Why J.M. Coetzee may be the greatest living writer in the English language

If you were a novelist committed to writing great novels, in the literary sense, and you won the Nobel Prize, what would do?

Coetzee, who won the prize in 2003, keeps writing great novels.

I picked up his most recent, Summertime (2009), in an airport bookstore, and started reading it while waiting in line to board my flight from Stockholm to Riga.

I finished it the next evening. I did not read it compulsively every spare minute; no, I treated myself to it, to hunks of perfectly polished prose, twenty or thirty pages at a time, over the course of about thirty-six hours.

Summertime is a Coetzee novel about a novelist named “Coetzee.” How close is this novel about him-“self” to his real life? Not so close, at least on the surface, but that doesn’t matter. The novel is not really about Coetzee.

It’s about you.

That is, it is a novel about the reader, whatever reader is holding the book. For what Coetzee’s novels do is turn the book into a mirror.

By focusing his novels so relentless, even mercilessly on himself, Coetzee encourages — no, forces — the reader to consider his or her own life with the same unflinching gaze. It is like looking at a self-portrait by Rembrandt or Van Gogh; after a while, you stop seeing the painter, and notice that the painter is staring at you. You become self-conscious, in both senses of that interesting English phrase: self-aware, and a little uncomfortable.

Which is strangely comforting. To watch a great, Nobel-prize winning novelist turn all his powers of portraiture onto himself in such a way that he succeeds in tearing down the pedestal and conveying his own (or at least his alter-ego’s) flawed humanity, without sacrificing the mastery of his craft in any way, is inspiring. Mastery, Coetzee’s novels seem to say, should not require the perfection of the self. In some cases, perhaps in all, mastery includes, perhaps even requires, full acceptance of one’s partialness, woundedness, and occasional ridiculousness.

If you are worried that Summertime is some kind of autobiographical monologue, forget it. Part of the brilliance of the book is that Coetzee himself — that is, the character “Coetzee” — is practically absent from it, even while being its central character. The text is presented as though it were a collection of notes and interview transcripts. The notes are taken from “Coetzee’s” (fictional, even if they are real) journals, from a period in the 1970s when “he” was living with his father in South Africa. The interviews have been conducted by “Coetzee’s” biographer, an Englishman identified only as Mr. Vincent.

“Coetzee” himself is dead.

Most of the stories in Summertime are not about “Coetzee”, but about the women and men who knew him well during this period. In describing him to the dead-great-author’s biographer, they are unanimous in their harsh verdict: the man was scarcely a man. He was wooden. Far from gifted. Remote. Odd. Sometimes (here is the word again) ridiculous. This remoteness leaves a kind of vacuum in the text, which they fill with stories of their own lives. Thus, Summertime becomes a character study, in a triple sense: it is a study of these characters (including “Coetzee”); it is the study of “character” and how and why our character gets formed the way it does, influenced by geography and history and family; and it is the study of character in the literary sense — that is, the process of creating character. Literary characters are, by definition, non-existent. By turning himself, the great novelist J.M. Coetzee, into a non-existent and personally remote character named “John Coetzee,” we not only have the opportunity to watch the artist at work, the way we see the brushes in Rembrandt’s self-painted hands. We are forced to ask: and how would I paint myself?

On the surface, Summertime is almost an historical novel, on the smallest possible scale: five people’s lives, set against the sere background of South Africa in the 1970s and the equally dry, bookish writer with whom they were intimate on various levels. Through them, we see deeply into the ambiguous good-heartedness of White South Africans in the heyday of modern Apartheid. What astonishes is what’s missing: even for those to whom the morality of their culture is at least deeply questionable, the Blacks and Coloureds are practically invisible. The “Coetzee” on whom Mr. Vincent asks them to focus their attention certainly tries to be visible, both as character and as a human actor in their drama, with his stubborn determination to break the taboo on Whites doing their own manual labor, and his ridiculous (the word again) attempts to make erotica out of Schubert. But he tries a bit too hard, and comes up short.

Summertime, the novel, does not try too hard or come up short. Every sentence has the quality of being chiseled out of a willing piece of rock, rock just aching to be turned into sculpture. And yet the resulting sculpture manages to be not just alive, but fleshy, while still remaining rock and something that will persist in its identity and increase in its perceived value for tens or hundreds of years. Writing in the shadow of his own acknowledged greatness, scribbling on the back side of a Nobel medal, J.M. Coetzee continues to show us what great literature can do: enlighten.

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