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Review: Summertime

books Updated: Oct 11, 2009 12:43 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Author: JM Coetzee
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Price: Rs 735

After winning the 1999 Booker Prize with Disgrace, his spare and unsparing novel set in a bleak, post-apartheid South Africa, JM Coetzee has devoted himself to solipsistic, demanding -- and rewarding -fictions. In 2001, came Youth, the second volume of his `fictionalised memoir', describing how the central character, John, begins to come into his own as a writer in London. He then created in the novelist Elizabeth Costello an alter ego. Dovetailing polemics, politics and philosophy, Coetzee has, in Elizabeth Costello (2003), Slow Man (2005) and The Diary of a Bad Year (2007), offered us novels that have the high gloss of playful post-modernism.

Summertime takes this playfulness as far as it can go. Set in South Africa in the 1970s, it focuses on John Coetzee's years there as a teacher and a writer. The bulk of the book comprises interviews that an English biographer conducts for the sake of his own book.

The John Coetzee of Summertime, like the author of Summertime, has won the Nobel Prize. He has written the books that JM Coetzee has written. Eventually, like JM Coetzee, he left his native South Africa for Australia.

But John, unlike JM is dead. The biography that is the central conceit of Summertime is an act of posthumous homage, of trying to understand the work and, more importantly, the man who had seemed so reclusive and elusive in his lifetime.

How much of all this is about JM and how much of all this is about John? It's hard to tell. And should it matter if we can't? No, it doesn't.

Because in this dazzlingly clever, complex and hall-of-mirrors of a book, JM Coetzee seems to be doing two things.

First, he is telling us that what's worth knowing of a writer is all in the books. And secondly, he offers us a fascinating depiction of writerly struggle and ambition, of self-loathing and anguish, and of loneliness and insecurity.