Review of J. M. Coetzee’s Summertime
To become a writer requires a strategy. You write to make a living, or not make a living but to bring readers to your work, your vision of the world, your embrace of language, genre, theme, or character. If you’re lucky, you may succeed within your lifetime, or you may not.
To become the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature requires a strategy few of us who write fiction could ever imagine. Fame transforms the writer and winner of the grand prize into an object of intense international scrutiny: one’s life is turned upside down, inside out, examined at every juncture, exposed or ridiculed by rivals, skewered or revered by critics. If Coetzee were an American writer, he’d probably run for cover, struggle to get away from it all, retreat to a small town in New Hampshire where the locals call you Jerry (not J.D. Salinger) or the creamery farm in Oregon where you grew up, as Ken Kesey did, a culture hero gone to seed. American writers don’t appear to be very good at handling fame. After early success in one or two works of fiction, you go cold, you become self-conscious, you crack under the pressure to repeat the same work, you struggle to maintain. In short, you lose your edge.
Coetzee, whom I consider one of the greatest writers of this and the last century, has devised, in “Summertime,” a strategy that is, in keeping with his impressive canon of work, nothing short of brilliant: write a fictional work in the form of unfinished “autobiographical” fragments and interviews by a fictional biographer who digs up the dirt (mostly from women) on you as a person, ignoring your fame as a great writer. Make “Coetzee” a novelist who is already dead, a kind of walking dead among the discards of biography and literary history in “Summertime.” Make sure those comments from women on “Coetzee” depict you as somehow less than human, less than lovable, certainly less than great.
It’s as if Coetzee the living author has raised the stakes in the game of literary fame and fortune. He puts the critics at rest, at bay. In a way, he outsmarts them (probably in Darwinian fashion as a survival mechanism, so he can keep producing great work). If you think I’m going to write another novel like “Disgrace” or “Waiting For the Barbarians,” he appears to be saying, a novel that you’ll hold up negatively in comparison to my earlier work—because, well, reputations must go down after they’ve gone up, even for Novel prize winners—think again. “Summertime” may be the best work of fiction Coetzee has ever written (history will judge). It’s compelling, brilliant, powerfully revealing, like reading what every man dreads the most, comments from the women his life, mostly unfavorable, mostly bad. Reading “Summertime,” you can’t quite believe Coetzee is really allowing himself to be raked over the coals. Why? What’s his motive? Therein lies the mystery of this work, and perhaps, also, it’s power and beauty.