South African novelist J.M. Coetzee has a reputation as a recluse; he didn’t show up to accept either of his two Booker Prizes, he rarely gives interviews, and he signs books so rarely that a few precious autographed copies have formed the centerpiece of a literary HIV/AIDS fundraising effort. Yet he has written three volumes of autobiography, the latest of which covers his years as a junior member of the English faculty at the University of Cape Town in the 1970s. Anyone looking for direct self-revelation, however, has long since learned to look elsewhere; the first two autobiographical books, Boyhood and Youth, narrate a fictionalized version of Coetzee’s life, referring to the protagonist only as “he.” Summertime is a bracing, bold, and often disturbing change of pace. The bulk of the book takes the form of transcripts recording interviews with five significant people in Coetzee’s life during this period: a married neighbor with whom he had a dispiriting affair, a Brazilian ballerina to whose daughter he taught poetry, a cousin, and two academic colleagues. Bookending these interviews are fragmentary anecdotes purporting to be from Coetzee’s notebooks and written in the familiar third-person style of the other quasi-memoirs, interspersed with the writer’s notes to himself on how to expand them into thematically significant episodes.
The result is a painfully cutting look into a man adrift. As the biographer attempts to piece together a picture of Coetzee’s crucial fourth decade of life, the foundation of his creative output, his interlocutors respond with incredulity. Psychologist Julia describes a posturing intellectual who makes a show of pouring concrete himself for a deck at his father’s house. After they become lovers, Coetzee tries to get her to participate in an experiment proving that the music of Franz Schubert is a road map to sexual activity. With Margot, a cousin whom Coetzee sees at family reunions, the biographer (a conceit the author uses like the shadowed reporter in Citizen Kane) reads her a slightly aggrandized narrative based on her previous interview. She remembers being on a rural road with Coetzee in a broken-down car, baring her heart to him in a letter, and getting only a stilted, formal note in return. The Brazilian mother seethes at Coetzee’s pretentious, crypto-erotic statements about poetry to her daughter, then winds up trying to deflect his attentions while nursing her terminally ill husband.
How accurate is this self-critical portrait? Readers may begin the book looking for glimpses of reality, but Coetzee redirects attention to the conflicting trajectories of the artist and the man. The question is not what true-life ingredients the master recycled into his novels (upon which most of the interviewees comment apathetically), but how banal are his ordinary needs and desires, and with what bumbling steps he seeks to fulfill them without becoming unduly vulnerable. No matter what postmodern lenses Coetzee erects to distance himself from these autobiographical works, his mundane rehearsal of misdeeds and omissions has the unsettling quality of compulsion.