Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life


Coetzee grew up in a new development north of Cape Town, tormented by guilt and fear. With a father he despised, and a mother he both adored and resented, he led a double life—the brilliant and well-behaved student at school, the princely despot at home, always terrified of losing his mother's love. His first encounters with literature, the awakenings of sexual desire, and a growing awareness of apartheid left him with baffling questions; and only in his love of the high veld ("farms are places of freedom, of ...
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Coetzee grew up in a new development north of Cape Town, tormented by guilt and fear. With a father he despised, and a mother he both adored and resented, he led a double life—the brilliant and well-behaved student at school, the princely despot at home, always terrified of losing his mother's love. His first encounters with literature, the awakenings of sexual desire, and a growing awareness of apartheid left him with baffling questions; and only in his love of the high veld ("farms are places of freedom, of life") could he find a sense of belonging. Bold and telling, this masterly evocation of a young boy's life is the book Coetzee's many admirers have been waiting for, but never could have expected.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Fiercely revealing, bluntly unsentimental. . .a telling portrait of the artist as a young man that illuminates the hidden source of his art." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Exceptional...a scorched tale of race, caste, shame, and—at times—hilarious bewilderment." —The New Yorker

"Tremendously readable and powerful...a masterfully told, spare and accessible memoir." —The Boston Globe

The New York Times
Fiercely revealing, bluntly unsentimental. . .a telling portrait of the artist as a young man. — Michiko Kakutani
NY Times Sunday Book Review
Boyhood is not exactly a paean to literature and the life of the mind. The young Coetzee views his own imagination not merely as an escape from provincial tedium or a looming promise for the future....Written in a third-person, present-tense voice that effaces adult perspective and lends harsh immediacy to the inner agonies of the child, the memoir explores a profound ambivalence about what in most respects looks like a routine middle-class boyhood. -- Rand Richards Cooper
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
'He thinks of Afrikaners as people in a rage all the time because their hearts are hurt. He thinks of the English as people who have not fallen into a rage because they live behind walls and guard their hearts well.' The 'he' in this bitter, brooding childhood memoir is Booker Prize winner Coetzee himself (Waiting for the Barbarians), who uses his early recollections to probe the hidden anxieties of middle-class white South Africa after WWII. The memoir begins in elementary school, when Coetzee's Anglophile Afrikaner family leaves Cape Town after the latest professional failure of the author's father. An attorney and the poor relation of respectable farmers, the alcoholic elder Coetzee takes a humiliating accounting job in the small town of Worcester, where young Coetzee begins to learn the cruel distinctions of class, ethnicity and race that govern his parents' lives and learns, at the same time, to despise his father and fear his mother, a frustrated, resentful schoolteacher, feelings that the memoirist reproduces unsoftened by the intervening decades. What is most impressive, and oppressive, about this portrait of the artist as a young man is Coetzee's refusal to forgive his parents for their prejudices, their pettiness, their hatred of each other. If there is a culprit outside the family circle, it is a colonial shame and unease as described by Coetzee: the delicate web of class pretensions that overlay and hid from white view the brute fact of apartheid.
Library Journal
In this slim, interesting volume, Coetzee, a South African writer distinguished both as a novelist (Master of St. Petersburg) and an essayist (Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship), reflects about who he is and why he writes as he does. Using third-person narration, these 'scenes' read more like a novella than a true autobiography. Coetzee develops his character, a young boy on the verge of adolescence, through a richly detailed interior monolog. Trying to make sense of his place in his family, his parents' unhappy marriage, his conflicting needs for nurturance and independence from his mother, and his complicated feelings about the racially segregated society in which he lives, Coetzee struggles with basic questions of identity and purpose. The honest intensity he uses to examine his thoughts and actions leads to a foundation of self-understanding and confidence from which the writer was formed. Well recommended for writing programs and collections in general and multicultural literature. -- Denise S. Sticha, Seton Hill College Library, Greenburg, Pennsylvania

Rose Miller has it all: wealthy husband, gorgeous little girl, lavish house, great success as a novelistand a stalker who knows about her shady past.

Kirkus Reviews
A short and unsettling, deftly realized memoir of the celebrated South African writer's childhood in the hinterlands. South African memoirs, whether written by blacks or whites, tend to have a thread of sameness woven through: a sense of time and landscape as forces that irrevocably shape the soul. Coetzee (The Master of Petersburg), is no exception. Writing at the remove of the third person, he looks back at his youth in the distant dorp of Worcester, recounting how he was formed by his surroundings. This is not an eventful memoir—it's strength comes, instead, from Coetzee's nuanced, unblinking perceptions. His childhood was not unhappy in the conventional sense; the sadness and tragedies were mainly of the ordinary kind, and in his masterful depiction of them, that's what makes them so shattering. All too clearly, we see his weak, hapless father and his mother who is slowly being pushed to the side of her life—a bad marriage, abandoned career, a son whom she loves absolutely but who is too stubborn and embarrassed to reciprocate. There is the uncalibrated cruelty of children, the heedlessness of adults, Coetzee's pervading sense of difference (magnified by his Afrikaans parents' decision to raise him as English-speaking): 'Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.' The memoir leaves Coetzee on the cusp of adolescence—at the funeral of an old aunt, where he experiences a small, bittersweet epiphany that seems to herald his becoming a writer. Perhaps Coetzee has removed too much of himself—there is an unsolved distance throughout that keepsthis memoir from quite realizing the fullness of its potential. Still, this is a powerful, disillusioned portrait of childhood and how, like South Africa, it encompasses both prelapsarian innocence and unconscionable evil.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140265668
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/1998
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 583,551
  • Product dimensions: 5.04 (w) x 7.77 (h) x 0.48 (d)

Meet the Author

J.M. Coetzee
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 9, 1940, John Michael Coetzee studied first at Cape Town and later at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a Ph.D. degree in literature. In 1972 he returned to South Africa and joined the faculty of the University of Cape Town. His works of fiction include Dusklands, Waiting for the Barbarians, which won South Africa’s highest literary honor, the Central News Agency Literary Award, and the Life and Times of Michael K., for which Coetzee was awarded his first Booker Prize in 1983. He has also published a memoir, Boyhood: Scenes From a Provincial Life, and several essays collections. He has won many other literary prizes including the Lannan Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize and The Irish Times International Fiction Prize. In 1999 he again won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for Disgrace, becoming the first author to win the award twice in its 31-year history. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.


John Maxwell Coetzee was born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa. He is of both Boer and English descent. His parents sent him to an English school, and he grew up using English as his first language.

At the beginning of the 1960s he moved to England, where he worked initially as a computer programmer. He studied literature in the United States and has gone on to teach at several American universities, the University of Cape Town, and the University of Adelaide.

Coetzee made his debut as a writer of fiction in 1974. His first book, Dusklands was published in South Africa. His international breakthrough came in 1980 with the novel Waiting for the Barbarian. In 1983 he won the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom for Life and Times of Michael K. In 1999, he became the first author to be twice awarded the Booker Prize, this time for his novel, Disgrace. In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The Academy cited the astonishing wealth of variety in Coetzee's stories, many of which are set against the backdrop of apartheid.

In addition to his novels, Coetzee has written numerous essays and interviews. His literary criticism has been published in journals and collected into anthologies.

Good To Know

Described by friends as a reclusive and private man, Coetzee did not make the trip to London in 1984 to receive the Booker Prize for Life and Times of Michael K, nor when he again won the prize for Disgrace in 1999.

His 1977 novel, In the Heart of the Country, was filmed as the motion picture Dust in 1985.

Coetzee has also been active as a translator of Dutch and Afrikaans literature.

In 2002, Coetzee emigrated to Australia.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Maxwell Coetzee
    2. Hometown:
      Adelaide, Australia
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 9, 1940
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cape Town, South Africa
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Cape Town, 1960; M.A., 1963; Ph.D. in Literature, University of Texas, Austin, 1969

Table of Contents

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2007

    A reviewer

    At first, the thought of a memoir written in the third person came as a shock to me. I was very skeptical as to how it would turn out. Surprisingly enough, it works. In his memoir Boyhood, J.M. Coetzee tells of his childhood growing up in apartheid South Africa. And all of the struggles he faces while going through adolescence are shown through a boy we only know as ¿he¿. Because of this detachment I was able to see his childhood from his point of view, while understanding it from the perspective of someone else seeing it. The setting in which his childhood takes place greatly shapes his thoughts and emotions. As someone with mixed English and Afrikaans heritage with no real religious beliefs, he has serious trouble fitting in. After responding to a teacher¿s question of what religion he is he replies Roman Catholic because it reminds him of ancient Rome. After being hissed at by the largely Christian student body he immediately regrets his decision and hopes to be asked again the next day. ¿Then he, who has clearly made a mistake, can correct himself and be a Christian.¿ This fear of being singled out is also shown through his regret for his last name. When told he may be switched into a class with all students of Afrikaans descent, he prepares for the worst. ¿He has a plan for that day¿ he will not go to the Afrikaans classes¿Then he will lock the front door and tell his mother that he is not going back to school, that if she betrays him he will kill himself.¿ It is the incredibly structured social system of his country where everyone has a place that makes his adolescent search for his own identity that much more difficult. In his memoir Coetzee showed me a life I had never heard of in a place I have never seen, and yet it is a life I am familiar with that I can understand. While the scenes he depicts are so unique to him, he is still ultimately telling the story of a boy growing up.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 10, 2009

    Education under Apartheid

    In recollecting his own childhood experiences, J. M. Coetzee's "Boyhood" provides an insightful examination of growing up in South Africa during the years of apartheid. The book provides a very personal account of events and is not afraid to reveal some of the harsh realities of education under apartheid. Another book with a similar theme is M. J. Poynter's "Middleburg: Going to School in Apartheid South Africa." This novel is set during the 1980's and is surprisingly funny and entertaining to read.

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    Posted June 23, 2010

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    Posted January 19, 2009

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