Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II

Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II

by J. M. Coetzee
     
 

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"The narrator of Youth, a student in the South Africa of the 1950s, has long been plotting an escape from his native country: from the stifling love of his mother, from a father whose failures haunt him, and from what he is sure is impending revolution. Studying mathematics, reading poetry, saving money, he tries to ensure that when he arrives in the real world,… See more details below

Overview

"The narrator of Youth, a student in the South Africa of the 1950s, has long been plotting an escape from his native country: from the stifling love of his mother, from a father whose failures haunt him, and from what he is sure is impending revolution. Studying mathematics, reading poetry, saving money, he tries to ensure that when he arrives in the real world, wherever that may be, he will be prepared to experience life to its full intensity, and transform it into art." Arriving at last in London, however, he finds neither poetry nor romance. Instead he succumbs to the monotony of life as a computer programmer, from which random, loveless affairs offer no relief. Devoid of inspiration, he stops writing. An awkward colonial, a constitutional outsider, he begins a dark pilgrimage in which he is continually tested and continually found wanting.

Editorial Reviews

Penelope Mesic
Most authors contemplating their younger days brim with a naive self-love. But early in the second volume of his wonderful autobiography, J.M. Coetzee, writing in the third person, gives a strikingly spare and unsentimental portrait of himself as he was at university. Studying mathematics and working four part-time jobs, he was proving something that only fledglings need to prove, "that each man is an island; that you don't need parents." The two-time Booker Prize winner chooses to describe himself physically at the least flattering moment possible: cheaply dressed and caught in a downpour, trudging along a South African road in the intermittent glare of headlights. The young Coetzee consoles himself that "being dull and odd-looking were part of a purgatory he must pass through in order to emerge, one day, into the light" of love and art. This agonized mix of vanity and despair, self-loathing and consolatory fantasy, all in a provincial setting, is so sharply accurate an evocation of late adolescence that one is reminded of Anton Chekhov's young characters: comic, pitiable and quite possibly brilliant, desperate to try their intelligence in a larger arena.

For Coetzee, that cosmopolitan sphere was London, and his younger self arrives there from South Africa in the 1950s, with visions of poetry readings, love affairs and eventual fame. In fact, he gets a job writing computer programs for IBM and dwells in loneliness, consoling himself with the thought that as poets once stupefied themselves with absinthe and opium, he now submits to the rigors of "soul-destroying office work." His personal life is equally empty and uneventful. He is too self-centered, self-conscious andfearful to love anyone, although he does manage to make one girl pregnant and several unhappy.

The effectiveness of this self-portrait comes from its absolutely unmediated quality. There are no apologies made, no reference to later moments of enlightenment or mitigation. Yet there is also no doubt that this gauche youngster is utterly remarkable. In the Reading Room of the British Museum, he delves into the obscure memoirs of South African pioneers and is fired with the idea of writing a fictional account as authentic in its details, but "whose response to the world around it will be alive."

The question he asks himself in relation to this venture hints at the greatness of the writer he will become: "Where will he find the common knowledge of a bygone world, a knowledge too humble to know it is knowledge?" The ability to value what is humble, ordinary and therefore powerfully truthful is a quantum leap for the young man who so recently compared himself unfavorably to absinthe drinkers and libertines, and who searched for a mysterious beauty to be his muse. He notices that poetry and yearning seem to die away simultaneously, and fears that growing up means the extinction of all passions.

He needn't have worried. He soon develops a surer sense of his own taste, and he becomes inspired after reading Samuel Beckett's Watt. With passions intact, he is cultivating a nascent sense of authentic self. One proof is that he suddenly finds, entering his third year in England, that he enjoys playing cricket with his fellow programmers. He had previously renounced the game "on the grounds that team sports were incompatible with the life of a poet," but discovers that he is surprisingly skillful at it. One of the few mentions of happiness, and the only use of the word "ecstasy," comes in writing about these lunchtime matches.

And yet, his rare sense of well-being, of happy bachelorhood, comes when his sense of the world is growing more complex. His computer work turns out to support the British government's missile program, and he is often sent to a facility "ugly with the ugliness of a place that knows no one will look at it or care to look at it; perhaps with the ugliness of a place that knows, when war comes, it will be blown off the face of the earth." He recognizes himself as an enabler, an accomplice in the Cold War.

His dilemma, initially a moral one, becomes an artistic one as well. For while he can imagine doing the right thing, he can't imagine any poetry arising out of it: "The right thing is boring," he thinks. Abruptly the reader is confronted with a cliff-hanger ending. Having been brought to the brink of artistic discovery, we feel Coetzee's youthful sense of impasse, his despair, his bafflement, his more adult self-loathing. He stands like a man on the edge of a great abyss, amid obscurity, fear, self-doubt and confusion. To discard what he has been told and act in accordance with his own true emotional responses to the world—to women, to cricket, to books, to political injustice—is something he is just learning to do. In that growing sense of authenticity lies the power that will carry him forward, to the passionately honest novels, including Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace, that he will eventually write. But to see that bold and desperate leap forward, alas, we will have to wait for the next volume.
Publishers Weekly
Picking up where his memoir Boyhood left off, Coetzee chronicles his coming of age in South Africa and London during the 1960s. Writing in the third person, Coetzee narrates the story of a young mathematics student named John who is hungry for excitement, adventure, and mystery. Increasingly dissatisfied with his inability to suck life's marrow in his native South Africa and also afraid of being conscripted into the army, John runs off to London to seek his fortune. He finds a job as a computer programmer, but his heart's great desire is to burn with the inner flame of the artist, so he spends his spare time writing poetry (he worships Ezra Pound) and searching in London bookshops for poetry journals. Along the way, he assuages his loneliness with sexual affairs, only to become lonelier when he realizes that he cannot offer these women a clue to the darkness that lies inside him. D.H. Lawrence meets Alan Paton in Coetzee's sometimes brilliant, sometimes tedious account of his sexual exploits, revolutionary fervor, and artistic evolution. This second memoir by the author of Waiting for the Barbarians and other popular novels is recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 31502.] Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Picking up where his memoir Boyhood left off, Coetzee chronicles his coming of age in South Africa and London during the 1960s. Writing in the third person, Coetzee narrates the story of a young mathematics student named John who is hungry for excitement, adventure, and mystery. Increasingly dissatisfied with his inability to suck life's marrow in his native South Africa and also afraid of being conscripted into the army, John runs off to London to seek his fortune. He finds a job as a computer programmer, but his heart's great desire is to burn with the inner flame of the artist, so he spends his spare time writing poetry (he worships Ezra Pound) and searching in London bookshops for poetry journals. Along the way, he assuages his loneliness with sexual affairs, only to become lonelier when he realizes that he cannot offer these women a clue to the darkness that lies inside him. D.H. Lawrence meets Alan Paton in Coetzee's sometimes brilliant, sometimes tedious account of his sexual exploits, revolutionary fervor, and artistic evolution. This second memoir by the author of Waiting for the Barbarians and other popular novels is recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 31502.] Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Continuing the third-person narrative begun in Boyhood (1997), noted novelist Coetzee (Disgrace, 1999, etc.) pens another morose, yearning, revealing memoir. The author begins with his late adolescence in South Africa during the 1950s, a time marked for him by confused and confusing sexual initiations, a bookish devotion to the writings of Ezra Pound and other literary modernists, and growing self-awareness. “Wrapped up though he is in his private worries,” Coetzee writes of his earlier self, “he cannot fail to see that the country around him is in turmoil.” When his mathematics tutorial is interrupted by armed policemen putting down a strike, the young man resolves to leave the country for England. Desperate for work, he takes a job as a computer programmer at IBM while devoting his free time to writing a master’s thesis on the novels of Ford Madox Ford. The setting has changed, but his life remains much the same: a sequence of furtive gropings, longings from afar, and gnawing dissatisfactions. “He has come to London to do what is impossible in South Africa: to explore the depths,” Coetzee writes. “Without descending into the depths one cannot be an artist. But what exactly are the depths? He had thought that trudging down icy streets, his heart numb with loneliness, was the depths. But perhaps the real depths are different, and come in unexpected form.” Coetzee labors on, misery piling on misery, until he finally has had enough and leaves his IBM post, much to the astonishment of the careerists and teacart ladies who are his daily companions. Free for only a few weeks of bohemian glory, he finds that in order to escape deportation he must find another job, and so he again takes work asa programmer. There we leave him, grim in the certainty that he will never escape the soul-deadening work of crunching numbers and riding suburban trains. A fine portrait of the artist as a young drudge.
From the Publisher
“One of the finest authors writing in the English language today.” -- The Times

“Brilliant as a period piece, Youth also constitutes a remarkable feat of self-destruction.” -- Sunday Times

Youth shares with Hanif Kureshi’s Intimacy and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair a rare combination of lived experience, expressed with eloquence, and a fierce uncompromising honesty. A masterpiece.” -- Harpers & Queen

“Coetzee is one of the greatest writers of our time.” -- Los Angeles Times

“Coetzee is able to dissect the human psyche with a surgeon’s touch.” -- The Hamilton Spectator

Of the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace:
“The richness of Disgrace lies in the elegant and allegorical role reversals, the spare symbolism of the language and in the characterization. We may not like David Lurie, but in Coetzee’s skillful hands we can’t dismiss him without pity.” -- The Globe and Mail

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780142002001
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/07/2003
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
176
Sales rank:
909,918
Product dimensions:
5.04(w) x 7.71(h) x 0.48(d)
Age Range:
18 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

A searing portrait of a young colonial in early 1960s London – from the two-time winner of the Booker Prize.

Set against the background of the 1960s - Sharpeville, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam – Youth is a remarkable portrait of a consciousness, isolated and adrift, turning in on itself. The narrator of Youth, a student in the South Africa of the 1950s, studies mathematics, reads poetry, saves money, trying to ensure that when he escapes to the real world, wherever that may be, he will be prepared to experience life to its full intensity and transform it into art. Arriving in London, however, he finds neither poetry nor romance. Instead he succumbs to the monotony of life as a computer programmer, from which random, loveless affairs offer no relief. Devoid of inspiration, he stops writing. An awkward colonial, a constitutional outsider, he begins a dark pilgrimage in which he is continually tested and continually found wanting.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"A delight to read: it will make you angry, amused, scornful and sympathetic by turns." (San Francisco Chronicle)

"Coetzee makes a book of melancholy beauty and quiet force." (Vince Passaro, O Magazine)

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