Posts filed under ‘Coetzee JM’

J. M. Coetzee — Summertime

Ostensibly, J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime is a third instalment of autobiography, succeeding Boyhood (1998) and Youth (2002) (both of which, incidentally, are excellent). But this description belies the book’s true nature in two ways. First, Summertime is so far from being a conventional autobiography it’s essentially a work of fiction. Second, it’s a terrific book in its own right, and can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of its forerunners.


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.

The interviewees give us little vignettes in which Coetzee is a ghostly figure, a barely-there anonynimity, content to be manipulated and exploited by stronger characters: a man defined by his fleeting and unsatisfying connections to others. He is a supporting character. “I am perfectly aware it is John you want to hear about, not me,” says Julia, Coetzee’s one-time lover:

But the only story involving John that I can tell, or the only one I am prepared to tell, is this one, namely the story of my life and his part in it, which is quite different, quite another matter, from the story of his life and my part in it.

What a wonderful antidote to most autobiographies, in which the author is the protagonist in “My Story”, steering a course through life like a Greek hero at the helm of a ship. Lives aren’t like that.

And what a remarkable fictional achievement, since, after all, the “interviews” are pure fiction. Coetzee imagines himself as he appeared in the eyes of others (scruffy, shy, maladroit, not a bestselling-author-in-waiting), and does so with great perceptiveness and self-effacement, through a skilfully crafted range of utterly convincing other-voices. John Berger famously wrote that “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”. In this rich and intelligent work, Coetzee makes it plain that this goes for life stories too.


August 24, 2009 at 4:01 pm 1 comment

J. M. Coetzee — Diary of a Bad Year

I’m a J. M. Coetzee fan — one of the biggest, probably. But even I have to admit a tinge of frustration with his output since his last conventional novel, Disgrace, appeared in 1999. He’s given us autobiography (Youth), philosophical stories (Elizabeth Costello), essays (Inner Workings) and a metaliterary oddball (Slow Man), but nothing resembling the towering oeuvre of fiction that made him one of the 20th Century’s greatest novelists. So what, then, is his latest book, Diary of a Bad Year? None of the above — again.

Each page is divided into three unequal parts. The top part is given over to essays, mainly political in character but increasingly personal as the novel progresses. In the middle part: a diary, by the fictionalised author of the essays, JC (an elderly man who bears no small resemblance to Coetzee). JC records how he recruits a secretary, Anya, to type his essays, while fending off the interference of her boyfriend, Alan. In the bottom part, Anya presents her diary: her side of the story. All three sections run continuously from one page to the next, leaving the reader with a tricky choice: does one read all the essays at once (then go back and read all the accompanying “diaries”) or read all three parts in the chopped-up bitesize chunks in which they appear on the page?

It’s a fascinating experiment. But be warned: in practice, the essay part occupies at least two thirds of the space, while the diaries amount to little more than short stories. And there is as much empty space in this book as there is fiction. I’m not exaggerating. In this 231pp volume there are 35 blank pages, and huge gaps between the three sections on each page. In real money this is a 150pp novella, containing two 25pp diaries.  Thin fare.

The two diaries, though lightweight, are at least very good for what they are. Coetzee fictionalises himself as JC, a grumpy, lonely old man who stumbles his way through a series of awkward scenarios: the “diary” almost invites comparison to HBO staple Curb Your Enthusiasm. Funny, thoughtful and diverting, they are vital in holding the reader’s attention (and I personally, therefore, recommend reading the diary entries as they appear — intertwined with the essays).

Ultimately, the primary function of the diaries is to offer counterpoints to the essays. Diary of a Bad Year displays with excruciating comedy the impotence of the columnist: the stupid, meaningless everyday frustrations that underpin ostensibly political anger. Behind every ferocious argument (from Swift to yesterday’s Guardian) lies a JC-esque figure, venting spleen with no real reward to justify the exertion.

But how good are those political essays? So much of the book is given over to them that one assumes that, even while he masochistically portrays JC as a deluded loser, the real J. Coetzee still hopes (against hope) that they will persuade his reader. At times, they succeed. Some of the longer essays, ranging across South African politics, anarchism, mathematics and more, are feats of sustained brilliance. There’s no word wastage, no rambling: it’s all wonderfully readable. The political issues will be strangely familiar to lovers of Coetzee’s postcolonial fiction, but, pleasingly, more writerly topics (notably Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) creep in among the tirades during the novel’s second half.

In short, Diary of a Bad Year serves as a superb companion piece to Coetzee’s fiction. The leftist postcolonial concerns that lie implicit in the novels of past decades are brought to the fore here, and Coetzee emerges as (in JC’s words) the “pessimistic anarchistic quietist” you always suspected he was.

And yet many of the essays are just 200-300 word nuggets, rumps of columns that would never be published by a newspaper. So much of the book is given over to single-page chapters and half-baked ideas. On terrorism and Guantanamo Bay, for example, Coetzee could be quoting the Independent leader for all I know — he has very little new to say.

Short, thought-provoking, intermittently brilliant and strangely captivating, Diary of a Bad Year is one of the most bizarre novels (if you can even call it a novel) I’ve ever read. But it’s also a little irritating — for its brevity and for its staccato rhythm, as Coetzee hops from one political bugbear to the next. At one point JC, commenting on Tolstoy, argues that, as authors age, their interest in plot and character wanes, to be replaced by an ability to address the “big questions” more clearly. He may be right, but I fear I’m just one of those naive young people who’d prefer a novel a bit less oblique than this, with a bit more of a story between its covers.

August 28, 2008 at 7:36 pm 2 comments