Essay On Boyhood By J.M. Coetzee

Essay by Matthew Cheney — Published on December 7, 2009
Tags: jm coetzee, memoir, postmodern fiction, South African literature

Discussed in this essay:
• Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial LifeJM Coetzee. Penguin. 176pp, $14.00
• Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life IIJM Coetzee. Penguin. 176pp, $14.00
• SummertimeJM Coetzee. Penguin. 256pp, $25.95

1. Playing the Great Author

In Doubling the Point, a 1992 collection of interviews and essays, J.M. Coetzee answers a question from David Attwell about the interview as a literary genre and his own discomfort with being the interviewee:

Writers are used to being in control of the text and don’t resign it easily. But my resistance is not only a matter of protecting a phatasmatic omnipotence. Writing is not free expression. There is a true sense in which writing is dialogic: a matter of awakening the countervoices in oneself and embarking upon speech with them. It is some measure of a writer’s seriousness whether he does evoke/invoke those countervoices in himself, that is, step down from the position of what Lacan calls “the subject supposed to know.” Whereas interviewers want speech, a flow of speech. That speech they record, take away, edit, censor, cutting out all its waywardness, till what is left conforms to a monologic ideal.

All of Coetzee’s published writings since Elizabeth Costello (2003), and many of them before it, have explicitly resisted the “monologic ideal” and frustrated any attempt by readers to treat the books as bottles containing messages. Coetzee brings the countervoices inherent in serious fiction to the foreground of his stories, embodying them in the characters and, frequently, in the form of the narrative itself. Such an approach inevitably leads to multiple effects and interpretations, forcing readers into an active role: the words refuse to sum themselves up in any satisfying way, and so the reader must come to her own conclusions.

Such a strategy could, of course, lead to vagueness and bland ambiguity, and any writer relying on such a strategy risks creating a text that lacks rigor or conviction. The inescapable ambiguity of communication—the difficulty (or, depending on your philosophy, impossibility) of conveying exact meanings from the mind of the writer into the text and then into the mind of the reader—makes even the most fanatically controlled sentences, paragraphs, and pages unstable, and so the writer who deliberately adds to the instability of the writing may push the text over the line from instability into nonsense; avoiding such nonsense is a formidable achievement.

Throughout his career, Coetzee has relied on various techniques to highlight the instability of words and stories. For his troubles Coetzee has often suffered uncomprehending responses from readers who miss the fundamental unreliability of the protagonists and narrators; consequently, many insist on reading the characters’ interpretive and philosophical statements as didactic artifacts that transparently represent the author’s own beliefs and ideas. In all of his books since Youth (2002), Coetzee has created structures seemingly designed to taunt and tease such readers. Or not “designed” exactly—though the books since Youth suggest various purposes, the taunting and teasing of passive and literalist readers seems only a side effect of their central purpose: digging into the ways language contributes to representation, complicity, and confession.

Our expectations are also central to Coetzee’s recent writings—our expectations about books and the people who write them, about literature and its genres, about history and politics. While none of Coetzee’s fiction ignores or simplifies its relationship to readers and their expectations, there is a shared explicitness of purpose to the books published after Youth: Elizabeth Costello, Slow Man (2005), Diary of a Bad Year (2007), and Summertime (2009). During the time he was writing these books, Coetzee’s fame and prestige grew significantly. Disgrace (1999) found a wider audience than any of his previous novels had, and with it Coetzee became the first writer to win a second Booker Prize (having won previously with Life and Times of Michael K in 1983). Coetzee had long had the attention of critics and a passionate group of readers, but Disgrace broadened his audience significantly, becoming a bestseller in multiple countries. In 2003 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, momentarily making him the most famous literary writer in the world. Nobel fame diminishes quickly, but some winners remain more prominent than they were before their win, and Coetzee is one such writer, his books selling more broadly than they had before and his public persona exerting a certain fascination because of his stubborn refusal to play the role of the Famous Author. After Doubling the Point Coetzee rarely gave interviews, and from the mid-1990s on, his rare public lectures usually took the form of stories and dialogues (a few of these were collected in The Lives of Animals [1997] and then added to and recontextualized in Elizabeth Costello). His Nobel Lecture, “He and His Man,” offered not a series of thoughts and insights about what it means to write or to be a writer or reader or human being, as Nobel lectures tend to do, but rather an allusive short story about Robinson Crusoe that more than one newswriter labeled “oblique.”

As a writer deeply aware and skeptical of the role of The Author—one continually reminded by reporters and reviewers of how to play that role—the new fame and authority granted to the person whose books are published under the byline “J.M. Coetzee” must have been disconcerting to the individual human being generally known as John Coetzee. The form and subject matter of the books that followed Disgrace use the authority granted to the famous and award-winning byline to unsettle the expectations such authority breeds, and then to lead readers toward a re-examination not only of what they assume and expect but, more broadly, toward a re-examination of what they assume and expect about language, identity, and whatever is pointed to with the phrase “the real world.” Coetzee summons countervoices to shatter the common assumption of one self. He uses the privilege of his position as someone famous and revered to do more than undermine or complicate fame and reverence, to do more than highlight the gap between the person and the byline—Coetzee forces readers to become aware of their own participation in the making of meanings, their complicity with the text rather than the author, and to revel in the resulting power and insights.

2. Assaults on Genre Boundaries

From his earliest work Coetzee has tempted and confounded readers with apparently autobiographical material—his first book, Dusklands (1974), includes multiple characters with the surname “Coetzee.” Doubling the Point includes both autobiographical writing and considerations of autobiography as a genre and makes clear the importance of the concept of confession to Coetzee’s thinking and writing. He tells David Attwell that the 1985 essay “Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky” marks an important moment for him:

. . . more and more I see the essay on Tolstoy, Rousseau, and Dostoyevsky emerging as pivotal. Why? For two reasons. One, that there I see myself confronting in a different genre—the essay—the very question that you have faced me with in these dialogues: how to tell the truth in autobiography. Two, that I find the story I tell about myself has a certain definiteness of outline up to the time of that essay; after that it becomes hazier, lays itself open to harder questioning from the future.

Coetzee filled in some of the outline of his earliest days with Boyhood (1997), which was labeled by different publishers with the subtitles “A Memoir” and “Scenes from Provincial Life.” It was, and remains, one of Coetzee’s most straightforward and accessible books, with the only obvious complication being the third-person point of view. There is certainly a long history of third-person autobiographies and memoirs, but a contemporary book marketed as a memoir is generally expected to be written in the first-person, and a deviation from that highlights the assumption. Most readers will unquestioningly accept the mode and rhetoric of a first-person autobiography unless the writer creates obstacles to such acceptance.

The acceptance of the mode and rhetoric of memoir is what leads to such situations as that created by Oprah Winfrey’s re-evaluation of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces in 2005 and 2006. While assuming the book to be a memoir, and thus an accurate representation of Frey’s own life and experiences, Winfrey chose it for her influential Book Club and then, when it was revealed that much of the book was fiction, Winfrey said she felt “duped” and her audience “betrayed,” and she summoned much righteous anger and indignation in an attack on Frey on her show. Some of the fury of the response was good melodrama, of course, and it certainly didn’t hurt the book’s sales or the show’s ratings, but beneath the bombast lay an interesting situation. The words and sentences of A Million Little Pieces had not changed, nor had the audience’s actual relationship to the author (since the relationship the readers had was to the text and not to the person), but the context of their understanding of the text had shifted. Winfrey and her audience conceived that shift as if it were a wound, then used their feeling of betrayal to heal themselves and shape the energy of their indignation as a weapon to, in turn, wound Frey, who was willing to play along and accept his public humiliation, to recontextualize himself as at least a version (less preening, perhaps, less confident) of the survivor and sufferer he had first been sold as. It was great theatre. The effect was to solidify a narrow concept of truth-telling and to strengthen the idea that memoirs are and should be verifiable accounts of a life. The genre’s boundaries were policed and fortified, the transgressor was punished, and the inherent ambiguities of autobiographical writing were buried in a tomb of unasked questions. In their silence, those questions were, in fact, banished to the realm of the unaskable, because once we know that “memoir” and/or “autobiography” means always x and never y, to wonder the y is to talk about something that is not memoir or autobiography, and is therefore irrelevant and, more likely within such a conversation, invisible.

Boyhood and Youth assault the genre boundaries of autobiography. They do more than simply render questions about such writing’s inherent ambiguity visible, relevant, and askable. They make them a necessary part of the reading experience.

The point of view is the first instigation for us to question what is going on within these texts, especially if we come to the books expecting, as their packaging sometimes promises, a memoir. Why, the reader wonders from the first page of Boyhood, is the writer writing about himself in the third person? Answers are not difficult to come by, and they mostly have to do with distance: the distance in time between the adult writing the book and the child represented in it, the distance between experience and recollection, the distance between writer and text. Margaret Lenta, in an insightful essay about the books’ genre, contrasts this distancing with Coetzee’s earliest works:

The first-person narratives of Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country [1977] have a serious purpose—that of ensuring that we know and respond to their protagonists as far as possible as we do to ourselves. The third-person of Boyhood and Youth is equally carefully chosen: the device means that both author and reader relate to him as to a biographical—rather than autobiographical—subject.

The distancing serves purposes beyond genre and the reader’s response to the protagonists, though. In Boyhood and, especially, Youth, the John Coetzee presented to us is an alienated and alienating figure, one who challenges the reader’s sympathies not only through point of view but through the actions and perceptions conveyed to us by the narrator. The narration heightens both the alienation and the distance by keeping uses of the protagonist’s name to an extraordinary minimum in both books. John Coetzee in these books is “he,” a pronoun amidst pronouns, and the narration occasionally allows semantic ambiguity in preference to naming, creating moments where we wonder, at least briefly, “Which he is he?” (Or even, as one of the characters in Samuel Beckett’s “Play” says, “Who he?”) Naming is not done by the narrator, but by other people in dialogue. “He” is “John Coetzee” to other people, but to the narrator, the voice representing the consciousness, naming is forbidden.

In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, a fragmentary exploration of autobiography and philosophy in which the protagonist is sometimes “I” and sometimes “he,” Barthes writes (in Richard Howard’s translation):

Possible affinity of paranoia and distancing, by the intermediary of narrative: the “he” is epic. Which means: “he” is wicked: the nastiest word in the language: pronoun of the non-person, it annuls and mortifies its referent; it cannot be applied without uneasiness to someone one loves . . .

The Coetzeean “he” of Boyhood and Youth seems to lack both paranoid and epic status, but he does, at least, often appear to aspire toward something epic. He recognizes circumstances around him as being ones that could produce some sort of grand story, some sort of heroism even, and yet he is repeatedly disillusioned at his inability to live up to the possibilities inherent in the landscape and its events. In Boyhood he is more alienated than wicked, but as his awareness of the world grows along with his alienation in Youth, wickedness comes as a side effect of not being able to bridge the gap between being a person and non-person. His relations with women in particular are humiliating and horrifying (both for him and the reader), for though they are usually named, the women he tries to have full relationships with in Youth are, for him, little more than pronouns—and different pronouns from his own, at that. They are shes to his he, and the force of his alienation and abjection annuls and mortifies the human beings behind the words.

The books are not simply portraits of an alienated (non)person, however, because there are other strategies at work in them in parallel to the portraiture—strategies that highlight ideas of history, specifically the history of European incursion into Africa. In Boyhood, John Coetzee’s alienation arises partly from his living in an Afrikaner-dominated town, having white skin and an Afrikaner name, and yet lacking real fluency with the Afrikaans language, much connection to Afrikaner traditions, or any experience with the Afrikaners’ Christianity. In Youth he flees South Africa for England so that he can avoid compulsory military service among what he imagines the military to be filled with: loutish, jingoistic Afrikaners. That is not everything, though, for he is no longer shielded from the challenges of identity and politics that threatened from the periphery of his child’s consciousness in Boyhood, where most of the questions that we might label “political” were ones that could fit under the general question, “Who am I if they are they?” In Youth, the political insists on becoming personal:

Wrapped up though he is in his private worries, he cannot fail to see that the country around him is in turmoil. The pass laws to which Africans and Africans alone are subjected are being tightened even further, and protests are breaking out everywhere. In the Transvaal the police fire shots into a crowd, then, in their mad way, go on firing into the backs of fleeing men, women, and children. From beginning to end the business sickens him: the laws themselves; the bully-boy police; the government, stridently defending the murderers and denouncing the dead; and the press, too frightened to come out and say what anyone with eyes in his head can see.

Such sentiments are what we would expect of a liberal white man in South Africa at the time (the Sharpeville Massacre occurred in March 1960), but this paragraph shows a notable gap between what is seen and what is said—the first and last sentences of the paragraph link John, with his “private worries,” to the frightened press: both can see “that the country around [them] is in turmoil,” but neither is willing to turn what they see into words, because speaking of these things in South Africa at the time would lead to action—at the very least, action against you from the government and its supporters, though also, perhaps, action in the sense of definition. To speak out against the apartheid regime would be to define yourself as someone willing to risk such words, and therefore necessarily align you with activists, with people who sought to do something to change the situation (a situation that, because of your skin color and heritage, is the foundation of whatever material wealth and success you have—if you are a white man with an Afrikaner surname in South Africa during apartheid, the government is by default on your side, protecting and trying to strengthen your way of life). An alliance of any sort with activists is not what John wants, as is made clear in the following paragraphs where he describes a march that interrupts the math tutorial he is teaching, and that puts the words of the authorities into his mouth:

“May I have your attention!” he calls out. There is a nervous crack in his voice; his face is flushed. “Please put down your pens and give me your attention! There is at this moment a workers’ march taking place along De Waal Drive. For reasons of safety, I am asked to announce that no one is being allowed to leave the campus, until further notice. I repeat: no one is being allowed to leave. This is an order issued by the police. Are there any questions?”

There is one question at least, but this is not the right time to voice it: What is the country coming to when one cannot run a mathematics tutorial in peace?

The question that occurs to him is darkly humorous in its obliviousness and fustiness, and it is richly revealing of his character.

Thus John leaves South Africa not only from fear of what he would encounter in the military but also from fear of falling into activism—of stumbling toward action (which is what military service would require of him as well). His desires are for something more passive, more intellectual and literary, free of the responsibilities of politics and history, unbothered by the guilt of complicity. Even his assumptions about what it means to live as an intellectual and an artist are naïve and occasionally pitiful (though quite familiar to anyone who has been a naïve and occasionally pitiful adolescent yearning for a stereotypically bohemian existence). John is not able to create for himself a Romantic and cultured expatriate life in England, however; instead he supports himself through a job that is the antithesis of such a life: he works as a low-level computer programmer in a cubicle office, first in London and then in a suburb. The loneliness and yearning that fills much of the book can often be moving, and the situations John gets himself into are sometimes wryly funny, but his affect remains cold and his behavior sometimes stunningly cruel, making sympathy difficult by the end.

From the moment Youth was first published, reviewers and readers commented on the fact that the protagonist of the book, to use Geoff Dyer’s words, “is in many ways a repulsive figure.” Dyer noted, too, that Coetzee kept out all indications that his protagonist might ever become a successful writer, focusing instead on his failures and his apparent lack of talent. From the evidence in Youth, it is difficult to imagine a writer who would go on to be the first person to win the Booker twice.

And yet that is exactly when Youth was published—it was Coetzee’s follow-up to Disgrace.1 It is possible that Coetzee would have portrayed John in Youth the same way had he never won any literary awards, but it is also possible to read Youth as a balance to the weight created by such awards, the weight of authority and genius. Youth portrays a Coetzee who is exactly the opposite of the Coetzee portrayed by awards: a failure, not a success; someone afraid to speak rather than someone who has spoken; an alien from all canons and histories instead of a newly minted ascendant to the pantheon.

Our knowledge of Coetzee as an award-winning writer adds to the complexity of our perception of Boyhood and Youth as autobiographies of some sort. 2 In Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee doesn’t only explore how he perceives his now-distant self; he also helps readers explore their own perception of who they think “J.M. Coetzee” is and what occupies the mind of “an award-winning writer.”

3. From Subject to Object

Coetzee’s most recent book, Summertime, has been described since its British publication in the summer of 2009 as a companion or sequel to Boyhood and Youth. Indeed, the British hardcover includes a subtitle on the title page that was used on the title page of the U.S. editions of Boyhood: “Scenes from Provincial Life.” The U.S. edition of Summertime, on the other hand, offers a simpler subtitle: “Fiction.”

In its form and subject matter, Summertime has more in common with Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year (review) than Boyhood and Youth, but some of its central concerns are the same, and it is possible to see the John Coetzee who is the topic of Summertime as an adult version of the John Coetzee who is the protagonist of Boyhood and Youth (if we assume the protagonists of those books are the same John Coetzee . . .). In many ways, Summertime unites the strategies of the recent books with the earlier ones—not only Boyhood and Youth, but Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, Foe, The Master of Petersburg, and Doubling the Point.

With Summertime John Coetzee moves from the position of a subject to that of an object—something to be analyzed, studied, talked about. The book is broken into seven sections: the first and last are third-person, present-tense passages labeled as being from notebooks, with the first section passages having specific dates from 1972 to 1975 and the last section passages being “undated fragments.” The notebook passages are, in tone and form, much like the narratives of Boyhood and Youth, and a reader could certainly suppose they are outtakes from an uncompleted third volume. The middle five sections of Summertime have the form of interviews: questions from the biographer of a dead writer named John Coetzee to people whom the biographer has determined Coetzee considered important in his life, though many of the people are perplexed by such a designation. Four of the interviewees are women. All of the interviewees knew Coetzee during (roughly) the period the notebooks cover, when he was living with his father, scrounging for work as a teacher, writing and publishing a first book called Dusklands, and seeming rather lost and aloof in the world.

Though the John Coetzee of Summertime shares at least some of the bibliography of the J.M. Coetzee whose byline appears on the cover of the book, the life of Summertime‘s John Coetzee is not the life of the John Coetzee for whom J.M. Coetzee is a byline. For one thing, in Summertime John Coetzee is dead (as if Coetzee decided to literally inscribe Barthes’s notion of “the death of the author” into his book—appropriate, given how Coetzee’s oeuvre explores and expands Barthes’s ideas of authoricity . . . and authoricide . . .). But more than the obvious, there are other differences between the life of John Coetzee in Summertime and some of the facts we know about the actual Coetzee’s life—for instance, Coetzee’s mother was alive in the 1970s, while she is dead in the book, and during the period Summertime covers, Coetzee had been married for about a decade and the father of two young children, whereas in the book he is unmarried and childless. There are probably other factual discontinuities.

Summertime‘s John Coetzee, then, is more fictionalized than many of the protagonists of novels inspired by writers’ own lives. Boyhood and Youth do not deviate as obviously from Coetzee’s own life (or what we can know of it), and so if we were to see Summertime as the third book in a trilogy its effect is a particularly odd one: it moves the character of John Coetzee from the hazy world of indeterminate memoir-fiction into a realm where he is much more obviously fictional.

Ideas of fiction and truth fill Summertime and are given a kind of life through the dialogues. Toward the end of the novel, the interviewer—who is referred to by a character as “Mr. Vincent,” which is all we know of his name—says to one of his interviewees, “Mme Denoël, I have been through the letters and diaries. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record—not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer.” This could be the epigraph to not only Summertime, but most of the books Coetzee (in our world, at least) has written.

Not to be trusted as a factual record is different from not to be trusted, though, and it is important to note that addition. The difference between a liar and a fictioneer is a vital one, though every reader probably has a somewhat different standard for where fictioneering ends and lying begins. Such a statement as Mr. Vincent’s brings in a whole battery of questions about certain kinds of truth. The kinds of truth that are not about facticity, the truths of art and myth and faith. As readers of Summertime, we have access to various accounts of what the characters take to be fact, and we are in a position to see how slippery many of the facts are, how shaped and determined by memory. What the interviewees give us are stories about a person they remember who answered to the name John Coetzee, but what we see revealed is less about that person than about the storytellers themselves.

Margaret Lenta was correct to point toward the differences between Coetzee’s many first-person narrators and the third-person narrators of Boyhood and Youth, but Summertime shows the implications of those differences are more than just a matter of the reader’s closeness to or distance from the protagonist. As consciousnesses trapped in bodies, communicating with the imperfect tool of language, we often use stories to convey information—to reach toward some sort of truth—and yet because we have no objective access to other consciousnesses, what we are left communicating are stories about ourselves. What the interviewees tell us about John Coetzee is how they experienced and interpreted John Coetzee—not “who he was,” but who they perceived him to be.

Countervoices, though, can approximate one self and reach toward a more complete truth than single voices alone. By the end of Summertime, readers have a complex sense of the John Coetzee character, a sense built from various subjectivities and stories. The book begins and ends with a fictional self perceiving itself and telling stories about itself. The interviews shift us away from the fictional John Coetzee’s self-perceptions and show different dialogic approaches. First, there is the fictional interviewer who has never met John Coetzee as a person outside of texts, and who himself aspires to write a text about him. He gathers material for his text through interviewing characters who were, according to the texts he has read, important to the fictional Coetzee. These characters then tell stories that are given to us as the interviewer’s raw material, and so the text we read is not the text he will create, but potential elements of it, the primary source material. The biography he intends to write hovers in our minds, a fiction outside the fiction.

The characters, though, are aware of how their stories may be shaped. Some accept this without much question or complaint, remaining complicit, while others try to assert themselves against the interviewer. This is clearest in the second of the interviews, with Margot Jonker, a cousin with whom the young John Coetzee fell in love. While the first interview took a familiar question-and-answer form, the form of the second is inverted—Mr. Vincent has recorded and transcribed what Margot told him and is now reading back to her what he has made of her words, becoming less interviewer than ventriloquist. He has not transcribed her words entirely faithfully, however, for he, crossing over into the world of the fictioneer, has heightened some moments for dramatic effect, creating his monologic ideal, and Margot disapproves. This section of the novel ends with him asking if what he has written can stand as it is, and she replies, “Not as it is, no. I want to go over it again, as you promised.” In a final flourish of fictional facticity, the section then finishes, as do all of the interviews, with a statement of the place and time of the recording: “Interviews conducted in Somerset West, South Africa, December 2007 and June 2008.”

The purpose of the mirror-looking-at-a-mirror structure of Summertime is not merely to highlight the difficulties and implications of locating truth in storytelling, nor to complicate our ideas of the relationships between author, text, and world. The structure also supports the creation of richly imagined characters, characters created from the shadow of the character they each talk about, John Coetzee. This John Coetzee is as awkward, odd, lonely, occasionally cruel, and apparently untalented as the John Coetzee of Boyhood and Youth, though his apparent lack of talent is, here, shown to be only apparent, since he is someone who has published books that brought him awards and the attention of scholars. Nonetheless, what is told of his life is not likely to cause most readers much envy.

It is here where Summertime has as much in common with Elizabeth Costello and, especially, Diary of a Bad Year as with Boyhood and Youth. Diary of a Bad Year utilized a complex, multivocal structure and offered a protagonist with the first name John and the initials JC who has written some books that share the titles of J.M. Coetzee’s own books. JC is older than Coetzee, though, and does not seem to be quite as successful, though a framed scroll in his bedroom could, perhaps, be a Nobel Prize (or not). The novel presents various essays JC has written and encourages the knowing reader to wonder whether the opinions he expresses might be those of J.M. Coetzee, much as readers of Elizabeth Costello were likely to wonder whether the opinions Elizabeth espouses are those of the man who wrote her words.

In all of these books, then, the reader is forced into the active position of having to join in the making of meaning and the pursuit of certain ideas about types of truth—the opinions of Costello and JC do not exist to be received by us, but to be questioned. If we accept them, we will accept them only after analyzing them, even if it is merely the analysis prompted by the question, “Does Coetzee really believe this?” It’s a question he will not answer for us, but one he invites because of what it will lead us toward: if we accept these opinions, we will accept them because we are willing to say they express something truthful, something that fits with what we know and are willing to believe of the world and ourselves.

Boyhood and Youth do not provoke the same question, since they offer few opinions for us to evaluate, but instead make us ask, “Is this the truth of Coetzee’s life?” Another question we cannot answer, but another question that spurs us toward self-reflection, toward considering and analyzing not only what we assume about autobiography or what we desire from authors, but perhaps even what we assume about our own relations to memory and language.

Summertime adds complexity to it all. There are opinions within it, though not to the extent of Elizabeth Costello or Diary of a Bad Year. There is biography and autobiography, though not to the extent of Boyhood and Youth (and more transparently fictional). The questions provoked are manifold, with new ones arriving with each section—similar questions as the earlier ones, but new ones, too: “What does it mean to tell the story of a life? What does it do?” Summertime is not simply a book about books, a bit of narrative play; it reaches beyond its pages, provoking alert readers to think about an individual’s relationship to, yes, texts and storytelling, but also history and politics, culture and society, action and inaction. It is a book that offers patterns of meaning which inspire us to expand the patterns and extrapolate the meaning, to participate and to reflect.

We are all one self full of countervoices telling stories and seeking truths. With Summertime, Coetzee has created a particularly powerful model of how to embark upon speech with them.

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction with a variety of venues, including One Story, Rain Taxi, Locus, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and others. He wrote the introduction to Wesleyan University Press’s edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel L. Delany and contributed to Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer. He recently completed work as series editor for Best American Fantasy (Underland Press), and continues to be a regular columnist for Strange Horizons and to maintain his weblog, The Mumpsimus. He lives in New Hampshire, where he teaches English and Women’s Studies at Plymouth State University.

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Coetzee grew up in a new development north of Cape Town, tormented by guilt and fear. With a father he despised, and a mother he both adored and resented, he led a double life—the brilliant and well-behaved student at school, the princely despot at home, always terrified of losing his mother's love. His first encounters with literature, the awakenings of sexual desire, andCoetzee grew up in a new development north of Cape Town, tormented by guilt and fear. With a father he despised, and a mother he both adored and resented, he led a double life—the brilliant and well-behaved student at school, the princely despot at home, always terrified of losing his mother's love. His first encounters with literature, the awakenings of sexual desire, and a growing awareness of apartheid left him with baffling questions; and only in his love of the high veld ("farms are places of freedom, of life") could he find a sense of belonging. Bold and telling, this masterly evocation of a young boy's life is the book Coetzee's many admirers have been waiting for, but never could have expected....more

Paperback, 166 pages

Published September 1st 1998 by Penguin Books (first published 1997)

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