Coetzee’s slew of literary prizes were awarded mainly for his fictional works from the time of his mature-creative years from the 1980s (when he was in his forties) right up to the present, an unbroken line of some thirty years.
Especially when he did not even turn up to accept most of them.
While I enjoy reading Coetzee’s fiction tremendously, I feel that his true brilliance is to be found in his non-fictional writings. It is his literary essays on linguistic styles and essence, reviews and introductions of other writers, where his mastery of creative prose, off-centered insights and his intense laconic wit (undoubtedly sharp and incisive, yet confoundedly also carefully dulled) really come to the fore.
Still, Coetzee’s fictions remain awfully compelling, especially in his invention and reinvention of the recurring theme and techniques used across most of his books, which some have labelled as uniquely-Coetzee, the ‘anti-autobiographical’ style, or which Coetzee calls ‘autre-biography’:
In an interview with David Attwell in 2002, Coetzee asserted that “all autobiography is autre-biography”, or the biography of an other. “Genre definitions”, he said, “– at least those definitions employed by ordinary readers – are quite crude. What if the writer wants to trouble the boundaries of the genre? Does the autobiographical pact between writer and reader – the pact that says that, at the very least, the reader will be told no outright, deliberate lies – trump the disquiet one may feel about the quite crude definition of lying that many readers may hold?”
Which brings me to his latest book, Summertime.
After his earlier works, Boyhood and Youth, which marked his formative years, Summertime speaks of that decade and season where Coetzee’s life and work, seemingly barren and unproductive, was really lying in fallow and growing towards the forthcoming season of creative abundance and fecundity.
An online review of Summertime:
The book begins in a style resembling Boyhood and Youth. Brief scenes from the life of Coetzee, now a thirtysomething in 1970s apartheid South Africa, are narrated in crisp third-person prose. Coetzee, we learn, is a down-and-out, unemployed and living with his elderly father, disgusted by apartheid but stuck in a rut of inaction verging on paralysis. But each scene stops abruptly, clearly unfinished, and after 15 pages the narrative stops altogether. What’s going on? Here emerges the book’s central conceit: Coetzee has died, leaving behind notebooks of assorted scraps. A would-be biographer, seeking to reconstruct “the story” of Coetzee’s life, interviews a number of people who knew Coetzee at that time, and transcripts of these (fictional) interviews occupy most of the book’s remainder.
And a more studied review here:
J. M. Coetzee, a Disembodied Man
Great men in the winter of their lives often treat the writing of their memoirs as a kind of victory lap, but whatever J. M. Coetzee is after in this third volume of his genre-bending autobiography, it is not self-congratulation. The first two volumes, unadornedly titled “Boyhood” and “Youth” (and, in contrast to this one, labeled nonfiction), were marked by Coetzee’s decision to write about himself in the third person. In “Summertime” he takes this schism one bracing step farther, by imagining himself already dead. The book is nominally a kind of rough-draft effort by Coetzee’s own biographer, an Englishman named Vincent, to build the case — through transcribed interviews with lovers and colleagues and other figures mentioned by Coetzee in his “posthumously” opened notebooks — for the years 1971-77 as an especially formative period in the late author’s life, “a period,” as Vincent would have it, “when he was still finding his feet as a writer.”
Not much happens to Coetzee, strictly speaking, in those years. Having returned to South Africa from a sojourn in America, he lives in suburban Cape Town with his ailing father — a development especially resonant to readers of “Boyhood,” much of which centered around the lack of attachment, bordering on mutual shame, between father and son. He takes various teaching jobs despite his evident lack of talent for it (academia being, we are told by one of his former colleagues, a profession “full of refugees and misfits”). He rather sentimentally contemplates moving back to, or at any rate near, the ancestral farm his father’s family still owns in the sun-blasted Karoo, even though the exigencies of that life are clearly beyond him. His mother has died; he has a brother, but that brother is “overseas” and, just as in the first two volumes, hardly acknowledged. And, very quietly, he publishes his first book, the bone-dry “Dusklands” — a pair of novellas that offer little hint of the majesty of later novels like “Waiting for the Barbarians” or “Disgrace.” But interestingly, they do (and did, in real life) contain important, offstage characters named Coetzee. Thus his impulse to metafictionalize himself is perhaps nothing new.
What can I say… I like it.
After all, I too, am in the summertime season of my life…
(and the circumstances are so striking…)