J. M. Coetzee’s Autre-biography

TLS_FLANERY185X185_611300aPatrick Denman Flanery in the TLS:

Imagine for a moment that John Coetzee is dead. He has left behind a series of notebook entries in preparation for writing the final volume of his memoirs. What kinds of challenges would face a biographer setting out to write a life of this South African-born Nobel Laureate, whose public persona as “J. M. Coetzee”, at least as constructed by the literary press, is characterized by extreme privacy, if not awkwardness? (This is, after all, an author who did not attend either of the ceremonies at which his novels were given the Booker Prize.) Who would such a biographer interview, and what kinds of questions would he ask? More particularly, who might presume to speak about the personal life of an author who has attempted so radically to subvert the idea of literary celebrity in an age that celebrates the confessional?

This is the conceit behind Coetzee’s new book, Summertime, presented as the final volume of his Scenes from Provincial Life trilogy of fictionalized memoirs, which began with Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002). The first books both employ a distancing third-person narrator, recounting events in the life of the character John, or “he”. Boyhood is concerned with young John’s life in Worcester and Cape Town in the late 1940s and early 50s, depicting the author as a Europhile child culturally out of place in his homeland. Youth takes John from Cape Town to London in the early 1960s; here he works for IBM, has painful affairs, and, coping with the bleak realities of mid-century England, tries to be a poet. Both books function as explorations into the life of the writer at crucial stages in his aesthetic and intellectual development.