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
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.
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