Sunday, May 26, 2013

And the living isn't easy.....

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee


I've been reading Coetzee all week, one of the writers I most admire and whose books I enjoy revisiting year after year.  In his early novels, up to The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee wrote about South Africa--recording his sense of nostalgia mingled with loathing for the mythic Afrikaner past and his hatred for apartheid (Life & Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians).  Master of Petersburg was a transitional book, a brilliantly inventive novel about Dostoevsky's private life, published in 1994, the year Coetzee's son died at age 23.   The novels that followed, beginning with Disgrace (1999), which many readers consider Coetzee's finest and most disturbing book, examine in greater detail dilemmas of personal authenticity and identify--still against the backdrop of South Africa's history--and deflect political questions into the realm of  (mostly failed) individual struggles to live a meaningful life; in other words, they take up the themes that preoccupied Dostoevsky himself. Coetzee is the most cerebral of writers, and it would be foolish to attempt an easy categorization of his work, but one can discover in a sequential study of his novels a gradual movement inward, an increasing focus on autobiography and "problems of the self," beginning with Youth, and continuing through Elizabeth Costello, Slow Man, Diary of a Bad Year, and culminating in Summertime.

Coetzee's autobiographical writings remind me of Bernhard's Gathering Evidence and, to a lesser extent, Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels--intense, unsparing self-portraits of the artist; of the three, Coetzee is the least inclined to give himself the benefit of the doubt.  His portrayals of "John" in Summertime or of "Se├▒or C" in Diary of a Bad Year can make the Coetzee admirer cringe before the author's Puritanical lack of sentiment:

"In Coetzee's eyes, we human beings will never abandon politics because politics is too convenient and too attractive as a theatre in which to give play to our baser emotions. Baser emotions meaning hatred and rancor and spite and jealousy and bloodlust and so forth.  In other words politics is a symptom of our fallen state and expresses that fallen state."

Summertime purports to be the interview notes of someone named Vincent, an English biographer who is writing about Coetzee's "lost years," his thirties, the years in South Africa when "John" was living an odd existence in a run-down house with his father, working part-time as a tutor, and preparing to compose Dusklands, his first novel (which was in fact written while Coetzee was teaching at SUNY Buffalo in 1971).  Vincent speaks to a woman with whom John had a brief, unsatisfying affair; with a cousin; with a Brazilian woman who was the unmoved object of John's infatuation; a male acquaintance (John had no friends); and a Frenchwoman, a colleague at the University of Cape Town, whose liaison with John was also unfulfilling and quickly terminated.  From these fragmentary interviews a portrait of the (deceased) John Coetzee emerges that is far from flattering: he was, we learn, socially awkward, lonely, "boney," a poor lover, incompetent, unmanly, shy, and, while perhaps talented, not a writer his lovers, relations, or friends considered worth their time.  Throughout these portraits the tone is mordant, deadpan,and without apparent irony.  It is as if Coetzee were constructing his post-mortem reputation without resort to the illusions the rest of us use to insulate ourselves from the truth--we are, all of us, foolish in the eyes of others, deluded as to our own significance.  Coetzee shares with Bernhard an unromantic view of the human tragicomedy--nothing is funny about our follies and cruelties and self-delusions--the best thing we can do is face the facts and bend to our fate.  While his early books are preoccupied with political will (if not idealism), Coetzee's work after 1999 is suffused with a sense of fate; he is, as one character in Summertime remarks, a Calvinist through and through.

Then again, no writer I can think of better disguises his commitments and beliefs.  We know Coetzee is a vegetarian (Elizabeth Costello), a bicycle enthusiast (Slow Man), and disgusted by the treatment he received in his native country (Disgrace and its aftermath).  But as is the case with Bernhard, the ruthless honesty of a great writer is no guarantee of his sincerity.  The conjuring of multiple fictional personae in Coetzee's work might delude us into thinking--like Mr. Vincent, the erstwhile and frustrated biographer--that we "know" the writer, but in the end, like Vincent, all we have are fragments of a complex and often contradictory imaginative life. 

"...[John's French mistress speaking] John did not have a strong presence. I don't mean to sound flippant.  I know he had many admirers; he was not awarded the Nobel Prize for nothing; and of course you would not be here today, doing these researches, if you did not think he was important as a writer.  But--to be serious for a moment--in all the time I was with him I never had the feeling I was with an exception person....he had no special sensitivity that I could detect, no original insight into the human condition. He was just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but, frankly, not a giant." 

Or, this: there is no "original insight into the human condition," only its precise recording in flawless  prose.  Nothing more; but what more is needed?

George Ovitt (5/26/13)


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