An awkward young writer returns home to South Africa
Like Coetzee's previous work Elizabeth Costello, which made no effort towards a plot and consisted mostly of lectures, Summertime begs the question, “Is this even a novel?” Nominally, the book is an autobiography/memoir, presented as a series of interviews with key people (primarily women) in awkward young John Coetzee’s life. In the 1970’s, John has returned to South Africa, to live with his father in a small house, in a cloud of unnamed disgrace, after his career is cut short in America by a scandal not to be discussed. Meanwhile, South Africa his country is falling apart. The social experiment of apartheid has failed. The ambitious whites are getting passports to sunny different lands. Meanwhile, what is to become of the “unambitious” ones, the people of the land?
This is a novel because it presents a pattern of imagined characters, characters who yearn. The character of John Coetzee is not the centerpiece. John is a puzzling monosyllabic eccentric, a more than a little creepy young man who passes through these fully imagined women’s lives. The women are the striking ones here – John’s cousin Margot, loyal to the land, her husband and the workers on the farm. She is a hero. There are also “interviews” with a younger woman his lover, and a ballet teacher he gets obsessed with. The novel is the stories of these strong women, and their stories have very little to do with John Coetzee. So maybe the whole “autobiography” thing is a joke. (Also, as a matter of fact, one of the conceits of the book is that John has died.) In some ways, this is a portrait of South African womanhood (whites only). From time to time in their stories, these women encountered apartheid, the separation of the races, and the humiliation of the Colored as well as the embarrassment of the whites. The women are the ones with the deep feelings here. John Coetzee’s chronology is just the excuse for them to tell their compelling stories.
Although you have to be a brilliant writer to get away with this patently gimmicky a structure. And I think Coetzee is.