A confession first. This is the fourth book I have picked up with “summer” in the title. The other three I have abandoned after the first few chapters. I’m trying to complete the Reading through the seasons challenge and I am finding it a challenge! So, I was determined that even if it was terrible I was going to finish this book.
Shortlisted for the Booker prize this year, Summertime is the final book in a trilogy of fictional memoirs written by John Coetzee about John Coetzee after his death. As it sounds, it is unusual. Boyhood and Youth are the first two in the series. It didn’t seem crucial to have read them first and I hadn’t.
Coetzee chooses a fictional English biographer to interview several people that were close to him during the 1970’s prior to his success as a writer. These include a married woman he was involved with, a favourite cousin, the mother of a girl he taught English to and co-workers. The intriguing and quite frustrating question that arises out of this is if any of the people are real and if any of what they say about Coetzee is true.
The setting is rural South Africa, the picture that emerges is of a reclusive man, dysfunctional in his relationships although quite successful with women in an unsatisfactory way. Coetzee is certainly not using this as a vehicle to big himself up – if it is about him at all. The Coetzee we learn about is the black sheep of the family, lives with his ageing father, does a bit of teaching, writes a bit of poetry.
I’m not exactly sure what I thought of the actual story. Described on the cover as “sometimes heartbreaking, often very funny.” I have to admit I wasn’t involved enough with the characters to agree. I enjoyed the reading but in a curious rather than engaged way.
What made it worth reading was that it made me think. Coetzee explores his views in different ways. Sometimes quite subtly, sometimes with an unexpected punch. I remember finding the same thing with Disgrace when I read it last year. An example is his stance on vegetarianism which in this book is briefly touched upon but I found myself thinking about it long after finishing the passage. Ingrained in his writing is his relationship with South Africa, the country, it’s people, the politics, should he as a white South African feel entitled to call it his home?