Third Person, Present Tense

“His refuge from IBM is the cinema. In a film called L’Eclisse a woman wanders through the streets of a sunstruck, deserted city…. The woman is Monica Vitti. With her perfect legs and sensual lips and abstracted look, Monica Vitti haunts him; he falls in love with her. He has dreams in which he, of all men in the world is singled out to be her comfort and solace…”

The passage is from Noble Prize winner J. M. Coezee’s Youth, a portrait of a young man growing up in South Africa who eventually takes flight to London in the early 1960’s. I have enormous respect for Coetzee’s works, both his novels and essays on literature and the arts. Youth is among my favorite of his novels and like others he has published is written in the third person, present tense. It is a lively style that is fun to read and just as much to write.

John, the narrator of Youth, dreams of being a poet. To support his apprenticeship, he leaves his home in South Africa and takes a job at IBM’s office in London. He believes “The artist must taste all experience from the noblest to the most degraded. Just as it is the artist’s destiny to experience the most supreme creative joy, so he must be prepared to take upon himself all in life that is miserable, squalid, ignominious. It was in that name of experience that he underwent London--the dead days of IBM, the icy winter of 1962, one humiliating affair after another: states in the poet’s life, all of them, in testing of his soul.”

His relationships with women are uniform failures: “Surely there is a form of cohabitation in which man and woman eat together, sleep together, live together, yet remain immersed in their respective inward explorations. Is that why the affair with Jacqueline was doomed to fail: because, not being an artist herself, she could not appreciate the artist’s need for inner solitude?”

Jacqueline suggests he should consider psychotherapy. He thinks that would ruin forever his poetic sensitivity. “In fact, he would not dream of going into therapy. The goal of therapy is to make one happy. What is the point of that? Happy people are not interesting. Better to accept the burden of unhappiness and try to turn it into something worthwhile, poetry or music or painting…”

Aside from the tale of John’s struggle to carve out an artistic life in London and aside from all his defeats with women, work and writing, the most striking feature of Youth is its style. It may be the first book, surely the first presumed autobiography I’ve read written in the third person, present tense. It is a seductive style, one that gives the writer a certain distance from his subject matter, in this case, Coetzee.

In a review of Youth, Giles Foden writes: “What Coetzee mainly draws from Conrad, however, is a method. The technique of both novelists depends on that “nice ironic distance,” a discrepancy between the manifest and latent content of words on the page, a way of saying without asserting.”

This technique, at least as practiced by Coetzee in Youth also lends itself to a sly, ironic humor that at times is very funny.

“What are his true thoughts anyway? Some days he feels happy…Other days he feels differently. Is the truth the happiness, the unhappiness or the average of the two?”

“Who is to say that at each moment while the pen moves he is truly himself? At one moment he might truly be himself, at another he might simply be making things up. How can he know for sure? Why should he even want to know for sure?”

“Having mistresses is part of an artist’s life…Art cannot be fed on deprivation alone…”

“Is that the moral of the story of himself and Jacqueline: that it is best for artists to have affairs only with artists?”

In the third person, present tense, I find it is much easier to write about myself than say, in the first person, past tense. I can admit features of my life that are less than commendable and do so without embarrassment. No one will ever know it is me anyway. Of course, that isn’t true but it seems that way as the words roll out onto the page. And in this respect writing in the third person, present tense can present a truer account of one’s life, a more complete one I think, than when you write about your life with some degree of restraint and concealment.