Book Review – Summertime by JM Coetzee

Summertime by JM CoetzeeBook review by Emma Bragg.

As we edge into midwinter, it seems oddly fitting that this week’s review should feature a title naming the opposite time of year, but the third volume of JM Coetzee’s ‘fictionalised memoir’ is about as far as you can get from an undemanding beach read, says reviewer Emma Bragg.

Summertime was on the shortlist for the 2009 Booker Prize and claims to portray a series of interviews conducted by a young biographer. Mr Vincent is researching the life of Coetzee between the years of 1972 and 1977, which he believes were a key period in the life of the writer.

The book starts with several seemingly random dated passages and italic notes such as ‘to be expanded on’. The relevance of these passages becomes clear in the following interview with Julia, the first interviewee, who had an affair with Coetzee in the 1970s. It appears a curious method by which to start a book but it offers an insight into the setting and period.

Throughout the book, Coetzee appears to be self-critical in how he allows his characters to describe him as cold, antisocial, and even as a bad lover.

“John had what I would call a sexual mode, into which he would switch when he took off his clothes. In sexual mode he could perform the male part perfectly adequately – adequately, competently, but – but for my taste – too impersonally.”

It would be naive, however, for the reader to take this as honest self-examination. The writer even ventures so far as to fictionalise the biggest element of all – his death – with the biographer supposedly undertaking the writing of the biography after the writer’s death.

It begs the question as to why Coetzee would write of himself in this way: is it in good humour or is it representative of other elements of the book? One of the key themes throughout the book is the sense of place. John Coetzee in the book is an outsider, even within his own family, having previously left South African and now returned but to a welcome that’s anything but warm.

Coetzee frequently appears to feel like an intruder in South Africa and this is further commented on by the interview with Martin:

“…our presence there was legal but illegitimate. We had an abstract right to be there, a birthright, but the basis of that right was fraudulent… grounded in crime, namely colonial conquest…”

Does Coetzee’s self criticism perhaps more deeply symbolise how he feels about South Africa? Is his description of himself as an impersonal lover perhaps representative of how impersonal he feels towards South Africa?

Coetzee is an infamous recluse and did not collect either of his Booker Prizes in person so perhaps the more important message of the book is how he feels about his private life. In the final interview Sophie questions how ethical writing a biography without permission is and maybe this is the real question that Coetzee wishes the reader to consider.

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee is published by Vintage and is available to buy from Amazon.

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