Summertime

Summertime

3.4 13
by J. M. Coetzee
     
 

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J.M. Coetzee's latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, will soon be available from Viking

"Not since Disgrace, has he written with such urgency and feeling." -The New Yorker (on Summertime)

Nobel Prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee's new book follows a young biographer as he works on a book about the late writer, John

Overview

J.M. Coetzee's latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, will soon be available from Viking

"Not since Disgrace, has he written with such urgency and feeling." -The New Yorker (on Summertime)

Nobel Prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee's new book follows a young biographer as he works on a book about the late writer, John Coetzee. The biographer embarks on a series of interviews with people who were important to Coetzee during the period when he was "finding his feet as a writer"-in his thirties and sharing a run-down cottage in the suburbs of Cape Town with his widowed father. Their testimonies create an image of an awkward, reserved, and bookish young man who finds it difficult to connect with the people around him. An innovative and inspired work of fiction-incisive, elegant, and often surprisingly funny- Summertime allows one of the most revered writers of our time to imagine his own life with a critical and unsparing eye.

Editorial Reviews

Katha Pollitt
The intriguing book we have in our hands is a collage. Fragments from Mr. Coetzee's (or "John's") notebooks bookend five interviews conducted some time in the future by a young biographer, whose name is given only as Mr. Vincent, with five people who knew Mr. Coetzee (or "John") around the time he was living with his retired father in a Capetown suburb, teaching English, and writing, unbeknownst to most who knew him, his first two novels…it's a mark of Mr. Coetzee's power as a storyteller that he makes a compelling, indeed, racing, narrative out of these hidden wheels within wheels. Even those who miss the intensity of Boyhood and Youth will find themselves turning pages as fast as they can.
—The New York Times
Marie Arana
…part confessional, part tease, a wholly trumped-up story in which a callow biographer sets out to get the true goods on the novelist…in the end, trying to parse Coetzee's novel about Coetzee is a bit like trying to pry open the goose that laid the golden egg. What does it matter what kind of man he is? Why should we care if he is cripplingly shy, makes love like an automaton, is unwilling to strike the authorial pose? Does it really make any difference to the art to know that the artist doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't eat meat, goes virtually catatonic at dinner parties; that he surrounds himself with high walls, routinely declines interviews, refuses to trot to podiums to accept a prize? As Coetzee puts it in this defiantly heretical novel, a writer is "just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but, frankly, not a giant."
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Nobel laureate and two-time Booker-winner Coetzee has been shortlisted for the third time for this powerful novel, a semisequel to the fictionalized memoirs Boyhood and Youth that takes the form of a young biographer's interviews with colleagues of the late author John Coetzee. To Dr. Julia Frankl, who briefly sought in Coetzee deliverance from her husband, he was “not fully human”; to his cousin, Margot Jonker, he is boring, ridiculous and misguided; and to Sophie Denoël, an expert in African literature, Coetzee is an underwhelming writer with “no original insight into the human condition.” The harshest characterization—and also the best of the interviews—comes from Adriana Nascimento, a Brazilian emigrant who met Coetzee when both were teachers in Cape Town; she was repulsed by the intellectual's attempts at courtship. “He is nothing,” she says, “was nothing... an embarrassment.” The biographer's efforts to describe his subject ultimately result in an examination that reaches through fiction and memoir to grasp what the traditional record leaves out. (Jan.)
Library Journal
In a clever and compelling new novel, Coetzee (Disgrace) probes the life of late South African novelist John Coetzee, whom a young English biographer has begun researching. Coetzee draws on fragments from his own journals to tell the story of a writer. Sandwiched between the journal excerpts are interviews with five people—his cousin Margot, a married woman with whom Coetzee had an affair, a dancer whose young daughter Coetzee taught English, a university colleague, and Martin, a man with whom Coetzee had competed for a university position. From these perspectives, the writer emerges as an introspective loner whose lack of concern for others (demonstrated by his inability to care compassionately for his father, who lives with him) verges on misanthropy. His complete misunderstanding of the workings of the human heart generates writing that is technically playful but dispassionate, yet this distance allows him to peer into the human psyche in ways that others cannot. VERDICT Anyone captivated by the themes of distraction and the search for home that characterize the writings of Kafka, W.G. Sebald, Milan Kundera, and Philip Roth will want to travel with Coetzee on this journey toward home. Another brilliant excursion into the nature of writing and the complexities of place and the making of a personal identity. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/09.]—Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Evanston, IL
Kirkus Reviews
Defiantly inconclusive some-kind-of-fiction from Booker- and Nobel Prize-winning Coetzee (Diary of a Bad Year, 2007, etc.). Navel-gazing reached new heights in the recent work of this South African-born, now Australian-resident writer. The good news is that his latest novel, closely related to the earlier autobiographies Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), is much more engaging than its recent predecessors dominated by the presence and influence of Coetzee's (really) annoying surrogate Elizabeth Costello. She isn't consulted during the parade of interviews conducted here by would-be biographer Mr. Vincent with five people who knew the late (!) eminent and notoriously reclusive writer "John Coetzee." The period investigated is the 1970s, when fictional Coetzee, retreating from an embryonic and unfulfilling academic/literary career abroad, returned to live in Cape Town with his widowed father. We learn that John's affair with a vigorous married woman couldn't survive her growing conviction that he "did not love anybody, was not built for love," that "sex with him lacked all thrill." The cousin he had loved when both were children later found him unsociable and emotionless. Brazilian dance teacher Adriana and former colleague Sophie failed similarly to achieve intimacy with John, and another colleague, Martin J, pronounces the fictional Coetzee's withdrawal symptomatic of his fear of human connection. Numerous distancing devices (e.g., Mr. Vincent's reshaping of Margot's disjointed responses into a coherent narrative) call into question everything "revealed" to the interviewer, while calmly keeping the reader at arm's-and mind's-length. The result is a fascinating hybrid, weakened only by Mr.Vincent's pace-killing interruptions, that becomes simultaneously enlightening and amusingly evasive. The real Coetzee's austere integrity and terse candor make this the best yet of his ongoing self-interrogations.
Mark Sarvas
John Coetzee is dead, and you can feel his relief on almost every page of Summertime. It's hard to imagine a more liberating conceit for an author as private and elusive as J. M. Coetzee, who has artfully constructed a second self through a trilogy of third person "fictionalized memoirs" -- to use his U.K. publisher's inelegant designation -- of which Summertime is the concluding volume. Viking, Coetzee's American publisher, stakes its territory more firmly: "Fiction by the author of Disgrace" declares the book's cover. Clearly, those looking for a faithful rendering of the man in question should consider themselves warned.

In a 1999 profile in The New Statesman, the writer Rian Malan called Coetzee "a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication," and added, "A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word."But killing himself off in his latest bookhas had a salutary effect, and given how much energy Coetzee devotes to speaking ill of the dead, it might come as a surprise that Summertime is quite funny. The surprise is all the greater given the almost arid seriousness that informs Coetzee's humorless but morally engaged body of work, a Booker- and Nobel-winning oeuvre forged in the crucible of apartheid.

At any rate, Summertime bears a closer relation to Coetzee's last novel, Diary of a Bad Year, than to the preceding memoirs, Boyhood and Youth. The self-portrait is familiar and consistent: "He is well aware that his failure as a writer and his failure as a lover are so closely parallel that they might as well be the same thing," he writes in the closing pages of Youth, and not much has changed. But whereas the first two memoirs are conventionally linear in form, Summertime recalls Bad Year's elliptical, postmodern form.

Summertime is composed of a series of five transcribed interviews conducted by an Englishman called Mr. Vincent, who is at work on an unauthorized, posthumous biography. The interviews, bookended by unfinished fragments presumably from the notebooks of John Coetzee, focus on his hopelessness with women: Julia recalls a brief affair with Coetzee; his alternately adoring and frustrated cousin Margot listens and comments as Vincent reads back his rewriting of their earlier interview; Adriana, the Brazilian dance instructor and mother of one of Coetzee's students, remembers rebuffing his feeble advances; Martin J., a fellow academic and the lone male, coolly appraises his famous friend; and Sophie, another fleeting love interest, recalls their brief, politically tinged affair. (Interestingly, the fictional Coetzee only has affairs with married women -- or perhaps that's all his biographer cares about. Summertime forces us to constantly reconsider our interpretations of what we're reading.) Out of this kaleidoscopic collage emerges a portrait of the artist as a young man, although Coetzee -- speaking through Martin J. -- warns us: "It would be very, very naïve to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life."

Such disavowal is typical of Coetzee's invigorating shell game with the truth. Certainly, the numerous diversions from the actual facts of Coetzee's life -- no mention is made of his marriage and children, for example, which would not conform with the asexual self-portrait he paints -- can be taken as rebukes to those who think writers can be known through anything other than their work. As the novel's stories unfold -- and Summertime is inarguably a novel - the contradictions merely deepen. Unwilling interviewees all, Coetzee's intercessors seem determined to thwart Vincent's more prurient desires even as they continue to reveal deeply personal histories despite themselves.

Summertime operates on so many levels that it would require a review of many thousands of words to adequately convey all that is at play in this witty, tricky book. At its heart, though, is a refreshing disdain for the restraint of genres -- a disdain surprising, perhaps , from a writer known for his extreme formality, his great care, care which has in the past tipped into chilliness. But here Coetzee is almost mischievously consumed with reminding us time and time again, pace Magritte, Ceci n'est pas la vérité.

His would-be biographer is scarcely burdened by fealty to the truth. He is rebuked more than once by Margot for "putting words of your own in my mouth" and "just making things up." As does Coetzee himself, of course, animating all the voices that speak on his behalf, and reminding us that all biographies are works of imaginative sympathy, which might make them readable but poses fundamental questions about their value, a value Coetzee seems at pains throughout Summertime to undermine. (Vincent's willingness to cut and change things to meet his subjects' wishes does the genre's practitioners little credit.) Along similar lines, here's Julia reassuring Vincent on her suspiciously precise recall of long-ago conversations:

So let me be candid: as far as the dialogue is concerned, I am making it up as I go along. Which I presume is permitted, since we are talking about a writer. What I am telling you may not be true to the letter, but it is true to the spirit, be assured of that.

Since his Booker-winning masterpiece, Disgrace, Coetzee has increasingly focused on the slippage of narrative, its inherent unreliability, and his recent works have all been challengingly metafictional. Elizabeth Costello combines lectures and essays which many took to speak on behalf of its author; in Slow Man, Costello returns to interrupt the dramatic proceedings and attempt to assert her authorial agency over the novel's events, a player in her own fiction. Diary of Bad Year is a multi-tracked collection of essays and reflections and voices that literally split the pages they fill. Coetzee is clearly as interested in how we tell the stories we tell and what the effect of their being told is -- a literary Uncertainty Principle, if you will -- as he is in the stories themselves. The preoccupation isn't exactly new to the author: Coetzee's brilliant Foe posits that the story of Robinson Crusoe was brought to Daniel Defoe by one Susan Barton. (Vincent's suggestion to Adriana that she might have served as the model for Barton is one of Summertime's many intertextual games.)

Coetzee appears entirely disinterested in straight answers -- seems profoundly suspicious of them, in fact. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003, his lecture was another piece of fiction, returning him to a Defoe who seemed merely the latest in a line of Coetzee stand-ins: "It seemed to him, coming from his island, where until Friday arrived he lived a silent life, that there was too much speech in the world."

There's a moment of great poignancy in Summertime, when Coetzee and his cousin Margot are stranded out in the desert, the deceased pickup truck yet another of many testaments to Coetzee's ineffectiveness, his lack of manliness. "Tell me a story," Margot asks the writer as they kill time. "I don't know any stories," her hapless cousin, the future Nobel laureate, replies, and suggestively recites a passage from Lucky's soliloquy in Waiting for Godot before reverting into his habitual silence, a silence traditional narrative can do little to illuminate.

There is no upside in trying to summarize Coetzee in all his complexity, without subverting the book review as he subverts the novel. But it's safe to say that he seems to be telling us: don't trust memories; don't trust biographers or biographies; don't trust narrative; don't trust the written word; don't trust the novel, the novelist, the professional liar. Where, then, are consolations to be found in such a seemingly forbidding perspective? Here Coetzee brings to mind Graham Greene, who insisted, "When we are not sure, we are alive." Some will find this worldview cold and damning; others will find it a congenial challenge, opaque but inspiring. Either way, his message is clear: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. --Mark Sarvas

Mark Sarvas' debut novel, Harry, Revised, has been sold in a dozen countries around the world. He is host of the literary blog The Elegant Variation and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780143118459
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/26/2010
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
418,550
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

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

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Summertime 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why does B&N shipbooks via messenger and not by post or UPS like other companies? I've never had such trouble getting a book delivered. Also, why are B&N books cheaper online than if I actually visit a store? Might be time to cancel that B&N membership.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Seldom do you read about a character who openly reveals himself as Coetzee has done. I read a review of this book in Oprah and was inspired to buy the book because I recognized the man in my own husband who has Asperger Syndrome. I know this was a "Fiction", but even so. A brave and interesting man.
mcatest More than 1 year ago
Entertaining, intriguing, well-wriiten prose. Intellectually stimulating! http://mcatprep.yolasite.com/ <a href=http://mcatprep.yolasite.com/>M Prep</a>
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MohitManohar More than 1 year ago
If you've not read any of Coetzee's book, this will probably not be the one to begin with (Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, etc should be more like it). Summertime is a brilliant book from Coetzee in the sense that it empowers him with the perspective to imagine his own life and he does that brilliantly, unflinchingly. Brainy, well-written (seeing that it is from a master writer) and subtly funny, this book belongs to a different level of fiction.