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- Scenes from Provincial Life
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B+ : fascinating but unsettling
See our review for fuller assessment.
Fascinated and puzzled
From the Reviews:
- "It's a very odd, brilliantly executed book that might come across as doodlingly narcissistic if we did not know that it was the work of the notably retiring and austere writer, J. M. Coetzee. If we didn't know that, then the tenor of the book, the glow of puzzled expectation that we bring to it, would be different. (...) Much of this weird book is a meditation on the absurdity of the fame that is the surface noise of a hypothetical immortality. Then there's the grief that throws it all away and in doing so throws it into high relief." - Peter Craven, The Age
- "For all its ambiguous stagings of "truths", Summertime is an oddly moving book that seems liberated by its substitution of a chorus of voices for the contained third person of Boyhood and Youth. Warmer, and closer to the less obscure passions of Coetzee's earlier work, it allows itself the pleasures of the novel." - Delia Falconer, The Australian
- "Where one subject is mystified by a particular aspect of Coetzee's character, another will revisit it with affection; a third will consider it absurd. The reader is absorbed by these reiterations, only to close the book with the sense of being gulled: vast gaps in our knowledge of the man remain. But I do not think this is Coetzee's intention. The author's absence is, rather, a metaphor for other absences. (...) Coetzee's death frees him from the old constraints. Not only does Coetzee dose himself with self-ridicule, he also permits his self-construction some naked displays of emotion." - Geordie Williamson, The Australian
- "Assuming that Summertime is a bona fide self-portrait, it’s the least flattering since Dorian Gray’s." - John Sutherland, Financial Times
- "Of course, Summertime is fiction above all -- "auto-fiction", if you prefer. All the same, it dwells on a time and place where manipulated versions of character and identity could dictate not merely the difference between success and failure, acceptance and rejection, but even life and death. (...) Bleak, chilly but finely calibrated, a deadpan humour anchors Summertime: the human absurdity of a lofty nobody cultivating his "principles" at the edge of an abyss. (...) In Coetzee's recent work, the sheer tricksiness of the narrative ruses can sound off-putting. Rest assured that the artfully voiced self-portraits of these fully realised women yield all the pleasures of more traditional fiction." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
- "Of far more interest than John Coetzee's scratchy existence are the tales told by the interviewees of their relations with him. (...) Billed as the third instalment of a trilogy of fictionalised memoir begun with Boyhood, these "scenes from provincial life" are evocative rather than literal, the impressionistic testimonies forming a stylised work far removed from the conventional nuts and bolts of a curated life. JM Coetzee flourishes within this ambiguous literary distancing (.....) What Summertime offers is a subtle, allusive meditation: an intriguing map of a weak character's constricted heart struggling against the undertow of suspicion within South Africa's claustrophobic, unpoetic, overtly macho society." - James Urquhart, Independent on Sunday
- "It is wonderful stuff. (...) Summertime is offbeat and deliberate, elusive and truthful. Coetzee the artist remains mercury on a spoon." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times
- "And here is Coetzee's ingenious contrivance: his female characters are more real, more palpable, than the ghost-figure who stands in for him. Ingenious, yes; except that the protagonist's refusal to protagonize falls as a dulling, tedious burden on what is more a novelized argument than a novel." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times
- "With all the paraphrases and interruptions and hasty judgments that fill the interviews of Summertime, Coetzee seems to be leading his readers farther from the subject he purportedly set out to explore. (...) By drawing attention to the choices the author has made, the novel ends up moving closer to the subject that the character would rather avoid: his evolution as a writer. He continues to cling to a restrictive notion formulated in his youth; at the same time, he is ready to expose the consequences of this position." - Joanna Scott, The Nation
- "Across these interviews emerges a portrait of the artist as a peripheral figure, someone who evokes the interest of others, but only half-heartedly. Consequently, it seems as though Coetzee's project in Summertime and his other "personal" works is to emphasise his ordinariness: that, aside from a facility with language, a certain amount of cleverness, there is nothing to him -- no great soul or body of experience that separates him from others." - Michael Sayeau, New Statesman
- "It’s tempting to see Summertime as Mr. Coetzee’s attempt to answer critics’ charges of misogyny by offering a quartet of humorous, mature, strong female characters who haven’t much use for their gloomy, self-absorbed author. One can also see them as resistant muses who upstage the writer by putting themselves at the center of a story that is supposed to be, after all, about him. Readers alert to writerly games about art and reality, however, will note that even if they are modeled after actual people, Julia and the rest are literary characters, the inventions of the novelist, who imagined for them the very qualities they think he does not possess. (...) In any case, 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." - Katha Pollitt, The New York Times
- "It is a truism, of course, that even the most faithful and exacting memoir contains an element of invention; but jadedness does little to cushion one’s surprise upon learning -- not from the book itself -- that much of Coetzee’s self-portrait in Summertime is substantially falsified. (...) This is the path of the trilogy as a whole: from the author’s childish sense of himself as special or chosen to an adulthood where such detachment comes at a much greater cost. Still, it is in keeping with that detachment that the nature of the catharsis Coetzee is pursuing in these "memoirs" is ultimately not personal or confessional at all, but aesthetic." - Jonathan Dee, The New York Times Book Review
- "Coetzee gaat in Zomertijd een stap verder dan alleen het schetsen van een onflatteus zelfportret. Hij 'laat' ook zijn werk beoordelen, komt als het ware tegenover zijn eigen oeuvre te staan, en vooral die confrontatie is boeiend. (...) Meer dan een onbarmhartig zelfportret is Zomertijd daarom dit: een afrekening van een land met zijn auteur." - Toef Jaeger, NRC Handelsblad
- "Summertime is both an elegant request that the sum of Coetzee's existence as a public figure should be looked for only in his writing, and ample evidence, once again, why that request should be honoured." - Thomas Jones, The Observer
- "Too cool? Too neat? Too easy? Too lacking in passion? It's too bad the old French girlfriend in the novel couldn't read this novel herself. With its candor and intricate design mixed with elementary passions, it challenges her elementary understanding of Coetzee's work -- even if we eventually come to discover that the facts are inaccurate or possibly even mostly made up." - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle
- "His skill at getting under the skin of his five separate characters is undeniable. Each voice is rendered with such empathy and concision, he seems at times to be almost showing off, reminding us just how good he can be when limiting himself to a more conventional form of fiction. The problem is that the further we go down these narrative byways, the more interested we become in these cameo portraits and the more indifferent we become to Coetzee himself. (...) One admires the art. The writer’s ironic detachment, his playful tweaking of narrative conventions and readers’ expectations, causes a wry curl of the lip. But at the end the reader is left hungering for some form of resolution, an end to this game of bluff and double-bluff." - Michela Wrong, The Spectator
- "All this self-abasement reads very weirdly. (...) Ostensibly, Coetzee projects himself as a marginal, maladroit figure, a failure in love and literature. But is this really unsparing self-dissection or a sophisticated exercise in self-approval ? In Summertime he has in effect drafted his own obituary. Perhaps his next book will come equipped with its own reviews -- all ghosted, in suitably downbeat mode, by JM Coetzee." - David Grylls, Sunday Times
- "As I read this extraordinary book I thought more and more of Kafka -- in particular his hostile and guilt-ridden letter to his father. (...) The cumulative effect of Coetzee’s unblinking honesty and his never-wavering artistic seriousness, is an understanding of the creation of a great writer." - Justin Cartwright, The Telegraph
- "Summertime seems determined to engage in the kind of pact-breaking and genre-troubling Coetzee imagines. If, through the mediating voice of their third-person narration, Boyhood and Youth question what it means to write one’s memoirs, Summertime explodes the very possibility and definition of the autobiographical, so that nothing and everything in the book is, in some sense, true. (...) The book’s complexity of voice, and proliferation of contradictory interpretations about John on the part of the interviewees, seems determined to frustrate those readers who turn to biographies or memoirs -- even overtly fictional ones -- in search of information that might demystify a writer’s art." - Patrick Denman Flanery, Times Literary Supplement
- "Ook in Zomertijd blijft Coetzee de onhandige en niet al te sympathieke kluns uit de eerst twee delen. Vooral in zijn relaties met vrouwen blijft hij pijnlijk vaak in gebreke. Maar de deprimerende sfeer uit Jongensjaren en Portret van een jonge man is afwezig in het aansprekende Zomertijd. De afstand die de blik van de anderen hier creëert, leidt vaak tot zowel lichtvoetige als aangrijpende scènes." - Hans Achterhuis, de Volkskrant
- "Alle puzzelstukjes hebben we daarmee in handen en ja, we leggen ze gedwee. We begrijpen wat Coetzee wil zeggen. Dat zijn kunstenaarschap uit allerindividueelst menselijk tekort voortkomt, dat hij pas volledig kon zijn -- als de J.M. Coetzee die als schrijver bestaat -- door zijn ervaringen en schuldgevoel te sublimeren. We prijzen ons gelukkig met zijn oeuvre waarin hij hoogtepunt aan hoogtepunt rijgt, nu ook weer Zomertijd." - Jeroen Vullings, Vrij Nederland
- "The novel is part confessional, part tease, a wholly trumped-up story in which a callow biographer sets out to get the true goods on the novelist. The result is an uneven patchwork of notes and interviews in which informants produce damning evidence that John Coetzee is less master than human fiasco, less hero than inarticulate brute." - Marie Arana, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The subject of Summertime is 'John Coetzee'.
As far as many of the autobiographical details that the general reader might be familiar with go, 'John Coetzee' bears a strong resemblance to author J.M.Coetzee: both have South African backgrounds, and returned there after stays abroad, in the UK and United States; both wrote works such as Dusklands, Disgrace, and two fictional memoirs, Boyhood and Youth; both won the Nobel Prize.
There is one major difference, however: 'John Coetzee' is dead.
Summertime is an odd and somewhat creepy exercise in auto/biography and self-analysis, and while Boyhood and Youth were written in the third person, Coetzee here tries to remove himself even further -- while yet remaining at the very center of the book.
In this alternate reality, 'John Coetzee' also planned a third memoir, after Boyhood and Youth, but it: "never saw the light of day".
A biographer, Vincent, has now decided to follow 'John Coetzee''s trail, and tell the story of this "stage in his life", his years in South Africa in the early 1970s, after he returned from the United States, a period during which he worked as a teacher, in various capacities, and also published his first book, Dusklands.
The way Summertime is presented, however, suggests that this is not the final product, as it collects the material the biographer presumably plans to rely on in writing his work but reads very much like a research-work in progress.
It is noteworthy that Coetzee gives 'John Coetzee' the first and final words: the opening and closing sections of the novel consist of notebook fragments from and/or covering the period in question.
They also include a few annotations, about which the biographer claims:
Coetzee wrote them himself.
They are memos to himself, written in 1999 or 2000, when he was thinking of adapting those particular entries for a book.
The five other sections of the book each center on a different person who knew 'John Coetzee' during that period, and mainly take the form of interviews the biographer conducts with them.
Some of the conversation partners offer expansive answers -- telling their stories, as it were -- while other exchanges are more of a rapid-fire back and forth of questions and answers.
In one instance the biographer reads back what he has made of an interview with his subject, Margot, explaining:
I cut out my prompts and questions and fixed up the prose to read as an uninterrupted narrative spoken in your voice.
But the version presented here includes interruptions and further questions and elaborations as the subject comments on this revised version.
Here and elsewhere, the biographer promises to take into account his subjects' concerns about what information is related, and how:
One final thing: if you are planning to quote me, would you make sure I have a chance to check the text first ?
But though he promises things like: "I'll cut it. No problem", the text, as presented to the reader, appears to be entirely verbatim, and includes (presumably) all the information his subjects also wish withheld or reformulated, down to the: "one thing, entre nous, which you must not repeat in your book" (but which is repeated in this book ...).
These are (it would seem) the 'raw' transcripts -- though, as in the case of Margot's, they aren't all entirely raw: in that case it is a transcript of both the revised earlier one and the reactions to those revisions .....
Some of the stories are also filtered by intermediaries, as the conversation with the Brazilian-born Adriana, for example, is conducted with an interpreter (though this is not immediately revealed); elsewhere, Vincent relies on "a colleague from South Africa to check that I had the Afrikaans words right".
Coetzee does not stress the unreliability of the narrative(s), but he hints at it constantly.
The biographer, too, questions records -- though not (openly) the ones he is presenting: he reacts only with "[Silence.]" when it is suggested his interview subjects may have their own agendas -- in explaining why he has chosen to build his biographical work in this way, relying on others' stories rather than Coetzee's own words:
I have been through the letters and diaries.
What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record -- not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer.
In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing the same for his own eyes, or perhaps posterity
(Which begs the question what the hell
an author who presents a mock-memoir of this Summertime-sort is up to -- and certainly confirms that, whatever it is, it is anything but reliable.
This despite Coetzee's presentation, which, with its essentially documentary form, can not but lull readers into believing that some truths are being conveyed.)
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.
(The choice of provisional over final judgment is interesting: Coetzee may have been willing to kill himself off, but isn't quite ready to tie up all the loose ends and offer a summa.
Just as the book's fragmentary, willfully incomplete form suggests, Coetzee sees himself (and his self-analysis) as a work in progress, with much revision of the accumulated records still needed for any neat and tidy summing up.)
In one of the accounts 'John Coetzee' claims: "I don't know any stories", and Summertime is a work of fiction so deeply rooted in the factual that it does (or at least seems to) without any pure invention -- what could be considered story-telling, in its most absolute sense.
But as his biographer recognized, 'John Coetzee' is a fictioneer (and as the reader recognizes, J.M Coetzee is even more obviously one): everything is a flight of the imagination, no matter how hard he tries to ground it in any reality.
The stories that are presented here are the interactions five people had with 'John Coetzee' in the early 1970s: four women and one man.
(Vincent also reveals that these are the only five accounts he will be relying on for his biography.)
It's an unusual approach, all the more so because, as Julia, the first interview-subject, insists when relating her story:
I really was the main character.
John really was a minor character
We essentially only get their versions -- and there is only so much they can tells about the man.
Yet 'John Coetzee' remains an elusive figure to these five as well; even intimacy is not very revealing.
They have their ideas and thoughts about him, and can diagnose some of his failures -- "he did not love anybody, he was not built for love" -- but beyond that he remains a shadowy figure.
A minor character.
(Yet he is also the dominant presence in the book: Plato is mentioned, and 'John Coetzee' is presented as a Platonic shadow.
Even if, in our cave, we can't see him, we are pushed towards coming up with out own sense of him based on what information is available.)
'John Coetzee''s failures in relationships are the central issues Coetzee examines in Summertime.
This includes his relationship with his father, with whom he lives.
Repeatedly described as sickly and looking older than he is, 'John Coetzee''s father is a withdrawn, friendless man now in a state of decline.
The final notebook entries, with which the novel closes, provide some background about the man -- and also about the burden he has become to 'John Coetzee'; tellingly, the complications are left unresolved.
More of the examples involve women, as 'John Coetzee''s hapless romantic (and sexual) efforts are described.
As Julia puts it:
In his lovemaking I now think there was an autistic quality.
I offer this not as a criticism, but as a diagnosis
His efforts at wooing are hardly any better .....
In a rare section where he is allowed to speak for himself (refracted, of course, through these intermediaries) he remembers his six-year-old self:
And all the time I was thinking, So this is what it means to be in love !
Because -- let me confess it -- I was in love with you.
And ever since that day, being in love with a woman has meant being free to say everything on my heart.
Yet he fares poorly with these women, and poorly in unburdening his heart.
It's no coincidence that what he thinks he recognizes as love -- and what he clings to, lifelong -- comes at an age when physical impossibility removes any sexual component; in adulthood, he is able (and presumably eager) to go through the motions (to Schubert, in one particularly misguided effort) but comes across as, at best ... autistic.
The failures are various, but the conclusion the women reach, sooner or later, about the relationships is always the same: "It was not sustainable."
(It's the final subject, Sophie, who sums things up that way without going into details; it could come across as cryptic, but it's not: little more need be said about 'John Coetzee''s intimate relationships.)
While 'John Coetzee''s writings are only incidentally dealt with, his biographer does elicit some literary judgements.
Dusklands is described as: "a project in self-administered therapy" (a description that fits Summertime, too, as J.M.Coetzee uses it to come to terms with his father, his relationships with women, and South Africa), and it is suggested that writing became: "a sort of unending cathartic exercise" for him.
Sophie, meanwhile, says she lost interest in his work after Disgrace:
In general I would say that his work lacks ambition.
The control of the elements is too tight.
Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing.
Too cool, too neat, I would say.
Too lacking in passion.
Coetzee makes it a bit too easy on himself with the self-criticism: while often accused of being passionless, and certainly always in control of his elements, he revels in medium-deforming -- including, of course, in this very book (but also in works from Dusklands to
Diary of a Bad Year).
And among the most revealing asides in Summertime comes when Vincent asks: "Am I taking too many liberties ?"
Does Coetzee take too many liberties ?
This is a very elaborate game: so obviously based on fact, twisted into fiction (especially in removing himself from the scene by literally wiping himself from the face of the earth), the presentation meant to look almost sloppy -- like a set of notes waiting to be edited into a book -- yet obviously very painstakingly and carefully put together like this.
The overlay of fact and fiction remains uncomfortable, but then this is meant to be a very uncomfortable book (as the descriptions of his love-interests alone would assure).
Yet it's hard also not to see it as a vanity project.
Coetzee is an incredibly talented writer and a master craftsman -- and, yes, this is a meticulously crafted book, and one of its weaknesses is that it is so obviously a construct.
Summertime is fascinating, but leaves one very uneasy -- about everything from Coetzee himself to the very idea of fiction and autobiography.
- M.A.Orthofer, 5 September 2009
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Other books by J.M. Coetzee under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
John M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940.
He has won many literary prizes, and was the 2003 Nobel laureate in literature.
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© 2009-2010 the complete review
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