"A young English biographer is working on a book about the late writer, John Coetzee. He plans to focus on the years from 1972-1977 when Coetzee, in his thirties, is sharing a run-down cottage in the suburbs of Cape Town with his widowed father. This, the biographer senses, is the period when he was 'finding his feet as a writer'. Never having met Coetzee, he embarks on a series of interviews with people who were important to him."
When embarking on the reading of Summertime, initial impressions are, to be blunt, not good at all. Words coming to mind to describe it at this stage include narcissistic, highly stylised, pretentious, and confused. One wonders what Coetzee is trying to say or to achieve.
However, this feeling of being overwhelmed by the novel's concept or purpose is thankfully transient. The more one reads, the cleverer the novel seems to be in its foundations: by fictionalising one's autobiography, this simultaneously makes it a very cunning way to write one due to it being up to you how much you reveal about yourself, as well as the distancing effects created by fictionalisation making it easier to be honest about your faults and foibles. It is rare to see the third person deployed with such originality and to such effect.
By distancing himself from himself, Coetzee also encourages the reader to think more critically: not only politically so, by teaching the reader about the background of South Africa and its people, but also in terms of showing us how much an author or biographer can twist another's story to their own ends and how writers who have still-living people as their subject have to consider the impact of their writing on the living - and on the still-living family of the subject, too.
Less academically-speaking, these Brechtian effects don't last forever: the narrative is well-written and Coetzee does allow the reader to become absorbed in the story. Although the peripheral characters of Coetzee's life are not always consistently well-developed, it is an easy read because of its highly compelling nature.
However, it is the concept of this fictionalised autobiography (and the previous two in its series, Boyhood and Youth, which could have been named more creatively to avoid looking like they've just been nicked from Tolstoy) which has surely attracted attention from critics and awarding bodies; the story itself is less remarkable, and if it were told in another format, it would have surely slipped through the net.
Other fictional works by JM Coetzee
In The Heart of the Country (1977)
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
Life and Times of Michael K (1983)
Age of Iron (1990)
The Master of Petersburg (1994)
The Lives of Animals (1999)
Elizabeth Costello (2003)
Slow Man (2005)
Diary of a Bad Year (2007)