Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Summertime, by J.M. Coetzee

And men? What do you think interests them?
Little asses. I like Coetzee. He says things brutally, too. 
— The Paris Review
I first encountered Coetzee about a decade ago, when I read Disgrace. From that experience I can tell you that Houellebecq's right: Coetzee says things brutally. More than brutally: crushingly. I wasn't prepared for his brutality—rarely in my life have I been as outraged by a book as I was by Disgrace. Indignantly I finished it, as if to prove to the author that no matter what he did, I wouldn't let him make me quit.

I'm reading Disgrace again now, having loved Summertime. This time through I'm not outraged but filled with dread, as if by reading it I were listening to my smartest, cruelest self warn me from the future, of my future.

Among the tragedies of aging: slowly coming to realize that one is capable of anything.

But about Summertime: I've had the good fortune, over the last year, as I've negotiated the long-foreseen dissolution of my life, to encounter a series of books that have all arrived, I've thought, exactly when I've needed them. The pattern began last October with The Unquiet Grave. It continues with Summertime, Coetzee's evocation of the years, during his mid-30s, when he finally became a writer. The novel takes the form of some notebook fragments and the memories of five people—four of them are women—who passed, at that time, through his life (or this fictional reconstruction of his life). The novel's conceit is ingenious: Coetzee has died, and a biographer is traversing the globe interviewing those who knew him.

True to form, Coetzee gives a brutal portrait of himself—or of his alter-ego, we'll say, if we're particular—as a reclusive, damaged man, a failure as a lover, an emotional and intellectual mediocrity.

The novel's triumph is that it replaces the portrait of the artist as young hero with a portrait of the artist as human being. In Coetzee's case we have a human being who makes art of his mediocrity. From his example we can infer that to be an artist, all you have to do is refuse to lie.

Good luck with that, Treanor.

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