08 January 2020

Notes on Summertime


Summertime: Scenes from Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee (Harvill Secker, 2009)



Cover page: This is the 8th novel by Coetzee that I've read. It completes the trilogy of memoir-like anti-novels that started with Boyhood and Youth.

p. 20: According to one resource person interviewed about Coetzee the persona or character in the book, the notebook entries that bookended (sandwiched) the novel are written by Coetzee "himself".

Coetzee wrote them himself. They are memos to himself, written in 1999 or 2000, when he was thinking of adapting those particular entries for a book. [original in italics]

The fragmentary nature of the entire book, made up of diary entries and interviews, was at least indirectly acknowledged.

p. 13: The notebook entries continue:

If Jesus had stooped to play politics he might have become a key man in Roman Judaea, a big operator. It was because he was indifferent to politics, and made his indifference clear, that he was liquidated. How to live one's life outside politics, and one's death too: that was the example he set for his followers.

Odd to find himself contemplating Jesus as a guide. But where should he search for a better one?

Caution: Avoid pushing his interest in Jesus too far and turning this into a conversion narrative. [original in italics]

This prompts me on what cycle of Coetzee novels to read next. In fact, I placed an order for The Childhood of Jesus, along with Chekhov's Sakhalin Island, in April 2019. A book claims notice from the post office arrived at J's apartment for her to claim and pick up the parcel. She lost the notice.

(Rant: About government post office policy sending notices for books instead of directly delivering to the address. Government requires book receivers to pay further tax money before handing over the parcel. Government is taxing literature and knowledge. Hence, it taxes the future.)

How live one's life and death outside politics? It appears as if Coetzee's project for the Coetzee character/persona was set up early on. However much he (the persona) avoided the politics of South Africa, it haunts him and finds him. It is in the air one breathes. He (the actual novelist) manages to escape to another continent.

pp. 33-34: An attempt at dry comedy. The interviews (the sandwiched portions) are laced with comedy so dry they make the paper crisp.

As for the experience itself – I mean the experience of infidelity, which is what the experience was, predominantly, for me – it was stranger that I expected, and then over before I could get accustomed to the strangeness. Yet it was exciting, no doubt about that, from start to finish. My heart did not stop hammering. Not something I will forget, ever. Going back to Henry James, there are plenty of betrayals in James, but I recall nothing about the sense of excitement, of heightened self-awareness, during the act itself – the act of betrayal, I mean. Which suggests to me that, though James liked to present himself as a great betrayer, he had never actually done the deed itself, bodily.

From start to finish, even the literary allusions sizzle and crackle with asexual analysis.

 p. 42: At opportune times, the prose swerves toward language matters, weighing words in abrupt asides.

His English – the father's – was perfectly passable, as I said, but it was clearly not his mother tongue. When he brought out an idiom, like No doubt about that, he did so with a little flourish, as if expecting, as if expecting to be applauded.

I asked him what he did. (Did: such an inance word; but he knew what I meant.) He told me he was a bookkeeper ...

Reminds me of somebody who keeps saying as far as ... is concerned. Always with a flick of a hand.

As if every problem and misunderstanding and miscommunication in the world, every war, conflict, terror plot, diplomatic protest, can be attributed to poor use of language.

Later (p. 96): "In the afterworld there are no language problems. It's like Eden all over again."

p. 44: Storytelling, the interviewee, insists, is a "nothing more than a matter of perspective". Unoriginal. Rashomon showed the way. What was original was how the fragments encompass various prose forms or artifacts to produce scenes from the life of a single (i.e., unmarried) white man in South Africa during turbulent times.

Perhaps a true novelist will never be able to write an unqualified (non-fictional) autobiography, only an autobiographical novel, or a semi-autobiographical one, let alone a memoir. Autofiction is his default register. This ungraspable life, so to speak, can only be dealt with indirectly, experience by experience. Fiction is the closest thing to an autobiography. Was it Borges who said that?

pp. 61-62: About the enduring value of books, the novelist hides behind his philosophical dialogues, tongue in cheek mode. The Coetzee persona had the temerity to proclaim, "A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us. What else should it be?" Unattributed.

pp. 87-89, p. 91: The seams are showing. Is it all an exercise to demonstrate the editing process of novel-writing? That the writer's manner of editing the prose dictates how a text takes form, and how
he responds to the form reveals the form itself. Is this fragmentary novel an ode to found text or gradual self-immolation? It appears to be a well-curated edifice of discrete instants, moments in the life of an artist type.

p. 145, 151: More direct proclamations about the race problem but always coming out of nowhere, sudden gestures, sudden asides. "Out of place in the loud, angry place this country has become." He can't help himself from zooming in and out, from specific and local, to broad and national.

p. 160: Again, too much about the asexuality of the Coetzee character:

So Manuel brough Mr Coetzee to our flat, and I could see at once he was no god. He was in his early thirties, I estimated, badly dressed, with badly cut hair and a bear when he shouldn't have worn a beard, his beard was too thin. Also he struck me as once, I can't say why, as célibataire. I mean not just unmarried but also not suited to marriage, like a man who has spent his life in the priesthood and lost his manhood and become incompetent with women. Also his comportment was not good (I am telling you my first impression). He seemed ill at ease, itching to get away. He had not learned to hide his feelings, which is the first step toward civilized manners.

The novelist takes great pains in developing an almost-neuter, subhuman, sub-sexual organism. The loss of fecundity, the state of infertility. The existence of this full-bodied animal in an arid and drab landscape – unable to escape from the dreary tentacles of politics and history – is almost a double-edged political commentary itself in the age of apartheid.

p. 163: Imagine the character Coetzee's response to a mother of his young impressionable female student when the mother asks about his teaching philosophy.

'What I call my philosophy of teaching is in fact a philosophy of learning. It comes out of Plato, modified. Before true learning can occur, I believe, there must be in the student's heart a certain yearning for the truth, a certain fire. The true student burns to know. In the teacher she recognizes, or apprehends, the one who has come closer than herself to the truth. So much does she desire the truth embodied in the teacher that she is prepared to burn her old self up to attain it. For his part, the teacher recognizes and encourages the fire in the student, and responds to it by burning with an intenser light. Thus together the two of them rise to a higher realm. So to speak.' 

Obviously, the mother was unimpressed. Her assessment of the teacher's philosophy was comic fire.

Summertime is ostensibly a novel about one John Coetzee and the characters he interacted with during his adulthood. His, and their, misadventures. But J.M. Coetzee is too subtle for surfaces and depths. It is a slice of life of a country, John Coetzee's country, which unfortunately happens to be not fictional.

The novel was creative in juxtaposing various excerpts, dealing with apartheid both centrally and obliquely. But it was evident that the approach becomes more tentative and self-conscious as the interviews drag on. It keeps on saying how Coetzee's subject matter and themes in his novels need to be distanced from the real instances of his own life.

p. 215: "It would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life."

We get it. True life was different from fictional treatment.

The novelist, moreover, never lets up the chance for some of his characters to pillory the character of Coetzee the character/persona. I should say, both the character and the written works of the Coetzee persona. Consider the final words of the last interviewee, a literary critic

In general I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writing deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion. That's all.

Coetzee makes it easy to quibble about the harsh judgement of the critic interviewed here. The sweeping, all-knowing assessment. The generic tirade and overstatement. The critic was as unoriginal as the Coetzee persona in the book. Saying unsaid things may not be the only yardstick of great writing. In this novel, the novelist may not have said unsaid things; in fact it said a lot of already said things – the frozen sea inside us, hello. But the medium was as deformed and deconstructed as it could be. This made the already said things as if unsaid, or as if said for the first time.

As to Coetzee's apparent hostility to his own created self, the solution Borges provided killed the irony:

It would be an exaggeration to affirm that our relationship is hostile; I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can plot his literature and that literature justifies me. 


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