Book review: Scenes From Provincial Life, by JM Coetzee


“I know he had a reputation for being dour,” says a character in the final part of JM Coetzee’s fictionalised trilogy of memoirs, “but John Coetzee was actually quite funny.” Not that this manifested itself in jokes, or in a general air of light-hearted good humour; as the character, Julia, a woman who had once had an affair with Coetzee (or should that be ‘Coetzee’?), expands, he was “A figure of comedy. Dour comedy. Which, in an obscure way, he knew, even accepted.”

At first glance this extraordinary book, originally published as ‘Boyhood’, ‘Youth’ and ‘Summertime’, and now issued as a single volume, has as its subject the standard portrait of an artist’s growth, and the formative experiences that will eventually be transmuted in his art. In the first part, ‘Boyhood’, the young John Coetzee struggles with his feelings of separateness from his peers, his own family, and from the wider environment of suburban, post-war South Africa. Clever and timid, he both resents and demands the suffocating love of his mother, and objects to his father’s feckless inadequacy. Only on the family farm, which has passed to his uncle’s side of the family, does he feel anything like a sense of belonging, even though he is dimly aware of the fundamental illegitimacy of white South Africa’s claim on the landscape around him. In ‘Youth’, John is now a callow and serious young man who is determined to reinvent himself as a poet. He completes his university degree in mathematics and longs to escape to Europe, where he can be free of South Africa’s stifling provincialism and, as he sees it, the imminent prospect of violent insurrection from the oppressed black majority. Arriving in London, John is carefully and comprehensively disillusioned by the metropolis; he is lonely, he cannot write, and he cannot form any kind of serious relationship with a woman. There is something in him, he begins to suspect, that is not quite human, that repels other people. He is too closed-off, too insular, and too timid to attempt any of the risks that might make him a success in love and literature. In a desultory way he writes a critical study of Ford Madox Ford, and takes a job as a computer programmer at IBM. The city seems to have beaten him; a stranger in a strange land, he gives up poetry and resigns himself to his fate.

These first two volumes are incredibly vivid and almost forensically honest. JM Coetzee seems to be presenting the reader with a choice: do we read it as lightly fictionalised memoir, or as heavily autobiographical fiction? Either way, if these volumes do offer an accurate account of Coetzee’s early life, then he has been utterly brutal with himself. In a present-tense, localised third person narrative, no flaw in his personality is allowed to go unanalysed; his selfishness, his timidity, his self-regard and his self-hate. It’s as if the elder Coetzee, for whatever enigmatic reason, is taking revenge on his younger self, clinically and without a trace of compassion. At the same time though, there is something inherently comic in the portrayal of a young man’s seriousness, and the difficulties into which that pomposity will lead him. As well as being brutally honest, Coetzee also treats John’s stiffness and inflexibility with a kind of benign contempt, a certain wry detachment from the young man who joins writing groups to meet women, who dreams of nothing more than having a serious, transfiguring love affair and then, whenever he meets a woman, finds the normal compromises attendant on any relationship completely unbearable.

‘Summertime’, the third volume, turns many of these readings on their head. Presented as a series of interviews conducted by an English academic writing a biography of the recently deceased JM Coetzee, along with extracts from Coetzee’s notebooks, we are given a picture of the main character from several different angles in the years after he is supposed to have returned to South Africa. Lovers, relatives, colleagues, all share their memories of John from the years between 1972 and 1977, from when he returned after unspecified difficulties in the USA, to when his first book was published. In this volume, John comes across as rebarbative and unapproachable as he does in the first two; he “wasn’t made for love, wasn’t constructed that way”, the interviewer is told. He was “Like a sphere. Like a glass ball. There was no way to connect with him.” He lives with his widowed father in a run down cottage, which in his relentless and incompetent way he is trying to improve; he has a couple of teaching jobs; he helps his father with the accounts at a local auto-repair shop. In passing some of his books are mentioned, as is the Nobel Prize for Literature he received in 2003, but other than that John’s writing is absent from the novel. The English interviewer seems to be working on a biography of a writer that will effectively ignore his writing, in favour of the personal and the intimate. 

 In ‘Summertime’ it is clear that Coetzee (the author, not the character) is moving beyond the standard ‘portrait of the artist’ model to enact a formal concern with how we write – and read – about an individual consciousness, and how we represent the sum of experiences that go into the construction of that consciousness. Coetzee is trying to find the best way to represent a personality in prose, and we are only, it is stated by the interviewer, able to get a full idea of his character from the memories of people who once knew him in the round. Even then, we feel the additional tension of knowing that the interviewer has perhaps embellished these accounts more than is necessary; several of the interviewees, when having their accounts read back to them, object to certain phrases or emphases that they claim not to have made, and all of them have demanded a final cut before their accounts are published. One possible reading of the trilogy is that the earlier parts, ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Youth’ are in fact constructions put together in the third person by this interviewer, or that he is going to write a final volume of John’s autobiography in the same style (in the context of the book, Coetzee is supposed to have died in Australia some time in the early years of the 21st century). It’s as if JM Coetzee is trying to derail a possible future biography by demonstrating the inherent instability of any such project. We cannot know another person entire; indeed, we cannot even know ourselves entire.

Standing behind this trilogy, informing every aspect of it, is the situation of white South Africa in the years after the Second World War. In the first volume, John is repelled by the Afrikaner boys at his school, by what he sees as their savagery, their uncouthness. In the confused amalgam of identities South Africa conferred on its white citizens, John is seen as ‘English’, despite his surname, and in the course of the novel the country codifies its racial paranoia in the apartheid system. In ‘Youth’, John despairs of what he sees as his provincial background, and is keenly aware of the antipathy towards South Africa in the ‘mother country.’ Indeed, by 1961, when John is in London, South Africa secedes from the Commonwealth and becomes a republic. In ‘Summertime’ we have the sense that he has returned to the country in defeat, having run out of options elsewhere. He loves the grandeur of the landscape by the family farm, but he is completely honest about the brutalities of the system that has given it to them, and knows how unsustainable that system really is. Throughout the book, Coetzee hints that John is not an exceptional character, but the natural product of this unnatural system. Deracinated, closed-off, uncomfortable around other people, reliant on others for manual labour, John is an analogue for South Africa as a whole.

In a variety of ways, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, Coetzee has throughout his outstanding career turned his spare, lapidary prose and his forensic gaze on the violent, impossible situation of white South Africa. Here, in this exceptional book, turning those same qualities on himself, he finds, almost as if he expected not to, the same grand and appalling view.


(Thanks to Anna at Random House for the review copy.)




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