23 February 2010

Ur-story: Second Story

Patrimony, inheritance, birthright, tradition, legacy, heritage, incest, filiopietism, Oedipus complex, anxiety of influence: these are all ways (and there are many others) to express one of the major recurring themes in literature and fiction. Once we move beyond the lone individual struggling to understand reality, gain identity, deal with knowledge of mortality and grief, and establish a place in the world—the theme I have been exploring in my Ur-story series of posts—it is the first relationship, more primal even than love and mating. And it is a theme as ancient as Abram & Isaac (& Ishmael), and Lot's daughters; as central to our mythic self-understanding as Cronus & Zeus and Jahweh & Jesus; as profound as the aforementioned Oedipus and King Lear and Darwin & the apes; and as current as the new work by J.M. Coetzee, Summertime.

I rarely find myself reading, or having read, much less being in a position to comment on a novel that is au courant, but having just finished reading Summertime and seeing this reference to it on one of my favorite websites (h/t), I decided to pen a comment. There are plenty of reads on this enigmatic book out there (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here), and I'll try not to repeat any of them here. But none of them, to my mind, captures what I take to be the central theme of Summertime: one man's struggle to decide whether it is his duty to take care of his aging, ailing father and whether, if he cannot escape that duty, he is capable of doing so.

It is by no means an obvious theme because it is embedded in a pastiche of let us call them post-modern or metafictional literary techniques—the focus of most of the reviews I've seen. To understand how to read this book, it might be instructive to re-read my post here about William Gillespie's short book The Story That Teaches You How To Write It. The key is to pay attention to all the elements on the pages before you.

Thus, the American first edition of Summertime, the version I have, calls itself "Fiction" on its title page. We can, I think, safely take that at face value. Many of the reviewers spend valuable column space speculating on how much of the work is actually fictional and how much reliably autobiographical. As for me, I don't think it matters to an understanding of the book and, ultimately, am uninterested.

The confusion comes because the book—I'm not sure whether it can rightly be called a novel—is ostensibly about one "John Coetzee" who is said to be dead. For purposes of this post's clarity, I shall refer to the (dead) character in this fictional work as "John Coetzee" and the writer of this book as "J.M. Coetzee".

In my earlier Ur-story series of critical readings, I proposed a theory for understanding works of literature in terms of the essence of the story they sought to dramatize, that is to say the ways in which they dealt with the theme of confronting the human predicament of mortality and the accompanying sense of loss. On this theory, the story is a model of coming-to-consciousness emotionally. Summertime takes this essential understanding as its jumping-off place and goes on from there. J.M. Coetzee is using his own namesake, John Coetzee, as a character (though absent) in this book. John, like J.M., was a South African writer with a major literary reputation. Yet, in this book John Coetzee is dead.

Now one of the more difficult exercises for the writer of fiction is to give the reader a sense of a character through the eyes of the point-of-view character, the latter of whom is self-centered. Nick Carraway, for instance, is not what you might call self-centered. He is curious about and observant of his cousin Daisy and, of course, Gatsby. It is difficult to do because, as I've pointed out, much contemporary writing takes its cue from the 'method acting' school of drama; the writer doesn't merely impersonate, s/he takes on the aspect of the point of view character. And everything is about the self-discovery of the self-centered POV character; other characters tend to come across as stage props or furniture in the main character's world. James Wood, among others, famously calls this the free indirect style. I've called it 'method writing' (others have as well, e.g., see here, here, and here).

That is what J.M. Coetzee is attempting to do here, i.e., to give readers a sense of the fictional John Coetzee (and, importantly, his father) through the eyes of not one (arguably) but several point-of-view characters. Summertime consists of some notebook/journal fragments from John Coetzee and some transcripts of interviews and a narrative summary of another interview by one "Vincent", who is researching a biography of the late John Coetzee. Vincent apparently has taken some liberties with his transcriptions and summaries, and his interviewees often call him out on this. Thus Vincent's editorial control and thus his reliability are put at issue from the get-go.

So, let's call Vincent the Nick Carraway of Summertime and John Coetzee the not-so-great Gatsby.

Summertime is a compilation of Vincent's raw materials: interviews with five characters who knew John Coetzee (as presumably revealed in his journals) during the 1970s in South Africa and several of John's own notebook entries. Like the aforementioned Gillespie book, Summertime is thus a pastiche.

At first read it feels like J.M. Coetzee (the real life writer and Nobel laureate who has a world-wide following) has tried to pawn off a book written on the cheap (perhaps to fulfill a contractual obligation) by simply drawing on a few fragments from his own notebooks and some writerly exercises—to wit trying to imagine what some people (presumably with fictionalized identities) from his past might have thought about him—and cast the whole as a sort of po-mo, meta-fictional game by using the persona John Coetzee, having him be dead, and interjecting the fictional biographer. And that may very well be what this book is. But if it is merely gamesmanship, it is a sophisticated game and keeps the reader guessing. It does not readily betray its secrets.

But let's not cast aspersions on the writer's motivations. Let's take the text at face value, and examine it critically in terms of the sorts of things we look for in works of fiction. That is to say, let's treat it as the new form which, in the spirit of the game, it cries out to be.

(to be continued)

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