Lack of Warmth in Summertime (TSS)

SummertimeAs I mentioned in my last post, the news that Coetzee’s Summertime was released sent me immediately to my favourite local bookstore to get my copy. However, I could get to it only a little later and have just read the last page, a few moments back.

When I first heard about Summertime and its theme, I was intrigued and awaited it patiently. It was due to release only in December 2009, but I guess the publishers wanted to cash in on the media coverage it got due to the Booker Shortlist and released it immediately after the shortlist announcement. As someone who has read and loved Coetzee’s work before, I was not complaining.

Summertime had to be a difficult book, for any memoir is difficult. However, Coetzee was no novice in the genre with Boyhood and Youth having been received well before. Still, Summertime had to be difficult. Unfortunately, that shows when you read the book as well.

Coetzee is a master of words, the nobel prize has confirmed it sometime back. For someone as accomplished in his art as Coetzee, his last novel was an inevitable experiment. A fiction that speaks through dated diary entries, without any character voice,  Diary of a Bad Year was an achievement as well. While Summertime is different for sure, it is that same experiment taken forward.

As someone who starts a story every 15 days and has never finished any, I do understand in my limited capacity the pain, discipline, and frustration of baking the final batter. You will see that Coetzee for some reason did not want to go through this process and has served you the batter with no apologies. Summertime is a half attempt. It is not that batter cannot be eaten, but cakes taste better. As one of the characters through whom Coetzee chooses to give a glimpse of himself remarks – Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion.

One of the reason I found this was a lazy attempt  is because the other works of his that I have read have left me in awe of him. From that pedestal, Summertime lacks warmth. It is no news that Coetzee shares little about himself or his inspirations in real life. He, I believe, is from the school of thought that does not have faith in public images of authors. With Summertime, Coetzee has taken that inhibition to his fiction as well. While I empathize with the thought that an author’s life has little to do with his works, my question is – Why write a memoir/biographical fiction then?

4 women, 1 colleague/friend, few dated diary entries, and a few undated fragments are what he has chosen as reflections of himself. Summertime begins with the diary entries which give a glimpse into the thoughts of Coetzee in the period (1972-1977) in which the memoir is set. A young biographer is writing a book on the nobel laureate John Coetzee, a white South African author who has recently died in Australia. The second part of the book is an interview the biographer conducts with a women named Julia. She is married, a mother and just out of adventure, gets into an adultrous relationship with Coetzee. She lives in the same neighborhood where Coetzee stays with his father. This part is in the form of an interview, though the questions are few and short and therefore the answers are more like narrations.

The third part of the book involves Margot, a cousin and childhood love of Coetzee. The biographer had interviewed her and is now reading out the narrative that he has culled out from her

Coetzee at Nobel

Coetzee at the Nobel Ceremony

answers. This, I believe, is the most powerful narrative in the book. Coetzee probably intended it so, as it is clear from the words Coetzee chooses to put in Margot’s mouth that she was the alternate that he never was. The only relationship where Coetzee admits some warmth is with Margot, the alter-ego which remained as cut-off from his real self as everyone else.

Adriana, mother of a young beautiful girl whom Coetzee teaches English in extra classes, is the most intriguing of all. In her testimony, Coetzee was in love with her and troubles her to no end. However, she cannot be trusted. Adriana is an emotion that intrigues Coetzee and he presents it to us in all its raw contradictions. He then moves to a colleague/friend who taught in the same university. He is the only person of the same sex that he chose to include, though very briefly, as his mirror. There is not much to suggest as to why is he the one man in company of four rather complex women from his life. You are only left guessing. The last mirror is a lady lecturer from France with whom he taught a course in African literature and had sexual relations for sometime. She is the one who talks about his writing, his books – but too little, yet again. It is almost like Coetzee wrote Summertime to tease his readers, his so called ‘admirers’.

Summertime is not as dry as it may sound from whatever I have said above. Despite all this, it is a book you will read through easily. It has underlying themes of life, of a father-son relationship, of the commerce of life and the soul that pays in the bargain. It is an insight into how lonely a thinking, writing soul can be. It also is a relevant insight into the complex psyche of the white South Africans who were not a part of apartheid but were silently accommodating nonetheless.

Summertime lacks nothing when it comes to Coetzee’s ability to put the right words in the right order to make the right strings in your heart or head play the right tune. But it does lack the richness of a Coetzee fiction. It is a biographical fiction by an author who does not want to tell you anything about himself after he started writing. With that disclaimer, it is not a book to let go. Though, if you have not read Coetzee before, go pick his other works. Summertime can wait.

18 responses to “Lack of Warmth in Summertime (TSS)

  1. When I read memoirs, I want to know about the author, so this may not be for me.

  2. The life of an author reflects in his works. I somehow could never reconcile to the New Criticism school of T S Eliot which states that a piece of literature, after been created, assumes a life of its own and has no connection whatsoever with its creator. Though any piece of art does have a life of its own but that does not mean that the creator or the artist and his life is entirely unconcerned with the work.

    Coetzee maybe as private as he chooses to be but his beliefs and his convictions shriek out from his works. In fact, the more private an author becomes the more his works resemble his life and his beliefs. Coetzee is a lonesome soul, and he may refuse to tell us directly about his life (but if you think about it, has he ever told us anything directly?), but his literary talent is so overpowering that we can not help but get a glimpse at the life and times of this great genius.

    I have read a few books of Coetzee but not his autobiographical trilogy yet. Will get my hands on them ASAP. Thanks for an intimate review.

    • You are entirely correct. It is very irritating when people start discussing author’s lives as gossip or scandal. I take great objection to people giving interpretation to great works based on what kind or relationships the author had in his times. But, when you read a memoir, you expect some insight to some aspects of an author’s life. I found that missing here. And especially in contrast to Youth, which was very frank and let a reader connect to the author’s emotions.

  3. Fascinating structure for a book. Sad that you found it disappointing.

    • I agree that it is a fascinating structure for fiction. To that extent, i have no problems. But as a memoir, the structure acts as a curtain. If this same book was not supposed to be the third part of his memoir, I would have loved it as yet another work of fiction.

  4. Oh this sounded like a pretentious wank from day one. And I say this as one of Coetzee’s fans. He hit his peak with his semi-autobio trilogy, was on a rebound with Disgrace and Costello, but I couldn’t even get past 50th page of Slow Man. This one and your review of it proves he’s become an author of diminishing returns. Sad, but happens.

    Keep writing dude!

  5. BTW, forgot to add a suggestion: try William Boyd’s A Human Heart if you want to read a fictional memoir that reads like non-fiction. Awfully well done, epic and Boyd’s literary capacities are on par with Coetzee [Ignore the Nobel, I respect for this prize when they gave Orhan Pamhuk one,phew!]

    • Can’t comment on the Orha Pamhuk bit as I tried and could not read him; too structured for me. If you are right in saying Coetzee has become an author of diminishing returns, it would be sad. I really hope it is not true. I consider his Master of Petersberg to be one of the most difficult book he has ever written, and I loved it. Youth is very close to my heart as well. There are a lot others which I look forward to reading. And I hope, he will add a few more to that list before he stops. Will definitely read William Boyd soon.

  6. booksandmusings

    You seem more disappointed than anything else. I am a big Coetzee fan and believe that all that you describe must be to a large extent deliberate.
    If you have read diary of a bad year, you will be moved by his emotion of lonliness at the end of his life.
    I think it is possible his life was as amorphous and incoherent and rather fragmented as he made it out to be. If you interview one of the people he has supposedly interviewed, they would probably know as little.

    Coetzee knows that and that’s what he is trying to depict. Will anyway read it and revisit your blog.

    • This makes a lot of sense. Probably, his life after becoming an author, is something he cannot construct. Also, probably the fault lies with his publishers. On recollection, I find that my disappointment relates most to the ‘memoir’ being a false sub-head. I somehow am sure that sub-head was a marketing strategy over which Coetzee had no control. If read devoid of that expectation, Summertime is indeed a refreshing piece of fiction.

  7. It did occur to me while reading the book that all this might be deliberate. And I do think that it is true. But i think it is not right for an author to fool his readers by pretending to right about himself and then not revealing anything. I am sure you will like the book. But for someone like me, who looks for emotions to connect to, this book lacked any.

  8. It sounds like this book is heavily dependent on a particular type of reader. Hmm.. I’m not sure if I’m the right type or not.

  9. We’re coming up on the final quarter! You’ve done great so far-see it through to the end! You can do it!

  10. I’ve only read The Life and Times of Michael K, which was fascinating in style. I enjoyed reading your review and the comments.

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