25 February 2010

Ur-story: Second Story Pt. 2

(cont'd from previous post)

Now, if you're one of those people who doesn't like to read critical reviews of books you haven't yet read because you don't like 'spoilers', rest easy; J.M. Coetzee's Summertime has no plot. There are no spoilers to give away. Please read on.

To recap from my previous post: Summertime is a fictional pastiche consisting of four transcripts and one narrative summary of interviews with acquaintances of as well as some fragments from the presumably authentic journal of one 'John Coetzee', deceased, all filtered through the prism of someone named Vincent who is compiling research for a biography of this same Nobel laureate 'John Coetzee' he hopes to write.

I've said here that J.M. Coetzee's novel "Disgrace is the most important and best novel I have read in the last quarter century." One of the reasons I so admire that novel has to do with J.M. Coetzee's masterful use of classical dramatic structure (reversal, rising action, climax, denouement) to achieve a profound thematic unity. It is formally perfect and thematically relevant and, thus, very satisfying both intellectually and emotionally.

J.M. Coetzee has eschewed these structural dramatic elements in Summertime in favor of this pastiche approach. There is no drama here. No plot.

Fine. What then of thematic coherence?

As I said before, Summertime is a series of voice exercises. By this I mean, we have J.M. Coetzee writing in the distinct voices of five different characters (six if you count the John Coetzee of the journals, and seven if you count Vincent the collator), each of whom illuminates some facet of the life of the fictional John Coetzee from 1971/2 until his first public recognition in 1977. The portrait of this character that emerges is fairly consistent: an awkward, introverted, private person; a failure of a son; a wan, ineffectual lover; a mediocre to competent academic; a stubborn Afrikaner wrestling with his patrimony; in short, a great writer who is not necessarily such a great man. All this amid the background of political unrest and social injustice in 1970s South Africa.

These incidents are told from the points of view of a liberal, female, middle-class South African therapist with whom John Coetzee had an affair; a female cousin whom John Coetzee once felt he loved; a Brazilian woman who suspects John Coetzee's interest in her is only because he has designs on her daughter; the male friend and colleague who beat John Coetzee out for a university teaching job; the Francophone lover and colleague with whom John Coetzee once taught a course on African literature; and finally (and most importantly) from the point of view of the biographer who wants to search for the sources of particular incidents in the novels of John Coetzee in his actual life even though he finds the personal writings of John Coetzee wholly unreliable.

In these various voices, we see a determined John Coetzee building a concrete apron around his modest home, so-called "Kaffir" labor considered unbefitting white Afrikaners of the time. We see a stubborn John Coetzee refusing to have a professional mechanic fix his car, so he and his cousin get stuck out in the middle of the veldt and have to spend the night in his car. We see an ineffectual John Coetzee pursuing the sensual Latina mother of one of his tutorial students staging a picnic which turns disastrous.  We see John Coetzee botching a university teaching job interview. We see an idealistic John Coetzee looking down on politics and failing to engage in the cultural battles of the war against Apartheid taking umbrage and then freezing up like Billy Budd at an interview with a literary magazine. And we see John Coetzee as a bit of an unreliable self-narrator:
"[Vincent:] Mme Denoel, I have been through the letters and diaries. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record—not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer. In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing much the same for his own eyes, or perhaps for posterity. As documents they are valuable, of course, but if you want the truth you have to go behind the fictions they elaborate and hear from people who knew him directly in the flesh.

"[Sophie:] But what if we are all fictioneers, as you call Coetzee? What if we all continually make up the stories of our lives? Why should what I tell you about Coetzee be any worthier of credence than what he tells you himself?

"[Vincent:] Of course we are all fictioneers. I do not deny that. But which would you rather have: a set of independent reports from a range of independent perspectives, from which you can then try to synthesize a whole; or the massive, unitary self-projection comprised by his oeuvre? I know which I would prefer." 225-26
The themes of John Coetzee's unhappiness and, frankly, his incompetence at the two essential Freudian categories of work and love recur throughout Summertime, giving us a unified portrait of a man who seems ill-at-ease in the world and who, in effect and by nature, resists the world.

This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through...

[to be continued]


Frances Madeson said...

I'm coming along on this ride. Just started though and am already finding it strange. What's your slant on this exchange on page 20?

"And how did you come to meet John Coetzee?

I'll tell you in a moment. But first, there was something I didn't understand about those notebook entries: the italicized passages at the end of them--To be expanded and so forth. Who wrote those? Did you?"

Jim H. said...

Good pull, FM. And great question! Thanks.

Here's my opinion (for what it's worth):

Yeah, this clues us in to the sort of metafictional games we're getting into.

I don't think it actually matters whether the entries are from the journals of the fictional 'John' or the journals of the real 'J.M.' J.M. has assembled them in this pastiche and used them for whatever textual games are afoot here. It matters not whether J.M. of the 70s or J.M. of the 'naughts' authored them; they are what they are in the context of the textual work.

Jim H.

Frances Madeson said...

It may seem a minor matter, but these notebooks are presumably journal-like with handwritten entries, right? Not typewritten or computer-generated. But the annotations are written not in block letters or even cursive, but in italics, which is a kind of calligraphy, an art of writing in itself. And even putting aside all of the rules around italics usage, which I think as writers we cannot, and as readers reading literally about the mechanics of fiction creation, we also cannot, who writes in italics? Try it. It's very difficult. Would have been much easier to bracket the text or put a check mark by it or some other simpler sign.

Richard said...

I'm interested in where you're going with this, but I don't like the term "metafictional games" applied here, though I realize it's not necessarily meant pejoratively here, it usually is.

Have you seen Waggish's post on the book?:


Frances Madeson said...

Chance to say to Richard, I really enjoyed reading your Bolano piece. I've filed it away for when I get to Bolano. So, thanks!

Richard said...

oh, thanks, Frances!