Summertime is the third in a series of fictionalized autobiographies by John Maxwell Coetzee, coming after Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002).
In Summertime, Coetzee reimagines his life in the 1970s, and although the story focuses on the imaginary John Coetzee, there are many similarities to the real Coetzee. Both are from South Africa. Like the real Coetzee, the John in Summertime returns home from overseas. Strikingly, he too has won a Nobel Prize.
In the book, the young Coetzee returns to South Africa after being expelled from the USA. Back home in Cape Town, where he teaches part-time, he seems destined for a dreary, miserable life looking after his ageing and ailing father:
“It used to be that he, John, had too little employment. Now that is about to change. Now he will have as much employment as he can handle, as much and more. He is going to have to abandon some of his personal projects and be a nurse.”
John’s story is told mainly through Vincent, a prospective biographer, who interviews five different characters – four women and one man – who knew the young man (John) before he died. They include a relative, a colleague and a former lover. Only twice, at the beginning and the end through his journal entries, does John Coetzee’s own voice come into play. Yet, somehow, one cannot help but feel the writer’s presence throughout the book.
The characters interviewed by Vincent have their views about John, and what emerges is a collection of subjective accounts, painting the picture of a misfit and socially awkward character, struggling to come to terms with life back home in Cape Town. His lover, Julia, for instance, describes him as “having no sexual presence whatsoever.”
Overall, Summertime is an interesting account of a phase in Coetzee’s career, fictional or real, depending on what you choose to believe. As Vincent, Coetzee’s biographer notes, his quest is to tell the story of a stage in his subject’s life:
“I am not interested in coming to a final judgment on Coetzee. I leave that to history. What I am doing is telling the story of a stage in his life, or if we can’t have a single story then several stories from several perspectives.”