Reading J. M. Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs Boyhood, Youth and Summertime in sequence is rewarding if slightly overwhelming. Though there is occasional humour these enigmatic memoirs are extraordinarily melancholy, sculpting layer by layer the image of a diffident, lonely person struggling to be an artist.
Written in either the third person present-tense, or in Summertime as a series of interviews conducted by a fictional biographer after John Coetzee’s equally fictional death, Coetzee clearly wished to maintain some distance. Given the lacerating self-analysis in these memoirs, perhaps that distance is as much necessity as stylistic device. That said, it is impossible to disentangle the fiction from the actual in these memoirs.
Does it matter that few readers will realize that the supposedly autobiographical stratum on which “Summertime” is based is itself a fiction? Mr. Coetzee did not actually spend the early 1970s living with his widowed father in a tumbledown shack: he was a married man with two children and a mother still very much alive. I’m not sure why Mr. Coetzee gives us an invented past. Perhaps he is warning us against lazy assumptions about the connections between books and life, fiction and autobiography. After all, the book is obviously a novel, so why should the reader assume it accurately depicts the writer’s life? Or does he assume that we know his biography as well as he does and are in on the game all along?
This is the path of the trilogy as a whole: from the author’s childish sense of himself as special or chosen to an adulthood where such detachment comes at a much greater cost. Still, it is in keeping with that detachment that the nature of the catharsis Coetzee is pursuing in these “memoirs” is ultimately not personal or confessional at all, but aesthetic.