How terrifying could this be?
Sharing thoughts about Summertime, the latest book from the great J.M.Coetzee, Nobel Prize winner, author of many prize-winning books including two previous Bookers. Famously a reclusive man of few words, alleged to go to dinner parties and not utter a single one, whilst colleagues who have worked with him claim only to have seen him laugh once.
Actually all that came from the notoriously unreliable Wikipaedia which Sarah Waters informed us, at Port Eliot, she regularly reads to find out all the things she didn't know about herself.
But worse than this is the fact that I'm going to have to own up to never having read a single Coetzee novel before this one; I can hardly bear to admit that I have never opened Disgrace because quite shockingly I don't like the picture of the dog on the cover ...this is really getting much worse by the minute.
I do have Elizabeth Costello and Foe but I haven't read those either.
Except I can also try and ignore all that because this lack might ultimately work to my advantage.
I have no Coetzee baseline to work from, no sense of awe that may hinder my thinking, no preconceptions, no bench mark to fulfill, no previous to make comparisons with, in the same way that I was also able to read Colm Toibin's Brooklyn.
Many who have read The Master find Brooklyn wanting...I haven't, so I didn't.
Though this is a novel it's all a bit of a confusing one and I think I have become completely tangled up in the perimeter fence and hardly made it into the real essence of Summertime.
A writer writing a novel about a writer researching and writing a biography of a writer who happens to be the writer of this novel.
Are you keeping up?
It's a bit like trying to pin down infinity or split the atom in your head.
Plus the subject doesn't come out of this at all well.
J.M Coetzee is so hard on himself it will be left to any biographers that do eventually tread this path to find us some redeeming qualities in the man, because Coetzee finds none to speak of within himself. The fictional biographer's information gathering ranges from the subjective to the patently unreliable, even the fictional author's notebooks and undated fragments, which all perhaps serves as an exercise in flagging up the pitfalls, even the follies of biography.
The deceased and fictional Coetzee variously described by those that knew him as prickly, opinionated, incompetent, ridiculous, spineless, humourless and generally perhaps a waste of space.
'In laughing he comes bottom of the class. A gloomy fellow: that must be how the world sees him, when it sees him at all. A gloomy fellow; a wet blanket; a stick in the mud.'
Someone's clearly been reading Wikipaedia.
Summertime the third in a series of books, a sequel to Boyhood and Youth and all three subtitled Scenes from Provincial Life which all makes me think of Middlemarch and its Study of Provincial Life, except this is Cape Province, now the Western Cape in South Africa and the place where Coetzee spent much of his early life. The period covered by this book sees him living with his ailing father and not yet a successful writer.
So is this flat-out, complete, self-effacing, modesty coupled with honesty and openess?
If this is autobiography concealed as fiction, how on earth am I supposed to interpret it?
Am I to read this as a fictional version of the truth of Coetzee's life or forget that and read it as a novel?
It becomes nigh on impossible to disentangle these thoughts and that could be what makes this book rise head and shoulders above any ordinary novel about a 'real' person.
The late Coetzee's biographer interviews various women and family who have known him and what emerges is a picture of a passionless, hopelessly serious man refracted through the lens of his failures, because lucky in both life and love it would seem he was not.
'Coetzees don't have plans, they don't have ambitions, they only have idle longings.'
Persuading one of his lovers to 'co-ordinate our activities' to the slow movement of the Schubert string quintet results in dismal but rather amusing failure and clearly a misuse of the Adagio when the Scherzo might have worked better.
If the inference of the title Summertime is that these are the best years of a life then current speculation about what may be yet to come in this series is right to be a little worried for what might follow in any further volumes.
To say this book pushes the boundaries of fiction way out into uncharted territory feels about right for me; my head is still spinning as I try to fathom the mysteries of the genre, no wonder it's a Booker contender. Though even that notion is subverted within the book when Sophie, an academic and former work colleague is interviewed,
'I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me that mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion...'
So is the book a very clever smokescreen, the anti-radar chaff scattered to keep the enemy off the tail?
Is Coetzee firing a 'don't-mess-with-me' shot across the bows of future biographers?
Or is it all a conceit too far?
You'll have to read the proper reviews to find that out and to my knowledge there aren't many of them out there yet, but I do know that as I read, my thought processes were turning cartwheels, paroxysms of complete confusion yet delight as Coetzee manipulated and controlled in the cleverest of ways, kept wandering unbidden into his own book, into his own life and I kept thinking is this really you... is this a version of you...what do you want from me as a reader?
Nor do I think I've solved the conundrum yet, but as the would-be biographer says
'A great writer becomes the property of all of us.'
I wondered is this Coetzee laying out the terms of that possession?
But as Hermione Lee suggests as a possible definition in her excellent new OUP Very Short Introduction to Biography
'Biography is the story of a person told by someone else.'
So you see, I have gone round in endless and ever-decreasing circles with Mr Coetzee.
I don't really have a clue and I can't wait to read what the literary critics make of this one, though for me Summertime is an amazingly clever book, an enduringly, circuitously fascinating novel that I will dwell on for a long time to come, perhaps even unravel much of the essence and fallibility of biography and how it can so easily become a fiction, a story, in the process.
It's on my shortlist and just elaborating those thoughts here has moved me towards seeing this book as a real contender for the 2009 Man Booker crown which I'd already given to Wolf Hall...or The Children's Book...or The Glass Room... or Love and Summer...or...
And there are even moments to smile over,
'I wouldn't know how to write a best-seller,' he says. 'I don't know enough about people and their fantasy lives. Anyway, I wasn't destined for that fate.'
'The fate of being a rich and successful writer.'