Dec/Jan 2010

Dead Reckoning

Martin Puchner


In a famous cartoon by Achille Lemot, Gustave Flaubert holds up the heart of Emma Bovary impaled on a knife. A similar picture could be drawn of J. M. Coetzee. Even though he is an outspoken vegetarian and defender of animal rights, Coetzee has no qualms about subjecting his characters to the cruelest vivisection. His instrument is a third-person narrator who enjoys unrestricted access to the minds and hearts of his characters. Recently, Coetzee has applied the technique to his own person. In the two autobiographical volumes Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), he dissects the young John Coetzee like a surgeon operating on himself.

Youth leaves Coetzee in 1964 as a young man at loose ends in London. In Summertime, the third installment of Coetzee's autobiography, we find him in his thirties, back home in South Africa. He is living with his father, for whom the child of Boyhood expresses fierce contempt, in an outskirt of Cape Town, trying to make ends meet with an unglamorous teaching job. His activities as a writer go largely unmentioned. Instead, we learn about his affair with a neighbor's wife, his visits to the family farm, his awkward infatuation with the desired mother of his student, and his reputation as a competent but unenthusiastic teacher.

Summertime mainly describes a few years in the '70s; the intervening time since London is only suggested through ominous hints. We gather that Coetzee moved to the United States and ran afoul of the law. In fact, Coetzee spent many formative years in the States, until he, together with forty-four other faculty members, occupied a university building to protest the Vietnam War, then was arrested for trespassing and forced to go home. But Coetzee refuses to play the author as activist hero. When his cousin asks about America, his alter ego responds by misquoting Lucky's monologue from Waiting for Godot: "Given the existence of a personal God . . . with a white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia loves us deeply quaquaquaqua with some exceptions."

One of Summertime's surprises is Coetzee's turn away from his signature technique. Although the book begins and ends third-person narrator in place, for the most part it consists of interviews conducted by a fictive biographer who is researching the author's life. To this end, he speaks to two of Coetzee's lovers, the desired mother of his student, a colleague, and a cousin. As this autobiographical project reaches the time when he became a serious author, Coetzee apparently no longer trusts himself to perform the operation and prefers the services of a professional. We are not dealing with vivisection anymore, for Coetzee, within the frame of this fictional autobiography, has actually died. The biographer is merely conducting the autopsy.

The former lovers and friends don't exactly go easy on the corpse; they are happy to detail Coetzee's failings. At the same time, they don't quite engage in the ruthless critique that marks Coetzee's omniscient narrators. Friends can afford what dead Coetzee himself couldn't—moments of sympathy. Sometimes this sympathy even turns what could have been the material for ruthless self-indictment—dates gone horribly wrong, awkward family scenes—into comedy. One night, Coetzee shows up at a lover's house with a cassette player and a Schubert string quintet. She comments dryly: "I don't know if you remember the slow movement, but there is a long violin aria with the viola throbbing below, and I could feel John trying to keep time with it. The whole business struck me as forced, ridiculous. Somehow or other my remoteness communicated itself to John. 'Empty your mind!' he hissed at me. 'Feel through the music!'"

Although they introduce variation and novelty, the dialogues between the biographer and his interviewees come at a price. For the most part, he is unobtrusive, giving over space to Coetzee's acquaintances. But his interjections are grating, in part because he is ever worried about catching names and reduced to asking flat-footed questions: "Just a minute. I'm confused." His questions and comments, annoying as they are, remain disembodied. It is as if the camera were directed only at the interviewees. As long as one character speaks, Coetzee's masterful style is on display. But when there is dialogue between investigator and interviewee, the contrivance becomes all too evident: There is no real exchange and no discernable setting.

We live in an age when the autobiography, the memoir, and the diary reign supreme. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007) feature barely disguised versions of himself. In Summertime, fictional autobiography and autobiographical fiction converge. But Coetzee does not write autobiography like anyone else; he avoids the presumptuous intimacies of confessional narrators even as he sows confusion about his life. He admits that Jacobus Coetzee, the ancestor on whom his first novel, Dusklands (1974), was allegedly based, was made up, as was the preface, supposedly written by Coetzee's father. Priming us to be suspicious about the proliferating versions of himself in his fiction, Coetzee trains us to be suspicious about our autobiographical era as well. Summertime pretends that Coetzee has died, but his readers know they can expect ever more unreliable versions of him in the future.

Martin Puchner's book The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2010.

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