Coetzee’s Trilogy

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?

[NYT review]

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.

[A 2nd NYT review]

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Coetzee’s Trilogy

Dark Austerity

What he would write if he could, if it were not Mr. Whelan reading it, would be something darker, something that, once it began to flow from his pen, would spread across the page out of control, like spilt ink. Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightning crackling across the sky.

Writes J. M. Coetzee in the first in the trilogy of his fictionalised memoirs Boyhood. Stark, haunting and dark as life, Coetzee’s account of the early years of his childhood. Hard to believe that Coetzee packed so much into a mere 166 pages (Vintage paperback). I put the book down to make tea and copy passage after passage into my notebook. A stunning achievement that I shall follow with Youth the second of the trilogy.

A Special Day

For some time I’ve anticipated with pleasure reading J. M. Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs. Coetzee’s ability in Boyhood to conjure up his early perceptions of an African childhood is intoxicating.

Agnes occupies a place in his life that he does not yet understand. He first set eyes on her when he was seven. Invited to Skipperskloof, they arrived late one afternoon after a long train journey. Clouds scudded across the sky, there was no warmth in the sun. Under the chill winter light the veld stretched out a deep reddish blue without a trace of green. Even the farmhouse looked unwelcoming: an austere white rectangle with a steep zinc roof. It was not at all like Voëlfontein; he did not want to be there.

Agnes, a few months older than himself, was allotted to be his companion. She took him for a walk in the veld. She went barefoot; she did not even own shoes. Soon they were out of sight of the house, in the middle of nowhere. They began to talk. She had pigtails and a a lisp, which he liked. He lost his reserve. as he spoke he forgot what language he was speaking: thoughts simply turned to words within him, transparent words.

What he said to Agnes that afternoon he can no longer remember. But he told her everything, everything he did, everything he knew, everything he hoped for. In silence she took it all in. Even as he spoke he knew the day was special because of her.

The sun began to sink, fiery crimson yet icy. The clouds darkened, the wind grew sharper, cutting through his clothes. Agnes was wearing nothing but a thin cotton dress; her feet were blue with cold.

‘Where have you been? What have you been doing?’ asked the grown-ups when they returned home. ‘Niks nie,’ answered Agnes. Nothing.

Do you recall those serene days of childhood, wandering purposelessly all day (do any children do this now?), returning only in time for dinner? What did we do? Nothing. And lots of it.