There are 20 pages left of Coetzee's Summertime
, and I'm somewhat underwhelmed. Continuing the fictional autobiography begun with Boyhood
, it is the final installment. The series seems to be referred to as 'Scenes from Provincial Life'. Perfectly readable as a stand-alone piece, but I imagine it will make more sense if you have read the preceding two.
I call them fictional autobiographies, because, as Coetzee states explicitly in Summertime
, he does not believe in recounting his life down to every minute, embarrassing detail. The frames are true, the pictures inside are of his own making. This is his life re-imagined to fit the persona J.M. Coetzee.
It's not a novel, per se, it's a collection of transcribed interviews, conducted by a nameless biographer. Concerning Coetzee, after his (imagined) death. An interesting concept in an of itself, it's well done and well written. The characters well-wrought, and what we see of them engaging. It is all dialogue, so we get a fairly clear picture of the people speaking.
This is not a new Coetzee novel in the vain of Disgrace
, not even Foe
. And I made a mistake expecting it to be one, that might account for my disappointment. Not a novel, but a reflection on identity. On how multifaceted our identities are: disparaging images of one person, dependent on the seer and the events during which they met him. Adding to the five characters' statements, is the fact that we know very little of Coetzee. We know his persona, what little of it he wishes to show us. We own it, him, for we have a joint-ownership of all public people. Everyone except the condemned can know all about him.
He deals directly with this, through the interviews called Martin and Sophie. Both academics, and colleagues of Coetzee. In short dismissing any attempts to read his oeuvre biographically (thank god! There is nothing more degrading), and making a case for his particular brand of biography.
Whether or not what we read is true, is irrelevant. It is no more relevant than the reliability of any other 'unreliable' narrator. No narrator can be unreliable, because they can only give us their story. There is only one relevant story. The point is not what parts of Summertime
is true, but what the entity gives us.
To conclude this rant, I'm not gasping for breath as I finish it. Which is something of a disappointment. I know what Coetzee can do, this is not the height of it. It is an academic novel, a response, I imagine, to criticism and comments about his life and work. I might end up dealing with it in an academic setting, identity and post-colonialism, and that, I think, is how it should be treated. Not as a novel, but as an experiment, and as an answer. If you're that way inclined, I am sure the million piece puzzle 'Who is Coetzee?' is fun, as well. Summertime
might help you piece together a few thousand of the parts, making you rethink everything.And here I thought the time for literary manifestos were over
. In short, it is a manifesto signed by young Swedish writers, promising to make 2010 'the story's decade'. They want story over form; it must be story, not debate or social critique badly veiled as a story. They will strive to write novels that communicate, touch, disturb and engage. To write prose inspired by the epic, not poetry. They promise never to write novels about young, shopping women; never, not even under a pseudonym, about journalists solving murder mysteries in Öland or Skåne, or any other picturesque Swedish setting.
The Swedish novel must not be mistaken for stand-up comedy. Telling a story well is much more difficult than producing puns. In short, they want to re-instate the Swedish story as a powerful and vibrant art. (This is all a very badly translated reiteration, but you will have to forgive me if you cannot read the original.)
As I see it, this is a reaction to the crime-thriller wave that has swept Scandinavia lately. Our most popular writers off the top of my head are Lindell, Mankell, Larsson and Nesbø. All crime, the other contenders are also mostly crime fiction. Or historical novels, with a distinctively non-historical thriller twist. The widely translated works, beyond Per Petterson, are crime novels. Or variations on the theme. What general fiction is published is mostly self-possessed, bad and either naive (stylistically, as in the narrator is naive) or set back to the sixties (yes, I'm getting at Roy Jacobsen). There is no avant-garde literature published or created in Scandinavia. If there is, it never makes it to the public eye.
These young writers are looking for something new. Not necessarily avant-garde, that is my desire. But I don't think returning to a story-centric narrative is the solution. Certainly not stories that are not written with an eye to style – again, style is a hang-up of mine. Though it certainly fits with the idea of thesis, antithesis. Modernism as the thesis, postmodernism synthesis, and this coming period (or era, I hesitate to call it an era) the synthesis. But then I would have to subscribe to the idea of modernism and postmodernism as to separate ideas.
Charming idea, might spark some necessary debate, will most likely not make much difference in the long run. Because I don't think these story-centric novels they propose to write will be particularly interesting.
PS: Could I ask for this as a present when I turn 20?