In his latest fictionalized autobiography, Coetzee delivers a meditation on the limits of art - and himself
It seems churlish to complain about a J.M. Coetzee novel being cold. Because you know it will be cold; this is one of the givens of a Coetzee novel. As such, you should begin one of his books the way you would prepare, mentally, for a stay in one of those ice hotels in Quebec, or wherever: You will not, you tell yourself, complain about the cold; you will instead wonder at how such an object - a novel, a hotel - can be built out of such unpromising material. You will find beauty in the chilliness; you will even find moments where you can say, you know, this isn’t as unbelievably cold as I thought it was going to be.
Which brings us to Coetzee’s latest book, “Summertime.’’ “Summertime’’ is - after “Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life’’ and “Youth: Scenes from a Provincial Life II’’ - the third volume in which Coetzee fictionalizes his autobiography. It’s also presumably the last. That is because in this book the fictional John Coetzee is dead, and his English biographer is setting out to read fragments of Coetzee’s notes from the early 1970s (the period when he returned to South Africa from the United States and lived with his elderly father), and to interview people who mattered to Coetzee. In fact, much of the novel comes to us in the form of interview transcripts. And what we learn, basically, from these intimate expert witnesses is that Coetzee was . . . cold.
Seriously, this is what we learn. And whether this information is intended to be big news, or whether it is intended to be taken as sign of Coetzee’s sense of playful self-deprecation, it is, at the beginning of the novel, irksome in that it only confirms what we already think we know about the man and his work.
Indeed, the novel’s first interviewee (Julia, a married South African woman with whom Coetzee had an affair) seems to exist not only to confirm our expectations about the sex appeal of the chilly Coetzee (“he had no sexual presence whatsoever. It was as though he had been sprayed head to toe with a neutralizing spray, a neutering spray’’) but also as proof that Coetzee not only knows himself, but also knows his characters, and what he knows about them is that they are emotionally and tonally similar to him.
After Julia and Coetzee have a brief conversation about Coetzee’s family, Julia says, “They have always interested me, these exchanges between human beings when the words have nothing to do with the traffic of thoughts through the mind.’’ To which the reader might have these three reactions: “Yes, you sound really interested”; “You sound exactly like Coetzee”; and “Can a novel thrive when all its characters sound like Coetzee?”
It can’t, I think. But fortunately Coetzee doesn’t put it to the test. Fortunately, the novel turns to his cousin, Margot, and begins to explore whether its frigidity is specific to Coetzee, or to his gender, or to his country: “Is a guarded heart an affliction of men in general or just of South African men?’’ Margot doesn’t answer the question, definitively, but she does strive to place her cousin in context.
To Coetzee’s credit, though, he never offers an excuse for his authorial and personal remove: As tough a critic as the real Coetzee is of South Africa, he is even more brutal when it comes to himself. This becomes clearer when the novel moves to Adriana, a Brazilian dance instructor with whom the fictional Coetzee was obsessed, at least according to Adriana.
In any case, Adriana, like everyone else, finds Coetzee cold and distant, and sees that he is longing, in his fashion, for something he can’t have. We think it’s Adriana herself, and while that’s part of it, that’s not the most compelling part. As we learn when we come to Sophie, a French colleague with whom Coetzee had an affair, that Coetzee longed not only for a different home (Sophie tells us that “he saw Africa through a romantic haze”), but also to be a different writer. I say this because when asked about her estimation of Coetzee’s novels, Sophie says, “After ‘Disgrace’ I lost interest . . . The control of his elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before.”
Of course, this is in another character’s voice; it could be that we’re meant to doubt the critical insight. But I choose to read it as a mea culpa, as Coetzee admitting, that he is the writer he is but that he wishes he were a different kind of writer, just as he wishes he were a different kind of man from a different kind of country. But he is not.
And with that admission, and upon rereading, this novel reveals itself to be more moving, more important than I first thought. To be sure, this is not one of Coetzee’s major works. It is not as powerful and original as “Waiting for the Barbarians’’ or “Disgrace.’’ But it is a compelling testament to the limitations of art, a bracing example of one of our major writers confessing to his limitations. For years, I’ve felt a cold admiration for Coetzee’s cold fiction. I’ve felt about his novels the way one feels about the aforementioned ice hotels. One often marvels at how such an awesome edifice was built of ice. But just as often, one wishes it were built out of something else. Turns out that Coetzee feels the same way.
Brock Clarke is the author of four books of fiction, most recently the novel “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.’’ His fifth book, the novel “Exley,’’ will be published in fall 2010.