This is my review of Summertime by J M Coetzee.
At first it seems incongruous to have this short and deceptively slight novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize alongside the sprawling tomes of Wolf Hall and The Children's Book. The opening pages, "fictionalised" (we never know to what extent) fragments of Coetzee's notes for an autobiography which an imagined premature death have prevented him from writing, establish from the outset an impression of "quality rather than quantity": the spare, elegant prose, intriguing hints of conflict between the characters, wry humour, insights into the complex tragedy of life in South Africa in the years preceding the end of apartheid.
The work is original in taking an unusual perspective. Sandwiched between Coetzee's notes are interviews between his fictional biographer and five people who knew him before his recent death. Each interview reads like a short story in its own right, drawing us into the lives of a very disparate group of people and evoking in the process vivid impressions of the lives of white people in the South Africa of the 1970s. Again, there is unexpected humour in the often sparky exchanges between interviewer and interviewees who are not backward in questioning his techniques. The fascinating issues are raised of how a Nobel prize winning writer may seem, even be, very ordinary, and may appear very differently to various people who knew him. I found most moving the account provided by Coetzee's cousin Margot, although it was the only "interview" to be written in the third person, in the form of a transcript being read back for confirmation.
I agree that beneath the portrayal of Coetzee as perhaps excessively self-effacing, with a possibly exaggerated lack of appeal, one senses a certain discomforting self absorption in the writer. Why did he focus on himself in this way? On the other hand, you could argue this is a twist on the fact that many novels contain unacknowledged, perhaps even unconscious elements of the autobiographical. Also, perhaps a Nobel Prize winner is allowed to be self-absorbed – may even need to be.
Another point which concerned me a little was the similarity in "voice" of the author and the interviewees, with the exception of the Brazilian dancer. Also, although the distinctive precision of the writing is a welcome contrast to the cloying sentimentality of some writers, there is the nagging sense that it links to a level of cold, clear-eyed dispassion which can seem almost repellent – I imagine some readers will feel this more than others. And does it matter, if reading is all about extending awareness?
Whilst I admire this book, and suspect I read it too quickly and need to revisit it and reflect more on the many observations about human relationships, culture and the meaning of life, I was left feeling a little let down. Perhaps this was because the final scene in the book is agonising in it sadness. Perhaps my disappointment is because many of the issues which interested me, such as the role of a "liberal Boer", were underdeveloped. There seemed to me to be the potential to do so much more, without the book becoming too flabby or weighty. I noticed the same quality in "Disgrace" and wonder whether Coetze's main message is that life is not clear cut, accepted definitions of success and failure are open to question, individuals are complex and essentially unknowable, even to themselves – life is, simply, inconclusive and often disappointing….