To understand yourself: Is that a discovery or a creation?”

Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon

In reading the latest books by the Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee, I sense how much fun he is having writing them. And because he writes so well and so originally, it is just as much fun to be reading the tale he unfolds. Both are true for his latest novel, Summertime.

In this novel, like his two previous fictional memoirs, Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee creates a third person narrator and employees the first person, present tense. In this way, he distances himself from himself in a way that creates a very amusing effect

In Summertime J. M Coetzee fictionalizes one John Coetzee, who we learn is dead, through a series of interviews with a researcher who conducts interviews himself with persons who knew John at one period in his life. At times this becomes utterly hilarious

When he meets with a old school friend who he recalls was not very bright but is now a very successful business man, John muses: “What does this suggest about the works of the world? What it seems most obviously to suggest is that the path that leads through Latin and algebra is not the path to success. But it may suggest something much more: that understanding things is a waste of time.”

This is clearly not J. M. Coetzee speaking. And once you know about Coetzee’s life, you realize his tale is entirely fictional. J. M. Coetzee is not dead, he is not single, or childless, and he is not a totally unlovable person. Is Coetzee here telling us how foolish it is to connect a writer’s life with his works of fiction? In Summertime he writes, “It would be very, very na├»ve to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life.”

Among John’s friends interviewed by the researcher is a former lover, Julia, who reports he was “not fully human, like a glass ball, sexually autistic.” “Here we have a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect, or can connect only briefly, intermittently. Yet how does he make his living? He makes his living writing reports, expert reports, on intimate human experience. Because that is what novels are about—isn’t it?—intimate experience….Doesn’t that strike you as odd.?”

His cousin Margo reports he was cold and berates him as a “failed runaway, failed car mechanic too, for whose failure she is at this moment having to suffer” as they are forced to spend a bitterly cold night in John’s truck which has broken down in the middle of the desert. To Adriana, a Brazilian dance teacher, he is a “wooden man,” “disembodied,” who could not dance to save his life. “How can you be a great writer, if you are just an ordinary little man??

An academic colleague says, “Something was always being held back.” Another describes him as “…the kind of man who is convinced that supreme felicity will be his if only he can acquire a French mistress who will recite Ronsard to him and play Couperin on the clavecin while simultaneously inducting into the mysteries of love, French style.” And, “He was just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but frankly, not a giant.”

What is Coetzee saying in these depictions? Is he confessing his own doubts about himself, his own isolation, sense of dislocation and social awkwardness, disguised as the views of former friends? Or is he suggesting you can never correctly view one’s personality through the eyes of others? What do others know of us? Don’t they usually get it wrong?

Coetzee writes, “Who can say what goes on in people’s inner life?” Can the person himself even understand what is going on in his or her own inner life? And if not, why not make up a tale about it, why not fictionalize it, and perhaps have a little fun in the process? Isn’t this what storytellers do?

“He believed our life stories are ours to construct as we wish, within or even against the constraints imposed by the real world.”