Summertime – J.M. Coetzee

I don’t know what’s happened with my blogs of late they seem to be getting later and later. I was quite a way ahead a few weeks ago but with all this Man Booker Long List reading I am doing far more reading than blogging. That’s not a complaint by the way it’s just something I have noticed. Anyway in the frankly glorious sunshine we had in London I managed to finish reading ‘Summertime’ though the content of the book didn’t quite match the title as ‘summery’ is not how I would describe my first foray into the writings of Coetzee. 

‘Summertime’ is a very clever novel and all at once a very confusing one. It is fiction and yet is the memoirs of J.M. Coetzee. Hang on let me explain… this is a fictional novel written by a researcher who is writing a biography of John M. Coetzee after his death. He meets with five people who were important in Coetzee’s life in the 1970’s when Coetzee was living in South Africa with his Dad himself a grown adult and as many say ‘fathers were not meant to live their lives with sons’.

The start and end of the book are two sections of the Coetzee’s notebooks (are these real or fiction – we never know) that look at his life at that time and in many ways the relationship he had with his father and see’s Coetzee not only reflective but also questioning himself. These are the notebooks we learn that inspire the researcher after reading them and has used to form the book on Coetzee he is writing. Are you keeping up with this? It’s easier to read than it sounds I will admit.

The people the nameless researcher interviews are an interesting collection. Julia a married woman with a child who John had an affair with, even though by the sounds of it it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable relationship between them somehow it went on and bizarrely started sparks in Julia’s dead marriage for a time. I slightly wish this has been the final part of the book as I found this the most insightful and interesting into both Coetzee how he was deemed to see women and also how he lived with his father as Julia stays there for a time. The next interviewee also stayed with them for a while, Margot his cousin discusses their childhood love for each other and his sudden return from “jail in America” and what a changed man he was. Adriana, a Brazilian dancer, believed he was infatuated with her and even more inappropriately her daughter whom he taught. Martin was a friend he made when they both failed an interview, and didn’t quite seem to have a point at only ten pages long. Finally there is Sophie a colleague and lover he had.

In fact this book to me seemed less about father and son and more about Coetzee and his relationship with women. In fact with the mentioning on several occasions of the possibility that Coetzee was a homosexual by all interviewee’s and the researcher I was expecting Martin to have been a lover also, maybe a dalliance.

It is written incredibly well and despite being a complex idea, I don’t know if the other two novels in his fictional memoirs are the same format, he makes the whole thing work and actually read in parts like fiction, in others like research and interviews and then also like a work of non fiction. I couldn’t work out, which riled me somewhat, whether with the fact the researcher always mentions ‘he sold well but was never popular, the public never took to him’ if he is being bitter, ironic or wanting sympathy. I also couldn’t work out if all the tales of what an odd, awkward and dark person Coetzee was, Coetzee is in fact wanting sympathy or doubly proving he is trying to be unbiased.

I was definitely left wondering how much of ‘Summertime’ is fact and how much really is fiction? Either way it’s a great read, one I would recommend to people looking for something different but very readable. I was new to Coetzee and would certainly read more.

Yet another reason why I am so pleased I am reading the whole long list this year as I am being introduced to so many new and interesting authors and works. As you will see I have started reading (which I was quite apprehensive about) ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel and am loving it. I am just over 120 pages in and am reluctant to stop every time I have to put it down. At only a sixth of the way through (well just over) it could all change but if it carries on like this it could be a favourite, more of that later in the week.

Back to Coetzee though have any of you read any of the other of the trilogy of his ‘memoirs’? What are your thoughts on writing a fictional memoir like this? What about any of his other works? I have two copies of Disgrace at home and now will have to give it a go, have any of you read it… thoughts (though of course don’t give anything away)?

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8 Comments

Filed under Harvill Secker Books, J. M. Coetzee, Man Booker, Random House Publishing, Review

8 responses to “Summertime – J.M. Coetzee

  1. Simon, I found reading this a wonderful -yet confusing- experience. I think it was also the hardest blog post I had to write to date; I was (am) still forming thoughts so my review was very much a rumination.
    I don’t think that Coetzee is looking for sympathy; my take is that he is being dry and ironic but stressing that he doesn’t belong to the public just because he writes for the public.

    I loved, loved, loved Disgrace.

    • Oh I am totally going to have to read Disgrace after that praise. Its on the list for when back from foreign climbs and have the sensations all done and dusted.

      I am unsure on Coetzee’s motives in all honesty and I also couldnt work out if he was just completely arrogant hiding it in a shrowd. Maybe am over analysing haha.

  2. I’ve only read Waiting For the Barbarians and I just finished Elizabeth Costello, so those are the only ones I can speak to. Both times I was left feeling like I need to read them again. They seem simple on the surface, but they are amazingly complex as I think back on them. I plan to read a lot more of him and see if I can get a better handle on his style. I think his writing is wonderful!

    Lezlie

  3. Hello Simon, I’ve found your blog via amazon, where I read your insightful review. I’m intrigued by Coetzee since reading Summertime and will certainly read more – once I’ve worked my way through the rest of the Booker longlist. Still got another ten to read.

    • Ooh a visitor from Amazon now I dont think that has happened before. Hello Cathy and welcome. Anothre booker long list reader I think I have five to go… well five and a half but may have a few days grace once finished Not Unkind.

  4. justicejenniferreads

    Haven’t read this or anything by Coetzee, but from your description of this book, I think I would love it. I’ve discovered (mostly through my classes) that I love disjointed pieces like this where you’re not really sure what to think, but the writing is superb and the story is worthwhile. I’m adding this to my TBR pile. It sounds like it can be a bit challenging but is totally worthwhile (and we all need a challenge every now and then).

    By the way, I really like your taste in literature. It adds some very interesting pieces to my TBR pile and I really appreciate that! Thanks for introducing me to some really great books that I never would have come across on my own.

    • The last few weeks has been unusual in terms of not always being my taste. I do have quite an eclectic taste and am very much a “try anything and everything” attitude to books. The Man Booker longlist has really opened my eyes to some great new writers though.

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