Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review: I had a farm in Africa

JM Coetzee's latest work of fiction, Summertime, seems like it rounds out his fictionalised autobiography project - or what the author might call his autrebiography project. Starting with Boyhood, which was followed by Youth, Coetzee has re-imagined a life story of a South African writer named John Coetzee who grew up in the Karoo, had trouble with being both English and an Afrikaner, wrote some esoteric fiction, won the Nobel Prize, and in short - and what seems to interest the characters of this fiction most intense- and intently - was always a man who basically could not grow to be with someone. Summertime imagines: What if this Coetzee were already dead? If a young English biographer wanted to know more about him from the men and women who were 'close' to him in life, what would they say? Who was John Coetzee?

The response is the immensely powerful, sepulchral, and biting dialogues that comprise this novel. Like a plainsong of voices over the veld, four women and one man rise to the challenge of biographer Mr Vincent's soft, but antagonizing questions of their relations with this Coetzee character, a man who Vincent himself has never met, who suspiciously reminded me of V in Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight - another novel with pseudo-biographical/character representation interest.

But this 'plainsong' is anything but peaceful. Beginning with diary entries, which we soon realise are in fact Coetzee's, but written in the third-person, the narrative starts with a vicious burning of a home in South Africa, where the villains are painted in blackface, speaking Afrikaans to one another. Then with each of the speakers interviewed by Vincent we understand a huge sense of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and dysfunction with John Coetzee. Each packs a heavier punch than the last at the author. In the first interview session, the early lover Julia makes a profound statement after she shockingly tells Vincent about mislaid intercourse plans John came up with, which involved listening to a Schubert quartet in order to understand what it was like to live in Napoléonic Europe. Julia obviously thinks this a bad idea and stops the sex, eventually throwing a plate at young John.
Because who but a total dummy would order the woman he is supposed to be in love with to take lessons in lovemaking from some dead composer, some Viennese Bagatellenmeister? When a man and a woman are in love they create their own music, it comes instinctively, they don't need lessons. But what does our friend John do? He drags a third presence into the bedroom. Franz Schubert becomes number one, the master of love; John becomes number two, the master's disciple; and I become number three, the instrument on whom the sex-music is going to be played. That - it seems to me - tells you all you need to know about John Coetzee. The man who mistook his mistress for a violin. . . . Who was so dumb, so cut off from reality, that he could not distinguish between playing on a woman and loving a woman.
Compare that statement with one in Disgrace where David Lurie, the protagonist, at the end of the novel realises that he's not Lord Byron or his inamorata in the opera Lurie's creating, but rather he's the music, he's the plink-plunk of the strings. There is something about being this voiceless interlocutor, the music between people rather than the people themselves, that pervades Coetzee's fiction. And that is where we find him to be the most tender, when we hear about the tenuous bridges that his characters are trying to cross: 'I am interested in the things we have lost, not the things we have kept. . . . [Why learn Hottentot?] The dead. You can speak with the dead. Who otherwise are cast out into everlasting silence.' There is something tender there, through the ridiculousness, through the moroseness. In its bluntness, in its honesty, it is folly but it is also treasure, treasure of human consciousness.

Coetzee's fictional project has recently to be barebones, to be naked and vulnerable - like a mollusc without its shell (another Disgrace image) - but without calling attention to it. Confession and disgrace, identity and shame all play heavy roles and continue to do so within this novel/autobiography. This work of fiction is perhaps one that ties the room together better than any of his former, and one that shows off his ability to capture five distinct voices with five distinct rhythms.

Available December 28, 2009
Or the Harvill Secker/Random House UK edition, here.


Colin said...

We are just on a Coetzee kick right now! This is one I'll have to pick up--it seems like everything Coetzee writes is a fictional biography of sorts. Except the ones set in 19th century Russia; those don't seem as biographical. Though, they still have elements of it.

Kari said...

I'm intrigued by the five voices, but I already declared that I give up on Coetzee.

Nice choice of the UK cover, Anglophile. ;)

Salvatore said...

Kari, you should read it. It's a good one. Leave your inhibitions at the door.

Colin, I'll perhaps lend you the galley I received if you read the new Dan Brown or Nick Sparks.