Sunday, October 04, 2009

Deforming the medium: Summertime by JM Coetzee

[G]reat, groundbreaking books teach you how to read and good books remind you how. The best book to teach you how to read Proust's In Search of Lost Time is Proust's In Search of Lost Time.
Mark Thwaite's assertion is as simple and true as it is difficult to accept. After all, for the clearest understanding one has nowhere to go except back into the book. The claim prefaces a review of JM Coetzee's latest novel Summertime and, in listening to how the book asks to be read, it stands alongside the majority of reviews. The final line of The Complete Review's summary for example expresses the difficulty of its acceptance with a disconcerting conjunction: "Summertime is fascinating, but leaves one very uneasy -- about everything from Coetzee himself to the very idea of fiction and autobiography." Shouldn't that "but" be "and"? Isn't it fascinating precisely because it shudders the earth beneath one's reading seat?

However confounding the "but" is, it may offer an insight into the apparent schism in contemporary literary appreciation. That is, not between genre fiction and the genre that dare not speak its name – what China Miéville calls LitFic – but over something more specific. In the same paragraph as the one quoted above, The Complete Review offers another curious judgement: "Coetzee is an incredibly talented writer and a master craftsman -- and, yes, this is a meticulously crafted book, and one of [Summertime's] weaknesses is that it is so obviously a construct." The key words here being "so obviously". Perhaps the schism then is between those who are troubled by fiction as a construct and those who are not. One has to ask the question begged: how might this novel have been less of a construct; so obviously less of a construct? Of course, one can ask it of every novel.

The question is clearly one that troubles JM Coetzee, the writer currently living in Australia. In contrast, it seems not to be a question that troubled John Coetzee, the dead object of this novel's attention. His ex-lover and ex-colleague Sophie Denoël, one of the people interviewed by his fictional biographer, offers her opinion of the man's novels:
I did not read all of them. After Disgrace I lost interest. In general I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion. That's all.
Such withering criticism is perhaps the clearest guidance to the reader and to the novel itself. By including it, spoken from the mouth of someone both close and distant to the author, the critic is disarmed. How can one criticise a book that pre-empts the worst one can offer? Perhaps this is why the consensus has been welcoming albeit distracted by a witless need to tease out the differences between author-writer and author-character.

The consensus is a conspicuous reversal of that on Coetzee's previous novel Diary of a Bad Year which is, however, similar in many ways to Summertime, only more formally adventurous. Despite technical differences, Diary of a Bad Year is also driven by the relation between the self and the world; specifically, and to paraphrase my own review, an investigation into what it means to be singular in a plural universe. To put it another way, it investigates the demand made by Sophie Denoël for a deformation of the constructed medium in order not only "to say what has never been said before" but also to minimise the construction of a literary defensive wall in order to say what he cannot say in any other form.

Unsurprisingly, Diary of a Bad Year failed to make the shortlist for Man Booker Prize and was criticised for including apparently self-indulgent mini-essays under the title "Strong Opinions". Giles Foden's shocking inability or refusal to read the book as it asks to be read was the extreme representative of its negative reception; a reception that would be fair were it able to comprehend the prolepsis inherent to the novel itself. But such a reading is apparently beyond respectable literary discourse. The schism revealed then seems to be simpler, more straightforward, and thereby somewhat more demanding if it is to be closed. While at first the bizarre suggested answer is that Coetzee should become less talented, less of a craftsman, and thereby enable his books to match genre expectations, it is rather that the reader must do as the author has done, to open himself to the force and logic of writing.


  1. And that opening, if at all worthwhile, merits a struggle. May I suggest to you Gerald Murnane's latest, Barley Patch, Stephen - I have nearly finished it and want to read Summertime straight after. In some ways they approach similar questions, to my limited view anyhow. Would love to hear what you think of it.

  2. I used to have Murnane's novel Inland (published by Faber back in the day when it was interested in real fiction). I've not seen any other books of his; it looks like they've not been published over here. Barley Patch doesn't turn up in any Book Depository or Amazon search.

  3. Barley Patch is available from the publisher, general information here.
    Some of the others are easier purchased on AbeBooks - though The Plains should be available through Text, the Australian partner of Canongate.

  4. I haven't read Summertime.

    Coetzee's 'In the Heart of the Country' unsettled its readers very nicely. Now there was a book, and no but about it.



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