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Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II Paperback – October 7, 2003

4.5 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

After the brooding, dark menace of his Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee's Youth is a slighter, more restrained work. Written in succinct, almost cold prose, it's a painfully maudlin bildsrungsroman that explores the dreary follies of youth rather than its more celebrated joys. The unprepossessing protagonist John is a South African mathematics graduate with literary aspirations, a dreamer who constantly yearns to meet a girl who will serve as his lover and muse. Having abandoned Cape Town after Sharpeville he finds Swinging '60s London grey, damp, and uninviting. Reluctantly he finds employment as a computer programmer. In between trundling from his grimy Archway bedsit to his soulless job, this autodidactic Pooter dabbles on a study of Ford Maddox Ford, composes an Ezra Pound-inspired poem (ostentatiously entitled "The Portuguese Rock-Lobster Fisherman"), and embarks on "one humiliating affair after another." Despite his artistic and romantic endeavors, John seems only able to cultivate "dull, honest, misery" and, broken by London, flees to a new programming job in Berkshire. Here he practically renounces literature and, for a while at least, concentrates on chess problems and feeding primitive computers magnetic tape. His creative and sexual drives appear to have gone, leaving him to consider the possibility that he might actually have grown up.

Like the halting, self-interrogating consciousness of John's computers, Coetzee renders his character's inner life through a series of rhetorical questions. These lend the book a curiously existentialist air but also contribute to its slightly dilatory gait. (It feels far longer than its 170-odd pages.) Coetzee's tone is so laconic it's hard, on occasions, to be entirely certain if John's poetic ambitions should be pitied or simply laughed at. However, this novel does offer an unflinchingly acute dissection of the adolescent male psyche. --Travis Elborough, Amazon.co.uk --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

One need not have read Boyhood, Coetzee's previous autobiographical account, to appreciate this sequel, as he continues to look back on his quest for identity and a yearned-for vocation as a poet. Written from a third-person, present-tense point of view, but intimately describing the inner life of John, this slim memoir examines several years of Coetzee's expatriate life as he flees Cape Town in the 1960s to educate himself and pursue his destiny in London. It's a bleak time. A series of failed encounters sexual and social leave the emotionally immature protagonist feeling lonely and isolated. He wavers between pretentious defenses of his artistic purity and self-loathing assessments of his lack of talent and his unease as an outsider. A soul-destroying job as a computer programmer at IBM sucks away his peace of mind. Other attempts to do meaningful work and to establish personal relationships ensue, but the grand moment of definition never comes. John is waiting for romance or tragedy to strike so he can be consumed and remade, but he has only a flawed, naive understanding of the world. Simultaneously miserable in London and convinced that South Africa is an accursed wound within him, he rejects both as inimical to literature. Booker Prize winner Coetzee's (Disgrace) artistry allows him to write about his youthful self from the vantage point of adult knowledge while reflecting on his self-involved intellectual and social gaucheries with detached, wry humor. Though he fails to make his intense and awkward personality particularly appealing, Coetzee succeeds in defining the dilemma of the artist-as-a-young-man in sympathetic if angst-ridden terms that reflect the doubts of those who decide to devote their lives to literature without any idea of how they can make a meaningful contribution.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (October 7, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142002003
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142002001
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,033,190 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Claus Hetting on July 29, 2005
Format: Paperback
Twenty taut chapters of lucid prose is what Nobel Laureate Coetzee conjures up in this superb little novel. It is - presumably - a largely autobiographical work about a young South African (himself) leaving his native Cape Town for the UK in the hope that a life in London may finally wrest from him his ultimate destiny: to become a poet. The book brilliantly exposes the mind of this sensitive and somewhat listless youth, who searches for identity and meaning through a rare mix of poetry, computing, and a host of miscarried love affairs.

Coetzee is a master of erudite objectivity, suspending outside judgement in a stream of succinct observations. His narrative runs its course with hardly an extraneous word, and, although the themes are often somber, he maintains an undercurrent of optimism. The result is both satisfying and memorable.

This book is highly recommended. Read it and enjoy.
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Format: Hardcover
Coetzee's fictionalized memoir is a painfully honest account of a would-be writer trying to forge himself through two misguided yet common strategies of youth: heading to one of the world's "great cities" (London) because only in these places does "destiny happen"; and kidding himself that both he and his work will be somehow redeemed by love. That he promptly falls into an abyss of middle-class working life and a series of loveless relationships is unsurprising. Coetzee's detached third-person style (an admirable achievement in such a personal work) and his preference for narrating rather than dramatizing most situations here add to the lugubrious mood, though this never becomes a self-indulgent or melancholy work. Indeed, it is saved from that by two things. First, Coetzee's inspiring articulation, in the final pages, of the real reason behind artistic failure in the young: a paralyzing lack of self-confidence which kills art and any chance of a loving relationship. It's the unwillingness to fail and therefore the unwillingness to try which usually thwart us. Secondly, Coetzee's reflections on what I presume to be his own reading history are wonderful. His interleaved commentaries on Henry James, Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford are keen and insightful. This is a book that young would-be writers will find alternately depressing and inspiring - and perhaps the not-so-young ones, too. Exhausted, over-educated dwellers in the white-collar wasteland will find much to inspire and console them here. After all, Coetzee was an I.T. professional who didn't publish until well into his 30s and went on to win the Nobel this year at 63. He's certainly made up for lost time.
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Format: Paperback
Rarely have I encountered so much insight and knowledge in such a short 169 pages. "Youth" is the second novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee. The first, "Waiting for the Barbarians" was a novel about societies whereas "Youth" is a novel about an individual. I get the strong suspicion that this is an autobiographical novel although I know little, if anything, about the author's life. However, his subject character's thoughts, actions, and observations are so real and humanly imperfect that I have to feel the book emerges from the authors own memory. If I'm right, it's all the more reason to praise the talent of Coetzee because he is willing to share the good and the bad about himself. Even if it isn't autobiographical, it is a masterful disection of the inner soul of an emerging adult writer.

"Youth" tells the story of a young man of university age who sensed that his future as a writer in his native South Africa is hopeless. He also realizes that his entire life there is hopeless. We see the clumsiness of his relationships with others; especially women. Most of this is his own fault as he sees everything in the context of whether it will help the development of his artistic talent. Love has no serious role to play in this life (at least at this point in his life). He emigrates to London (his other options for artistic development were Paris and Vienna). Unfortunately he has to get a job and his mathmatical background enables him to find a reasonably good one. However, everything continues to be measured in its' ability to enhance or detract from his development as a poet. The book ends with the anticipated dispair that such a detached life would bring.
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Format: Paperback
Sometimes there is an advantage in reading books by the same author in reverse order. This has been the case here for me. Having read and greatly enjoyed his most recent Summertime: Fiction, in which Coetzee creates an intriguing portrait of one John Coetzee, deceased, a kind of alter ego, and whose personality emerges through interviews and recollections by several friends and acquaintances. In his 2002 portrait "Youth" he distances himself from the younger John by writing what he terms an "autre-biography"*). Written in the present tense and in the third person, the story has a lively and immediate reality while at the same time suggesting a clear distance between the author and his subject. With the hindsight of SUMMERTIME, this reader for one, wondered how much Coetzee has creatively changed or adapted the realities of John's growing up story to suit his idea of who he might have been.

Coetzee concentrates on a decisive period in John's life - from his mid-teens to his early twenties. In this coming of age portrait of John, we see an awkward youth, whose mind hovers between ambitious dreams and self-doubt. He is a young South African, determined to escape the confines of family and the restrictions in his country. Coetzee presents us with a fascinating and often entertaining quasi-memoir, set against the backdrop of a tumultuous period in history: The frequent unrests and subsequent violent suppression of protests by South African blacks (e.g. Sharpville), the Cuban missile crisis, the declaration of South Africa as a republic, etc.

John, while a reasonably successful mathematics student, sees his real calling in being a poet.
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