J.M. Coetzee – Summertime


And so, my Booker shortlist (2009) journey continues with Coetzee’s fictional memoir, which completes the trilogy, already containing Boyhood and Youth. I haven’t read either of them, so, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Summertime, although my experience with Coetzee told me it wouldn’t be a very “summertime” book. Needless to say, I was right!

However, this is a well-written, clever book, which comes across as part fictional, part real. A research student, Mr. Vincent, is planning to write a biography of the Nobel Prize winner after his death. After scouring the late author’s journals, and reading his books, Vincent interviews five people he deems important to Coetzee in the 1970s – the time this novel focuses on.

The novel is essentially paraphrasing the interviews, with the interviewees comments interlaced with the interviewer’s questions, so that it reads as a conversation. Through these conversations, we get a glimpse into the life and times of John C (see what I did there?), as he perceives himself through the eyes of his cousins, friends, lovers and acquaintances.

Coetzee’s well-known to be a recluse, and this novel affirms that, with its self-deprecating prose, and harsh insights – some of which may be true, and most of which is pure fabrication!

“Coetzee was never a popular writer. By that I do not simply mean that his books did not sell well. I also mean that the public never took him to their collective heart. There was an image of him in the public realm as a cold and supercilious intellectual, an image he did nothing to dispel. Indeed one might even say he encouraged it.

Julia, the first interviewee, refers to John as a “cold fish“, while his cousin thinks he’s “stuck up“. A lady he was supposedly in love with says, “Not sexless. Solitary. Not made for conjugal life. Not made for the company of women,” while one of his teaching partners describes his writing as being far from great: “Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy, too lacking in passion. That is all.

However, while this is almost a fascinating revelation on Coetzee, it does raise a number of pertinent questions: Just because Coetzee won the Nobel Prize, does he deserve the attention he’s getting? Specially, as Vincent is looking for a “story”, and all he’s getting is snippets that show Coetzee’s unsocial, slightly disembodied personality.

And, what drives us to look after our parents, after a certain age? Is it a responsibility? Is it a necessity? And, can we run away from that filial duty? Or, do we succumb to it? More importantly, is it about love? Or, the right thing to do?

Again, in a typically Coetzee fashion, he touches upon life in South Africa in the 1970s, as the social climate was slowly changing, but the gap between the Afrikaner and the white man was still vast. He talks of how people fled the country, in “stormy times“, and how people returned when they had nowhere else to go. There’s also an element of the interests of black students, and white students, and how they differ – specially when you toss in the “radical black students“.

It’s a thought-provoking gentle book – not as hard to read as some of his other books – but, it still draws you in, and lets you peep into the heart and mind of someone who’s almost considered socially inept, despite his genius. He might not be the most loveable person out there, but his self-criticism, romanticism, affection and determination really grew on me, and I half-wish I had the opportunity of knowing him, and arguing with him: principles over pragmatism. That makes two of us.

Rating: 4.5

10 Responses to “J.M. Coetzee – Summertime”

  1. Fantastic review, I really want to read this! I love the extract you include. Self-deprecation is always pleasing, if not over done, and it sounds as if he gets the balance right.

    I’m currently reading Disgrace, my first Coetzee ever, but despite enjoying it immensely I still have a sneaking desire to be reading Summertime. Still, from what you say, you probably have to have read some other Coetzee first to really appreciate what he does in Summertime?

  2. You enjoyed this a lot more than I did. I became frustrated by the idea of this book. I didn’t like not knowing what was true and became annoyed by the writing style. I think I’ll avoid the first two in the trilogy!

  3. The indented quote is one of my favourites from the book. I found it such a rewarding and thought-provoking read and I am glad that you did too. I’m not sure that I would want to debate with Coetzee; I am far more content to leave him to the solitariness he so craves but I definitely think he’s an interesting chap. This is a book that resonates and that I continue to think of after that last page.

  4. Hi!

    The quote does make it sound quite a powerful read. I’m going to write this in my notebook of ‘Books to look out for in the future.’

    Great review!

  5. I’ve read one Coetzee (Michael K), but the concept of this one certainly sounds interesting!

  6. @Sarah : I honestly think you should read a couple of Coetzees before reading this book, for it’ll enrich the experience. Disgrace is brilliant, but my favourite Coetzee remains Diary Of A Bad Year. Check it out. :)

    @Jackie : I can see why, but, I think that’s why I loved the book. It was up to me to decide which parts of the story I wanted to believe, and which parts I didn’t. I think there’s a whole chunk in the book, that talks of Vincent not being sure about how much is true in Coetzee’s journals, for, we all make our own story as we go along. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this as much as I did.

    @Claire : I think the last page actually hits you harder than the rest of the book : the whole thing with his father. lol @ leaving him alone to his solitariness. By the way, was I alone in wanting to read his poems after the book ended?

    @Sassy Brit : Do! Looking forward to hearing what you think of it then.

    @rebeccareid : It really is. I haven’t read Michael K, despite meaning to read it for about two years now. I hope you enjoyed the book, and hoping you’ll give this one a shot, for, I certainly loved it.

  7. 7 Pam

    I’ve yet to read Summertime, but have found reading Disgrace, Youth and Waiting for the Barbarians fascinating. I say fascinating rather than enjoyable as as a South African myself there is a lot to identify with in the issues Coetzee engages with, which possibly others would not find as interesting. Often the SA context he mentions is very disturbing (especially in Disgrace) but that’s what keeps me coming back for more in a way (disturbingly addictive it seems!)

    Thanks for an excellent review (and a super blog!)

    • Thanks for stopping by at my blog, and leaving a comment. :)

      I’ve often wondered how accurate the SA portrayal is, specially is Disgrace. I think one of the main reasons why I am addicted to Coetzee (hey, it’s your word!) is, because of the way he uses fiction to address reality, and bring to light very pertinent and disturbing visions.

      I really want to read Youth and Waiting For The Barbarians, as I’ve read neither. Life and Times of Michael K is slightly ahead in the pecking order though.

  8. This is on my list. Then I think I should include the others that form the trilogy.

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