J.M. Coetzee’s magnificent Summertime is a work of fiction. Never, though, has a genre seemed more ambiguous, more masterfully and provocatively tampered with than in this incredible novel.
A biographer is writing about a novelist named John Coetzee in Summertime, interviewing five people who touched Coetzee’s life as a young man living in Cape Town. With the biographer’s—and of course Coetzee’s—coaxing, characters that might otherwise feel peripheral come alive. A cousin speaks about a night she spent stranded with him, a Brazilian ballet dancer muses on his unreturned love letters and a married lover recalls with mild indifference the nights that they spent together. Remarkably, and seemingly intentionally, the interviewees all become more interesting as characters than Coetzee himself.
The portrait of Coetzee is often unflattering—he appears distant, emotionally incapable and painfully socially awkward. In this sense, the book feels tremendously honest, an almost cathartic exercise in which the author has striven toward extreme self-evaluation. The problem with this reading, though, is the presupposition of truth, which Coetzee has robbed from his reader. As one of his interview subjects tells his biographer, “It would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life.”
It is ruthlessly tempting, of course, to try to separate fact from fiction, and Coetzee seems almost to be taunting his readers with clues, particularly in relation to the indisputable facts of his publishing history—indicating, for example, that the dancer was the inspiration behind his much lauded novel Foe. But the frustration that comes with the reading experience is what, in turn, makes it so genius. Truth, Coetzee seems to argue, is irrelevant, and the reader’s reliance on it is dangerous.
Rebecca Shapiro is an assistant editor at the Random House Publishing Group.