Friday, 9 October 2009
Coetzee's Summertime (2009)
7th October 2009. Yesterday the Man Booker Prize winner was announced: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The bookies had shortened the odds on Mantel to 11/5, the shortest ever laid against a Booker shortlisted title; and the reviewers and critics were behind the title, so it was hardly a surprise. This morning’s Guardian goes with the front page headline Mantel of Glory, hardly the snappiest of puns (what should they have gone with instead? ManBookerTel? Mantel’s piece? Kiss and Mantel?) Underneath is a full colour photograph of Mantel’s beaming face: a study in circles. There’s something on the edge of unreality about her visage actually: ideally, even Platonically round, with round eyes circumferenced by two perfectly traced arcs eyebrows-to-bags, the whole emphasized rather than anything by the way the face is framed by the twin turned-in scimitar lines of her hairstyle. It’s like a face drawn by a cartoonist: not unpretty, exactly, even in its corpulence and middle-age—but not quite real.
To be expanded upon: why oh why will a science fiction novel never win the Booker? Possibly expand the ‘why oh why’ to a ‘why oh why oh why’.
DR REVIEW. You have had a chance to read Coetzee’s new novel. Do you recognize the Coetzee genius at work in it?
It’s a perfectly fine novel.
That sounds like damning with faint praise.
‘Damning’? That, if you'll pardon me, is an empty piece of phrasemaking. Cliché—and more to the point, not true. No critic or reader has the power to send a book to hell. Not because books don’t deserve hell, and not because readers lack power; actually they have all the power when it comes to a book’s afterlife. But for a simpler reason: only immortal things can go to hell, or heaven. Books are not immortal. I tend to agree with Julia, in the novel: ‘No one is immortal. Books are not immortal.’  Anyway, I might ask you not to point the accusing finger at me—the Booker panel didn’t give him the prize, after all.
Maybe it was second on their list?
Maybe it was the best title, but they figured two Bookers and a Nobel prize is enough? Or maybe they didn't think so much of it at all, in the end. Summertime is a late-period work by a major novelist, or a late-middle-period work perhaps. It is a novel by a novelist famous not only for certain themes and topics, but for a particular, controlled, slightly parched tone, a precision and remorselessness of style. In such cases, later novels inevitably feel like pastiche exercises in an earlier idiom.
Now, why would you compare Coetzee to Pinter?
They’re both Nobel laureates. They both use obliquity and misdirection to write about pressing social and political circumstances.
Oh I think they’re completely difference writers. Completely different! Take this novel, this Summertime: various characters who knew ‘John Coetzee’ express what they thought about him when he was alive: you see, the conceit of this novel by John Coetzee is that John Coetzee is dead, and an academic is gathering reminiscences. It’s a sequel of sorts of the autobiographical fictions of youth and early manhood Boyhood and Youth, and bears the same uneasy fictive relationship to reality. Or, no: not uneasy. Coetzee’s art is far too controlled to be uneasy. It’s chill.
A moment ago you described it as parched.
So it is: parched and chilly, like freezer burn. The remarkable thing is how eloquent that mood, that tenor, is as a way of talking about human affairs. The markworthy thing about this work is the way it draws its central character, Coetzee’s version of Coetzee, through a variety of different perspectives not in order to make an obvious point about the relativism of truth, or anything like that; but rather to put a kind of pressure on the central conceit itself. Like multiple streams from many fireman’s hoses coordinated upon the heart of the blaze. The theme of the book is how much less Coetzee is than you might think; how much less any of us are when we are put together from the reminiscences of those close to us. He’s not fully human, as one character says. And he isn't, in this novel: not because he is badly drawn as a character but because humans, by and large, really are not fully human when judged by the hyperbolic standards art usually peddles. That is beautifully and convincingly put across in the novel. It’s not very comfortable, but it wouldn’t work if it were.
Not Pinter, then. Like Beckett, perhaps?
Another Nobel laureate? You show a certain limitation in your range of comparative reference. Ah well. Yes, Beckett is closer to Coetzee than Pinter, certainly, but still it's not quite right to compare the two of them. Beckett’s novels really aren’t interested in sex in the way Coetzee is, centrally, interested in sex. Or in abstraction—Beckett is strangely fascinated by abstraction, I think, as a feature of lived experience ... or do I mean, by the extrapolation of certain ontological circumstances to their limit points. Coetzee's not like that. Summertime effortlessly gives the reader a sense of what it was like living as a white in South Africa in the later 1970s—it is, in fact, a historical novel, and grounded in deftly evoked moments of verisimilitude. But its success is also its limitation: it is an articulation of denudedness. It is not a novel that knocks your teeth in, or lives vividly and passionately in your heart after reading, like Disgrace.
Coetzee’s previous Booker winner—from 2000.
I stand corrected.
Now there is a novel! That book is on fire; not a wildfire, but the proverbial clean, cold, blue flame. Summertime is a perfectly fine novel. It’s just not in the same class. And I am choosing my words with care: it is fine in the sense of being fine-grained, well-milled; and it is perfect in its way. Its perfection is its limitation. It is a sustainable piece of writing.
I’m not sure I follow you.
Well, I mean simply that some literature is sustainable and some is unsustainable—some books work with a balanced husbandry to maintain themselves, where some burn themselves up in sparks and noxious smoke and a wash of vital heat.
Look: here’s how I came to know this book, this Summertime in which you are so interested. A friend of mine, Tony, came round for dinner one night. I’ve known Tony for many years; we were PhD students at Cambridge at the same time, he working on D H Lawrence, I on Browning. We talked about many things—Tony is getting married soon, and we talked about that; and my wife, who is an English teacher, talked about how the sheer load of work she shoulders during termtime squeezes out almost all of her reading-for-pleasure. She reads the books she must do, for work. Tony talked a little about the book he was reading—A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book, another title shortlisted for the prize that Mantel went on to win. It’s a period I know he has interests in, and he made the book sound intriguing. I said so, to him. In fact, the following day I happened to be in London, on a work-related trip, and I stepped into the Waterstones near Senate House on my way there. The Children’s Book was on sale, with a £4 reduction, so, on an impulse, I bought it.
Is this going anywhere?
How do you mean.
I mean I don’t see the relevance.
You’re not looking hard enough. Anyway, I began reading Byatt’s novel: a strangely clotted, overstuffed family saga, although with some interesting points, as Tony had suggested. I read it as I generally do read books, at every available moment: carrying it with me at all times, filling every spare minute here or 30 seconds there with another page or half-page; reading it not only in bed or in my cosy chair, but on the loo, on the go. If I am waiting in a queue at the supermarket, I’ll pull the book from my satchel and read a page. If I have a spare five minutes, no matter for what reason, I’ll press on.
Is that how you manage to read so many books so quickly?
That has something to do with it. But the next thing that happened was that a parcel from amazon.co.uk arrived on the doormat: it was the Byatt title. Tony had bought it for the two of us, as a present, to say thank you for supper! Wasn’t that nice of him? But I’d already bought the title.
I had the receipt from my original purchase, and I went to the Staines Waterstones and asked them to exchange my second copy. It was pristine, freshly hatched from its rectangular cardboard shell, and there was no problem. ‘What would you like to exchange it for?’ the woman behind the counter asked. That was when I thought of Summertime. That is how I came to have a copy of the novel in hardback.
Perhaps you’ve misunderstood my ‘so’? I was not prompting you to continue with your story; I was reiterating, really—to speak frankly—that I did not see the point in it.
Well, quite. The point: the biting point of this sort of personal narrative … seeing the point, taking the point, having the point prick a scarlet ballbearing of blood from your finger’s tip—yes, yes, that is the game with a novel like Summertime. That’s all of it.