The narrator of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, “Summertime,” identified only as a “Mr Vincent,” is an English academic gathering information for a biographical study of a key period in the life of “John Coetzee,” the “late” South African writer.
The novel’s opening is framed by “fragments” from “John Coetzee’s notebooks for the years 1972-75,” a narrative device J.M. Coetzee borrows from Joseph Conrad, followed by chapters consisting of annotated transcriptions of interviews with his subjects, all of whom knew this fictive Coetzee to varying degrees. Like his acknowledged literary forebear, Samuel Beckett, and like Conrad, this John Coetzee writes in a non-natal language, albeit one he learned as a child.
Beckett and Coetzee repudiate the idea that literature teaches or uplifts — it simply is what it is, thoughtful or not, and incapable of engagement on “issues.” It’s up to the reader to provide meaning. Conrad, too, wrote powerful fiction that readers would invest with contradictory interpretations. In “Heart of Darkness,” Conrad’s narrator introduces readers to what he is about to recount as one of Marlowe’s “inconclusive tales,” and “Summertime,” a story that luxuriates in doubt, echoes Conrad’s indirection.
The interviews start with Julia, a woman we come to understand is a therapist living in Canada. But at the time she knew Coetzee more than 30 years before she was his neighbor, and lover, in suburban Cape Town. John Coetzee was living with his father, a quiet, lonely man, in a cottage around which a new housing estate has been constructed. Despite his advanced degrees, John Coetzee drives a pickup and is remodeling the cottage, including knocking up concrete and pouring a slab — work inspired, he told Julia, by “the need to overthrow the taboo on manual labor.” He is also a tutor in English to secondary-school pupils. Julia is the daughter of Jewish refugees from Hungary, and in middle age a person of formidable certainties.
She says of John Coetzee, “He was the only man I knew who would let me beat him in an honest argument. … It wasn’t that he couldn’t argue; but he ran his life according to principles, whereas I was a pragmatist. Pragmatism always beats principles; that is just the way things are.”
Cousin Margot, another key informant for Vincent, has been interviewed through an interpreter; her native tongue is Afrikaans. She describes her cousin John’s Afrikaans as “halting,” and “blames the deterioration” on his move to Cape Town and then abroad. Vincent has transcribed the tapes of their conversation, he tells Margot, and had “a colleague from South Africa … check that I had the Afrikaans words right. Then I … fixed up the prose to read as an uninterrupted narrative spoken in your voice.”
So, we have the actual novelist J.M. Coetzee writing as if the storyteller is a woman whose translated words are being “fixed up” by an English academic who in turn is reading the story to its original teller, in English no less, but purporting to be her words. At one point Margot interjects, “Now I must protest. I said nothing remotely like that. You are putting words in my mouth.” The narrator replies, “I’m sorry, I must have gotten carried away.”
Margot’s chapter fills in elements of Coetzee family history and recounts John’s nostalgia for the dry Karoo, where his family farmed a property so large a person could not walk across it in a day. Yet he had forsaken this land, avoiding military service by studying abroad. “Not without reason, the Coetzees took it to mean he had disowned his country, his family, his very parents.”
There are elements of the story being excavated by Vincent that we know correspond to the biographical details of J.M. Coetzee’s life. John Coetzee lives the modest life he does because he suffered some “disgrace” in America — none of Vincent’s sources know any details. His father, too, lives in enigmatic disgrace, a disbarred lawyer working as a bookkeeper for a pair of Jewish brothers from eastern Europe whose other clerk is a Muslim woman. “The brothers, it must be presumed … are aware of his chequered past in the legal profession.”
J.M. Coetzee was arrested during anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in the early 1970s, when he was a young professor in New York. He returned to South Africa, where his lawyer father had been disbarred some years before for anti-apartheid activities. Nothing in “John” Coetzee’s biography suggests this political possibility — the details of the shared disgraces of father and son are left unexplained, as if a principled political stance with consequences somehow constituted a form of failure.
One of Vincent’s witnesses uses the word “scatterlings” in reference to the Portuguese-speaking schoolgirls from Angola who are among John Coetzee’s pupils. (Their mother, a Brazilian who has not read Coetzee’s novel “Foe,” but when told by Vincent that its heroine in the first draft was a Brasiliera asks him to send her a copy so she can “see what this man of wood made of me.”)
Scatterling is, as far as I can tell, a neologism of the South African musician Johnny Clegg, referring to people pushed about the continent by the historical forces of settlement and de-colonization. J.M. Coetzee, who now lives in Australia, is himself a scatterling, and has made the scatterlings’ world the center of his fictional universe. “Summertime,” with its dark tone softened by surprising dabs of humor, is a rich addition to Coetzee’s formidable oeuvre.