves the words speed to his room, the words of the poets of his time, telling him again of what poetry can be and therefore what he can be, filling him with joy that he inhabits the same earth as they. ‘Signal heard in London – please continue to transmit’: that is the message he would send them if he could.

If in my early 20s I could have received this book as a signal, I would have responded, I’m sure, with a very similar joy. As it is, confident though I am that J M Coetzee won’t be reading my blog, I’m sending him a belated message on behalf of my younger self:  ‘Signal heard in Sydney 40 years later – please continue to transmit.’
—-
I read Youth in a library copy. A previous reader had ‘corrected’ the text:

  • on page 53 s/he fixed a simple typo, inserting be in ‘It would nice to write’ (‘Thank you,’ I thought)
  • on page 72 s/he altered pay to pays in ‘But none of the girls on the trains pay him any attention’ (‘Hmm, you are an old-fashioned pedant, but at least you left that But alone’)
  • on page 85 s/he changed oneself to one’s self in the sentence ‘Only love and art are, in his opinion, worthy of giving oneself to without reserve” (‘Someone please take the pen away from that person’)
  • on page 95 s/he changed the phrase to eat packet soup, possibly because one doesn’t eat soup, then – sensibly – scratched  out the alteration
  • thereafter, s/he presumably resigned themselves to the probability that Coetzee and his editors were competent after all.
  • The Alcoholic, comic

    Jonathan Ames & Dean Haspiel, The Alcoholic (Vertigo 2008)

    Disclaimer: I was not given this book by a publisher, nor is this blog entry a viral effusion in the hope that Vertigo will send me lots of freebies, though I wouldn’t be offended to be told that this review os not a review.*

    1401210562I don’t imagine that many people would feel compelled to compare this comic with J M Coetzee’s Summertime. But here goes.

    J M Coetzee’s hero is called John Coetzee; Jonathan Ames’s is Jonathan A. Both books, then, are presented as some kind of autobiography. In both, wiggle room is created, and the narrative saved from indulgent self-loathing, by the interposition of point(s) of view other than the author’s. In place of Coetzee’s multiple unreliable narrators, interviewees as well as fictional biographer, Ames has the graphic art of Dean Haspiel. It’s possible to imagine Ames’s story of his alcoholism being told for laughs, or with that creepy kind of apologeticness that leaves out the taking of responsibility, or in a way that invites hypocritical prurience, or as a hollow redemptive tale. Jonathan A is a writer, and at one stage he has an audience convulsed with laughter by an essay about his own fecal incontinence. But the pared down narration here, accompanied by Haspiel’s ruthlessly austere black and white art, gives us nothing to laugh at. There are sex scenes, and plenty of naked breasts, but there’s none of the adolescent eroticism of, say, Frank Miller, or for that matter Woody Allen. The hero makes excuses (he’s ‘allergic’ to alcohol, his well-meaning parents were too trusting and then died in a terrible car crash, etc), but on the page they remain just that – excuses. The final moment of decision is as unresolved as that of Summertime. Again and again, the visual severity of the images holds us to a moral (not moralistic) way of seeing. They’re very different books, of course, but they do share this uncompromising self-scrutiny. I don’t think I could have borne the story of  The Alcoholic presented as straight autobiography. As an uncomical comic (or graphic novel, if you need your sequential art to sound dignified), it’s a quick but powerful read.

    *Given the frequency of my typos, I should note that that ‘os’ comes from the headline of Rosemary Sorenson’s article as it is online just now. By the time you go there it may have been corrected.

    Summertime, Boyhood and the book group

    J M Koetzee, Summertime (Knopf 2009)
    —-, Boyhood (Secker & Warburg 1997)

    I wasn’t there when Summertime was chosen for the Book Group1846553180, 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.

    BoyhoodAt 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.