/ 6 November 2009

When living isn’t easy

JM Coetzee latest ‘novel’ presents a portrait of a vulnerable man who recognises his inability to establish close relationships.

SummerTime by JM Coetzee (Harvill and Secker)

From Boyhood and Youth to Summertime seems a strange way to conjugate successive titles, but it does adroitly avoid any mention of manhood or adulthood. And it does have an echo of an old favourite song that goes on to say, “… and the living is easy”, which indeed it was for an educated young white male in those days. Easy enough. And, not only is this third volume of JM Coetzee’s fictionalised autobiography going as a novel, (short-listed for the Man Booker prize, again), it has also been preceded by some rather autobiographical novels going as novels. Coetzee no longer adheres to the old forms and mixes previously separated genres, including essays and interviews, as it suits him.

In Summertime a biographer called Vincent is putting together a book on Coetzee after his death and the reader is presented with some scattered diary remnants, with later commentary, and transcribed interviews with old lovers and friends. Some people have expressed ineffable boredom with Coetzee’s seemingly endless project on himself and one twenty something was heard to mutter dismissively about “the conceit of the conceit”, referring to the indirect method of this narration.

But, disparage though they may, Coetzee keeps writing, often beautifully, and is almost always thought-provoking and clever. It hardly needs to be said that he dissects and reflects not only himself but also the era, and through his female narrators provides insight into women of that time as well as social issues of the 1970s, not the least of which were changing sexual mores and ideas about love. His colleagues offer thoughts on his ability as a teacher and his own literary preferences. He adds something unforgettable to the reader’s life, something not always appreciated at first but generally resolving into clarity.

One of the interviews recorded by Vincent (and embellished, he does admit) is with Margot, Coetzee’s dearest friend of his childhood, his beloved cousin, first met in Boyhood. Through her Coetzee addresses notions of home, rootedness and the recurring matter of whether to stay or leave. And why. She reflects on the changing dorp of Calvinia while she recalls her cousin, John: “All this change, all this busyness! O droewige land! O sorrowful land! Foschini Modes is confident enough to open a new branch in Calvinia. What can her cousin the failed emigrant, the poet of melancholy, claim to know about the future of this land that Foschini does not? Her cousin who believes that even baboons, as they stare out over the veld, are overcome with weemoed.”

Inexplicably there are people who fail to smile at what is undeniably funny — they consider Coetzee to be dry and cold. In fact the whole of this section of Summertime is suffused with tenderness and passion — and humour. Coetzee’s portrait of his Coetzee relatives on the farm Voëlfontein, evoked so memorably in Boyhood, shows them as “gesellig” and “slapgat”, a pretty hopeless lot neglecting the farm while they make jokes on the stoep. Even these soft boere are too much for Coetzee and he fails dismally to fit in or make the grade in their eyes.

Then comes his deep confession of love for the farm (his heart “wrenched”), where he and Margot and the others were privileged to be raised in a “sacred place.”

This is offset by the droll scene in which he and Margot get stuck on some remote road in his unreliable Datsun bakkie and have to be rescued by the old Khoisan farm worker who brings them home in his donkey cart. What greater ignominy could there be for a white man then? But he and Margot see things differently.

Margot has stayed on in South Africa, married a farmer from the Tanqua Karoo; the farm is not viable, but as she sees it, it is not just a farm, but a home not only to her and Lukas but also to the workers whose families have been there for uncounted generations. They live a tough life to keep it going and in some ways it is the very antithesis of the farm in Disgrace and even the antidote for those readers who were so angered by that novel.

In presenting his story through the voices of his old loves and colleagues Coetzee is not only giving us, deftly and skilfully, as unreliable a set of narrators as anyone could (nowadays) wish for, but he is also hiding from the reader. What people generally like about biography is that it is based on real lives, often far more astonishing than any fiction, (that old, but true enough, cliché). It’s a pity Coetzee could not be tempted to be more open and thus pre-empt the avalanche of interpretation and critique that seems to descend on all his work.

But this reclusiveness rings true with Summertime’s portrait of a man constrained by strong beliefs, difficult and diffident, but vulnerable nonetheless. He recognises, in this phase of his life, his deficiencies in establishing close relationships. He is constitutionally unable to pretend that he is what he is not, but his saving grace (and it is grace) is his tough grasp on the comedy of being human. For many readers this is satisfying, a wry comfort.

Some of the comedy is pretty low, such as his attempt to make love to his mistress while listening to Schubert, as part of an investigation into “the history of feeling”. And in the business of scratching his father’s Renata Tebaldi record it’s as if he is saying to a certain type of reader: “Here, chew on this!” But the real deep and painful, not so funny jokes revolve around his own dilemma of being a boerseun, who cannot accept kragdadige Afrikaners, and also around the ongoing issues around women in his life, both personal and academic (he’s a great feminist baiter). Something he does not yet seem to have found a way to joke about is the cold class and money exclusions of the Southern Suburbanites of Cape Town. One gathers that even Australians seem warm and friendly after them.

In the period covered by Summertime Coetzee’s father came to live with him, after his mother had died. His lover at the time describes the father as “unbearably sorrowful” and the “personification of stiff rectitude”, which can be seen coming out in Coetzee the younger too. He was a United Party man whose life has gone downhill since 1948, the year of the Nationalist victory, and the book ends abruptly when the senior Coetzee, long since silenced by his own circumstances and inclinations, really loses his voice. John Coetzee faces a serious challenge of love and obligation, matters he has wrestled with throughout the telling of this part of his life. And, in his inimitably subtle way he makes voice — his own, his narrators’, ours too — the central image of this book.