A new year, and with revived good intentions I’m returning to my earlier attempts to focus on writers and culture from one particular country at a time, plus work my way through the 1,001 books list, tackling 2 or 3 a month. I’m not eschewing new releases all together though, but I read far fewer of those than I used to.
First country up, for January 2023, is South Africa, which has turned out a prodigious number of great writers. White South African authors have tended to be over-represented among those, and I will be making sure to read a number of black South African authors.
Summertime (2009) is my first Coetzee, but it won’t be my last. This book wasn’t what I expected: it’s a sort of literary joke or experiment. The third in a series of fictionalized ‘memoirs’, it has a fascinating premise, and I hope that I can do it justice here.
An English biographer is carrying out research, by compiling interviews with women in the younger life of a deceased writer, John Coetzee, who seems to have been a great, indeed Nobel Prize-winning writer, just like Summertime‘s real-life author. Given that many of the Coetzee character’s contemporaries are dead, the resulting “obscure book” will be partial at best.
The women include a cousin, Margot; Julia, a married woman with whom John Coetzee had an affair; and a Brazilian woman, a dancer with a tragic backstory, whose daughter was one of his former English pupils.
“I shiver with cold when I think of, you know, intimacy with a man like that. I don’t know if he ever married, but if he did I shiver for the woman who married him.”
From these self-deprecating, fictional interviews we learn that John was an awkward, ‘autistic’ lover; a bad dancer, who was also vaguely inappropriate, and kinda creepy; an uptight man who lived with his father in a smelly house and insisted on carrying out vast amounts of laborious, bad DIY.
“…I could see at once he was no god. He was in his early thirties, I estimated, badly dressed, with badly cut hair and a beard when he shouldn’t have worn a beard, his beard was too thin. Also he struck me at once, I can’t say why, as célibataire, I mean, not just unmarried but also not suited to marriage, like a man who has spent his life in the priesthood and lost his manhood and become incompetent with women. Also his comportment was not good (I am telling you my first impressions). He seemed ill at ease, itching to get away. He had not learned to hide his feelings, which is the first step towards civilized manners.”
In its focus on a biographer researching a life, it faintly recalls Alan Hollinghurst’s 2011 novel The Stranger’s Child, another brilliant novel. This is the more complex book though: there is a meditation here on what constitutes an author (all very meta and a bit Barthesian), and on why and whether ‘the author’ as a concept should be particularly worthy of interest.
Of course, significant authors are intrinsically interesting to many readers, and given our innate nosiness, to my mind the metaphorical ‘death of the author’ is simply an intriguing mind game.
Since we are bound within and shaped by the historical and cultural milieu in which we find ourselves, removing ‘the author’ from a text is surely impossible – they will always haunt their creation. But this book does read as a plea to focus on the work not the man.
There is humour in Summertime, but also an exploration of the essential unknowability of another person, whose inner world is essentially unreachable, and can only ever really be a projection filtered and refracted through the consciousness of the one observing them.
Together with all this, in Summertime there seems also to be an interrogation of the writer’s own conscience and perceived betrayals, in the frequently pompous, sometimes ridiculous fragments of life events recounted in these imagined interviews.
The book overall is a clear-eyed, neatly erudite and deft reflection on issues of authorship, identity and memory, which also happens to be highly entertaining, and frequently raised a smile.