FICTIONEERING - And the living isn't easy

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  • Published 9.10.09

Summertime: Scenes from provincial life By J.M. Coetzee, Harvill Secker, £8.75

Great writers have a way of arousing the most vulgar kinds of curiosity in their hapless readers. This is partly because no truth is too low to be the object of their steady Parnassian gaze. But there is also the fact of the writers’ bottomless self-absorption. It is their sublime vanity that teases these questions out of us, so that they can then play with the answers, for the truth deserves nothing less than the endless games of fiction. As questions go, nothing can be more vulgar than ‘What is he like in bed?’ But I have often found myself asking precisely this question when faced with the cold, grey ardour of J.M. Coetzee’s fiction. And Summertime has pleasured and disconcerted me in equal measure with the directness — or seeming directness — of the answer.

The protagonist of this book is a dead South African writer called John Coetzee, whose English biographer, a shadowy “Mr Vincent”, is going round the world interviewing his subject’s lovers, cousins, colleagues and other associates. He wants to reconstruct the story of a specific period in the life of John Coetzee from these interviews, supplemented by the writer’s own notebook entries made intermittently during these years. The period Vincent focuses on are the years between 1972, when John returned to South Africa in a state of obscure disgrace after working in England and America, and his first public recognition in 1977, after Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country, both of which are discussed in the Summertime interviews. This was the time when John lived with his widowed father in the suburbs of Cape Town; it was also the heyday of apartheid in South Africa. But Vincent’s 2008 interview with Julia Frankl, now a therapist in Canada, inevitably moves towards the affair she had had with John in the early Seventies in Cape Town, when she was already married and the mother of a child.

The love they made was adequate: he was competent, but impersonal. There was an “autistic quality” to his operations. “I offer this not as criticism but as a diagnosis,” Dr Frankl adds. Then she elaborates: “Characteristically the autistic type treats other people as automata, mysterious automata. In return he expects to be treated as a mysterious automaton too. If you are autistic, falling in love translates as being treated reciprocally as the inscrutable object of the other’s desire. Two inscrutable automata having inscrutable commerce with each other’s bodies: that was how it felt to be in bed with John. Two separate enterprises on the go, his and mine. What his enterprise was I can’t say, it was opaque to me. But to sum up: sex with him lacked all thrill.” As prose, this is like Bach’s music turning into the robotic precision of Steve Reich’s minimalist loops.

Indeed, music and sex come together in Julia’s subsequent relations with John, and in a sharply alienating way for her, when he insists that they “rut” to the beat of the slow movement of the Schubert string quintet: “‘Empty your mind!’ he hissed at me. ‘Feel through the music!’” Later, John explains to her that what it felt like to make love in post-Bonaparte Austria could only be glimmeringly experienced through Schubert’s music, “because the slow movement of the quintet happens to be about fucking”. Julia’s resistance of, and lack of response to, his post-coital sermon on “the history of feeling” bring on “a sullen, defeated look” in John. But he refuses to fight back, which infuriates her even more. She eventually works herself up to throwing him out of her house that night, with his cassette player and the Schubert tape, after throwing a plate at him: “Straight from the heart! I said to myself. My first plate!

Julia’s account of her sex-life with John achieves what was hitherto unthinkable in Coetzee’s fiction, a sort of “dour comedy” that comes from John accepting, in his inscrutable way, that he could actually be quite funny in all his “clenched grimness” and “woodenness”. The last two phrases are used to describe the earlier John Coetzee, protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s Youth, written uniformly in the third person and set in the early Sixties in Cape Town and London. So what more are we getting from Julia? Who is she, and who is her John? And when he sermonizes on Schubert and sex and she screams back at him, whose voice are we hearing? In terms of autobiographical truth, what is J.M. Coetzee giving us, or not giving us? Are we getting more, or less, than what we get, say, from Isherwood when he uses the autobiographical third person in Christopher and his Kind or Kathleen and Frank?

Following one thread in Coetzee’s writings, Summertime comes after Boyhood and Youth, making up an autobiographical trilogy. In that sense, it is set apart from the works of fiction with which these three books are interspersed. Yet, beginning with Elizabeth Costello and, most consummately, with the “ficto-facts” of Señor C’s life and opinions in Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee has systematically broken his reader’s trust in the identities of the many kinds of voice that speak, are spoken through, or spoken for, in the books. So the reader is never allowed to make a secure distinction between the truths of the autobiographical trilogy and the fictions of the novels. No one kind or level of representation is privileged as a more authentic revelation of the writer’s self in being placed unequivocally outside the artifice of his writing. The author becomes nothing more, and nothing less, than the sum of his vanishing tricks. Vincent blandly explains to another one of John’s lovers how, as his biographer, he has learnt not to trust as factual record “what Coetzee writes” — “not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer”.

Vincent had never met or corresponded with John, yet the biography that he is preparing to write will be “authorized” in a masterfully upside-down sense of the word. The irony of this inversion operates as much beyond Vincent as upon him, without quite letting the reader feel exempted from its acute and complex treachery. In what relation, then, does Summertime stand to Vincent’s biography and to “the third memoir” that we learn, from Vincent, that John Coetzee was planning to write, which was to follow Boyhood and Youth, but which “never saw the light of day”? These are questions that arise not only in our minds as we read the book, but its characters also seem to be increasingly uneasy about the appropriation of their own words as these words are transcribed from the taped interviews and read out to them by Vincent. Readers of Coetzee will immediately begin to hear the unmistakable cadences of his prose in the words of each of these people. It is as if the characters also feel the sinisterness of their voices being homogenized by the informing presence of the author as they submit to his authority in spite of all their resistance or intransigence. As Señor C puts it in Diary of a Bad Year, “What the great authors are masters of is authority.”

Yet this compulsive ‘fictioneering’ does not obscure the terrible questions that have formed the core of Coetzee’s writing. Coming back to live in a brutal and divided country, and with a father the odour of whose failed life was the one thing John had hoped never to have to breathe again, was like regressing into childhood in a travesty of the European Bildungsroman. Coetzee, in one of his rare interviews, talks about Wordsworth as a pervasive, but silent, presence in his work. And that solemn Wordsworthian question, “Was it for this…?” which forms the opening chord of The Prelude, is the bleak and unheard leitmotif that joins Boyhood, Youth and Summertime. Wordsworth had set the gloriousness of his childhood and youth against the desolation and banality of adulthood. For Coetzee, the terms are exactly reversed. Can greatness be achieved out of an essential ungenerosity of spirit? Can the relentless anatomy of a self that consistently experiences itself as “not fully human” when confronted with the demands of love and of human care (“Care of Wound”), can such a process of self-examination count as integrity of soul?

Stuck at night in the middle of the Karoo, the “mournful plains” that had wrenched his heart as a child, John recites to an uncomprehending cousin a few lines from Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot as a sort of bedtime story. And it is in his essay on Beckett’s fiction that John’s creator allows himself to put in words the only thing that the writer could let the world hold him to: “a vision of life without consolation or dignity or promise of grace, in the face of which our only duty — inexplicable and futile of attainment, but a duty nonetheless — is not to lie to ourselves.”