Labeled fiction, this book by Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee presents itself as material being gathered for a biography of the late Nobel Prize-winning writer J.M. Coetzee: interviews with five who knew him during the 1970s and, at the beginning and the end, notes from his journals of that time.
It reads like an act of contrition. Although the life of the book's author diverges from the life of the Coetzee being described in its pages, the two are clearly close enough to make one pity both. The Coetzee in these pages emerges as an unattractive man of poor judgment, no social grace and a sort of emotional debility. The interviewees -- two of his lovers, both married, a female cousin, a onetime colleague and a woman he pursued in vain -- offer a picture of the subject as cold, inept, isolated and incapable of managing relationships. That Coetzee himself is the author of these impressions makes one wonder at the seemingly self-punishing nature of "Summertime."
In his previous fictional autobiographies, "Boyhood" and "Youth," and in most of his novels, Coetzee has addressed the struggle of the self against otherness -- in politics and culture, particularly in the South Africa of his youth and early writing career; in family, community and sexual alliances. In this book, the third in the biographical series, he has achieved the appearance of absolute otherness; the self at the center of the writing process has, it seems, disappeared.
And yet. Were it not for J.M. Coetzee's large literary presence, would "Summertime" merit our attention? Would it tell us anything worthwhile about the work of not just belonging to but also eking art from a politically, ethically and culturally compromised world? It's difficult for me to say -- hard to separate Coetzee the subject from Coetzee the author of "In the Heart of the Country," "Waiting for the Barbarians," "Life and Times of Michael K" and "Disgrace," among so many other extraordinary works.
In many ways the fictional biographer, Mr. Vincent, is struggling with the same questions. One of his interviewees, a Brazilian ballerina displaced to South Africa where she must teach dance lessons to support her children, turns the interview back upon Mr. Vincent. "How can you be a great writer if you are just an ordinary little man?" she asks at one point, and later, after describing Coetzee's abject attempts to get close to her by attending her dance classes: "How could this man of yours be a great man when he was not human?"
The stories of these interviewees' encounters with the imagined Coetzee go right to the murky differences between life and art. Author or character, there is no divorcing him from the South Africa that formed him, from the Afrikans of his family and his beginnings. It is in opposition to this world that he becomes himself, a writer and a man perpetually coming to terms with a cultural heritage he can neither accept nor deny and a political reality that he can neither inhabit nor abandon.
In that, we find the ultimate sadness of this book. Neither autobiography nor fiction, it involves us in the troubling understanding of how explanations are constructed while life goes inexorably on.
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Cornucopia, Wis.