"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Summertime: the New Coetzee

From time to time some under-employed journalist writes one of those standard pieces about what is wrong with the contemporary novel and the diagnosis is always the same: let us have a grand state-of-the-nation panorama and all will be well in the best of all possible worlds. I gather that, even as I speak, Sebastian Faulks has obliged. I have never been convinced by this to-hell-with-Dostoevsky-let-us-have-Trollope thesis. I think the art of fiction is different from documentary and that the difference matters.

The new novel from J.M. Coetzee, Summertime, is not a huge Balzacian portrait of South Africa in the 1970s but it seems to me in its brilliantly elliptical way to say more about contemporary life and literature than most of what is indulgently hyped in the books pages. And the good news is that this is vastly better than his last novel Diary of a Bad Year which some (but not I) found too tricksy with its 'split-level' narrative that ran three strands simultaneously on the page. I wanted more depth of human insight than I got and the second bit of good news is that the new novel has that in spades. It also has more humour, some of it exquisitely subtle irony, some of it just good old-fashioned funny – and a writer without humour is like a painter with one of the colours missing from the palette. The prose, too, is razor-sharp, glittering like a finely cut diamond – but then what else would one expect from Coetzee? Yes, I liked this one!

Summertime ostensibly picks up where two previous volumes of fictionalised autobiography left off, Youth and Boyhood, taking the story up to around 1977 when Coetzee emerged as a writer. Those books pages this weekend will be awash with speculation about how far the fictionalised Coetzee here is the real one, and to what extent, by writing his own version of his life, he is pre-empting future biographers. Watch out for the copious use of the word 'self-indulgent'. The form of the novel is a series of interviews by an English literary biographer, "Mr Vincent" with people who have known John Coetzee (like Morse, Coetzee has come out about his first name at last) in these years. Most of them are women and their memories and judgements are designed to be as unsparing as possible. It is as if Coetzee wants us to know that he understands the worst that can possibly be said about himself but at the same time these rueful, sharp self-presentations are the source of some of the finest humour in the book. Look for example at page 242 where, through the eyes of a French former academic colleague with whom he had a brief affair: "As a writer he knew what he was doing, he had a certain style, and style is the beginning of distinction. But he had no special sensitivity that I could detect, no original insight into the human condition. He was just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but, frankly, not a giant." Can you imagine such a passage being written by Amis? McEwan? Even in jest?

What emerges from these reminiscences and stories of his thirties in South Africa in the 1970s is also a deep love of the landscape of the Karoo, however much he despises the politics of his country pre- and post-liberation, and his inability to break the emotional ties that bind him to the Afrikaner culture he came from, symbolized by his relationship with his father, whom the buttoned-up, emotionally cold son cannot reach and who becomes, the last sentence seems to suggest, a metaphor for his native land: his need for it and his need to escape it, the dilemma eternally unresolved. This is an honest, moving, unflinching book and, though "John Coetzee" is dead as the biographer does his work, I sincerely hope there are many more to come.

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