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Summertime: Fiction Hardcover – December 24, 2009
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Nobel laureate and two-time Booker-winner Coetzee has been shortlisted for the third time for this powerful novel, a semisequel to the fictionalized memoirs Boyhood and Youth that takes the form of a young biographer's interviews with colleagues of the late author John Coetzee. To Dr. Julia Frankl, who briefly sought in Coetzee deliverance from her husband, he was not fully human; to his cousin, Margot Jonker, he is boring, ridiculous and misguided; and to Sophie Denoël, an expert in African literature, Coetzee is an underwhelming writer with no original insight into the human condition. The harshest characterization—and also the best of the interviews—comes from Adriana Nascimento, a Brazilian emigrant who met Coetzee when both were teachers in Cape Town; she was repulsed by the intellectual's attempts at courtship. He is nothing, she says, was nothing... an embarrassment. The biographer's efforts to describe his subject ultimately result in an examination that reaches through fiction and memoir to grasp what the traditional record leaves out. (Jan.)
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In addition to this research, which takes the form of transcribed interviews with two lovers of the fictional Coetzee, his cousin Margot, a woman who demonizes this Coetzee, and a University colleague named Martin, Vincent includes several of Coetzee's unpublished journal fragments in SUMMERTIME. In these, the fictional Coetzee writes in the third person, principally about his restrained relationship with his father.
For this reader, SUMMERTIME initially read as if the subject was the perils of biography. Reasons: The subjects in two of Vincent's transcriptions, while probably not wrong about the fictional Coetzee's personality, describe him through the harsh medium of their own highly stressed and specialized perspectives. Meanwhile, Vincent, the biographer, clearly loses his objectivity when transcribing the thoughts of cousin Margot. In doing so, he seems determined to transform the stiff and reserved fictional Coetzee into a romantic possibility for a certain type of Afrikaans woman.
This subject, the perils of biography, also extends to the memories of the fictional Coetzee's colleagues at university. These colleagues, for example, are able to tie this Coetzee's social awkwardness, dry personality, and disappointing vibe to the plight of the Afrikaans people who, in essence, are experiencing repudiation by their continent.
Even so, the concluding journal fragments show that these sophisticated interpretations are also questionable, since the fictional Coetzee, in remembering incidents from his boyhood, explores an anger and guilt unrelated to history. This suggests that the origins of the fictional Coetzee's dour personality are unknowable. Here, J. M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize winner, simply refuses to sugar coat one lonely guy's personal ordeal.
In final analysis, SUMMERTIME tells the story of an awkward person with stubborn integrity who is often clumsy as he tries to find a just life in an unjust society. Viewed from this perspective, it is not unlike many of the real Coetzee's great books, such as LIFE & TIMES OF MICHAEL K, THE AGE OF IRON, and WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, where the protagonists search for ways to resist unjust societies.
While SUMMERTIME is hardly fun reading, it is a literate and lapidary puzzle and a tour de force for those fascinated by unreliable narrators. It deserves five stars.
In many ways the story is reminiscent stylistically of such authors as Thomas Wolfe in "You Can't Go Home Again" and Henry Miller in his epic trilogy "The Rosy Crucifixion" where the authors talk about their struggle to write. However, uncharacteristically, Coetzee deigns to write this `novel' from the perspective of a posthumous study by a journalist who is researching Coetzee's life for the purpose of writing a biography. As such, the book is highly autobiographical. Yet it would seem that due to Coetzee's personal secretive nature, the incidents and characters are real, but `the names have been changed to protect the innocent.'
The text is truly extraordinary in that because it is written in the words of others, Coetzee tackles his view of how he had been perceived by others rather than how he perceives himself. Thus, it leaves the reader wide latitude to interpret what really was going on in the author's mind during the subject time frame.
To help round out the projected image of himself, a number of what Coetzee calls "Notebook Fragments" are included in an appendix to the book. Again, these fragments are reminiscent of yet another author with whom Coetzee has great familiarity, Franz Kafka. In fact, Coetzee makes great use of a Kafka story, "A Report to an Academy" in one of his previous novels.
It is of tremendous interest to Coetzee devotees, the things that the author reveals about himself, especially since the main body of the text is his impressions of how he believes others perceive him. And it is probably true that as he says of himself through the lips of another, that J. M. Coetzee "... could not dance to save his life." He describes himself as very secretive, stiff, English, unromantic and loner. His text makes a very graphic attempt to explain these perceptions, as well as his "anti-political" personal position. It was during his lifetime that South Africa transferred from a legally sanctioned racist country with apartheid as the way of life; to a democracy. The country was ruled by a wealthy white upperclass minority of outsiders that completely subjugated and in essence enslaved the native "Coloured" majority. This transition was all but earth shattering to the denizens of South Africa. In fact, a large percentage of the white population of South Africa emigrated after the transition to democracy. This faction includes Coetzee himself, who now lives in Australia.
In essence, the book is a truly monumental glimpse into the mind and thoughts of one of today's greatest living authors. All readers of Coetzee's prior work should avail themselves of this opportunity to view the expose of the author's inner insights, feelings and perceptions.