J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, the purportedly autobiographical Summertime , is an odd book, composed mainly of transcripts of interviews that a fictional biographer, Vincent, conducts after Coetzee’s death. Coetzee narrated his two memoirs, Boyhood and Youth , in the third person, but here Coetzee the author achieves even greater distance from Coetzee the subject.
At first read, the author’s apparent self-deprecation, delivered through the perspectives of characters Vincent interviews, calls to mind Philip Roth ‘s uncomfortably autobiographical narratives of impotence. The fictional Coetzee’s underperformance takes the form of a chronic failure to emotionally engage. One former lover tells Vincent that Coetzee was “adequate” but impersonal in bed. Another remembers South African Coetzee’s political views as “fatalistic and therefore too passive,” and his novels as “too cool, too neat … Too easy.”
But these aren’t necessarily Coetzee’s impressions of himself at all. As Jonathan Dee and Katha Pollitt pointed out in the New York Times , Summertime changes key facts of Coetzee’s life, undermining the credibility of the whole portrait he draws of himself. Perhaps this is just Coetzee’s attempt to emphasize the unreliability of biography-and autobiography-before he actually dies and potential biographers begin to circle. Pollitt suggests that the book is in part a response to charges of misogyny that have met Coetzee’s work in the past; four of Vincent’s five interviewees are intelligent, articulate women. For me Summertime expresses a struggle between the aforementioned fatalism and its opposite, the creative impulse. And like all of Coetzee’s work, it’s an encounter with a stubbornly independent mind, engaging, and here more elusive than ever.