Sometimes there is an advantage in reading books by the same author in reverse order. This has been the case here for me. In the 2010 work, Summertime: Fiction, Coetzee creates an intriguing portrait of one John Coetzee, deceased, a kind of alter ego, and whose personality emerges through interviews and recollections by several friends and acquaintances. In Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, his 2003 portrait, Coetzee distances himself from the younger John by writing what he terms an “autre-biography”*). Written in the present tense and in the third person, the story has a lively and immediate reality while at the same time suggesting a clear distance between the author and his subject.
Coetzee concentrates on a decisive period in John’s life – from his mid-teens to his early twenties. In this coming of age portrait of John, we see an awkward youth, whose mind hovers between ambitious dreams and self-doubt. He is a young South African, determined to escape the confines of family and the restrictions in his country. Coetzee presents us with a fascinating and often entertaining quasi-memoir, set against the backdrop of a tumultuous period in history: The frequent unrests and subsequent violent suppression of protests by South African blacks (e.g. Sharpville), the Cuban missile crisis, the declaration of South Africa as a republic, etc.
John, while a reasonably successful mathematics student, sees his real calling in being a poet. Poetry for him is the ultimate in artistic expression; prose would only be second best. He also dreams of being kissed by a muse, falling madly in love and that everything else will fall into place, smoothly and happily. Life, not surprisingly, turns out very differently and Coetzee’s sense of irony is subtle, yet evident throughout the novel. John is a somewhat reluctant student of passion, experiencing it more vividly in his mind than he is able to transpose it into reality.
Leaving South Africa, he moves to London and from there to a country estate in Berkshire where he is employed as a computer programmer. The description of his daily routines, in North London in particular, and his commentary on life around him are wonderfully accurate, perceptive and also funny. His ambitions, on the artistic and the personal fronts, don’t progress as hoped and are, at least for a while, pushed to the back of his mind. Somewhat disillusioned John nevertheless finds a certain level of inner peace. However, this state of mind and body can only be temporary and he soon struggles again with options and alternatives to move on. Will he get back to his dream of being a poet? Or will he have to settle for second-best and try his hand on prose.
J.M. Coetzee writes in a dry, yet engaging style. The reader feels empathy with the subject and despite Coetzee’s detached and often ironic analysis of John’s complex inner struggle, the reader cannot help but smile at times as John describes the environment around him.
*) In an interview with David Attwell in 2002, Coetzee asserted that “all autobiography is autre-biography”, or the biography of an Other.