Fictive ‘ghost’ writing

2009-10-21 00:00



J. M. Coetzee

Harvill Secker

IN Summertime, the third of his ­fictionalised memoirs, following Boyhood and Youth, J. M. Coetzee is dead. Though of course he is very much alive, cerebrally active and ­exercising his formidable inventiveness in the writing of this work, the format of which enables him to say a number of disparaging things about himself, at a given period in his life, in the words of interviewees.

A young biographer, the fictive Mr Vincent, has chosen to do his ­research on the late J. M. Coetzee through interviewing five people who knew the subject during the ­period on which he intends to focus, namely 1972 to 1977. Coetzee ­returned to South Africa from the United States in 1972 and 1977 marks his first public recognition as a writer. Therefore the period is ­significant in the emergence of the man, as writer. Vincent has chosen the interview option as he considers Coetzee’s diaries, notebooks and letters to be unreliable, since Coetzee is essentially a “fictioneer”. Nevertheless, some fragments, apparently from Coetzee’s notebooks, are ­included at the beginning and end of Summertime.

One of the interviewees, dubbed Julia, says of Coetzee (or he says of himself), “I know he had a reputation for being dour, but John Coetzee was actually quite funny. A figure of ­comedy. Dour comedy.” And it is ­perhaps a dour comedian who pretends to be deceased so that he might write, in the apparent words of ­others, a critical assessment of himself as he appeared in his 30’s.

The interviews take place in various localities in 2007 and 2008 and the interviewees are aware of ­Coetzee’s stature as a writer and ­recipient of awards, not least the ­Nobel Prize for Literature. Nevertheless, they have little positive to say about him. The four female interviewees refer to him as socially inept, one going so far as to suggest that Vincent should call his biography The Wooden Man; incapable of love (either for the widowed father with whom he lived or for women); ­sexless in presence and in sexual ­encounters displaying an “autistic quality”; haughty and opinionated; incompetent in matters of a practical kind. The male interviewee, a rival for a position as lecturer at the ­University of Cape Town and subsequent friend and colleague, suggests that his teaching was dry and ­characterised by reserve, that he ­essentially lacked the temperament.

For all Coetzee’s apparent personal flaws, he is nevertheless committed to his work, arguing that he ­suffers from depression if he is not writing. It is what gives his life meaning and what might proffer a kind of immortality. Vincent concludes, from his interviews, that the man who appears to be a “supercilious ­intellectual” might in fact, in his 30’s, simply be “uncertain of himself”.

Written in Coetzee’s characteristic lean, clean prose, Summertime is a tour de force.

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