Maurice Blanchot observed that there was a tripartite structure to literature: allegory, myth, symbol. A story is allegoric (always already a great big metaphor), mythic (specific; about what the story says it is about) and symbolic (or, think, subversive; about itself, about itself as a text, about itself as a written artefact; writing, on some level, is always writing about writing). A book like Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the 70s, world-conquering, self-help classic, foregrounds the allegorical aspect so much that it is clearly no longer really a novella about a big bird, but rather fully an attempt to say something (something rather cheesey, for sure) about life's big questions. Most novels emphasise their story and plot -- and, with (Establishment) Literary Fiction, especially the elegance and care with which that story is written. It will speed us to my substantive points if I am allowed to claim that Modernism, with its focus on form, was predominantly interested in the symbolic, the subversive. It is easy to see how criticism itself tends to hone in on one particular of these elements to foreground its own concerns (most book reviews of ELF titles are merely plot synopses with attitude). Where literature leads, criticism follows. This is why great, groundbreaking books teach you how to read and good books remind you how. The best book to teach you how to read Proust's ISOLT is Proust's ISOLT, and the best guide to Joyce's Ulysses is Joyce's Ulysses itself.

Summertime, J.M. Coetzee's latest novel, is a very good book. It is the third in a loose series of books of fictional autobiography following Boyhood and Youth. It is, ostensibly, so clever and playful -- and both these adjectives are particular weak in the face of Coetzee's work -- that whilst unveiling itself it seems it has already, simultaneously, done a very good job of reading itself too. The form of the novel need not detain us for too long. We are presented with a casebook of unfinished texts which themselves are presented as the working documents for a biography of John Coetzee, now deceased. A few fragments of John's notebooks occupy the first chapter, then we have transcripts of interviews between John's would-be biographer and four women and one man who have occupied important positions in John's life. Most of these interviews take the form of written Q and As, but one of the 'interviews' is presented to us, with the occassional interuption, in the form of an extended narrative -- the abstract artist reminding us of just how good at figurative drawing he still is, perhaps? The novel ends with several more fragments from John's notebooks.

Coetzee's metafiction (for want of a better term) has, it would seem, already thought about and answered all the questions most critics are likely to want to ask of it or draw out from it; especially if those critics labour under the misapprehension that this is, indeed, something called 'fictional autobiography'. Coetzee's book is, doubtless, a compelling work of auto-critique, but such critique is not hermetic; it always leaks. Freud's self-analyses tell us more about Freud than he ever knew -- as does his the whole body of his work. Any idea that auto-critique can be complete and whole unto itself falls under the anthropologist's fallacy of objectivity. The scientist always affects the results, simply by asking the questions in the first place. Coetzee, of course, knows this. So, are we really in such dangerous, vertiginous, Dante-esque territory? A lit theory hell where nominal crises arise and set in? Is this meta-auto-critical fake-real / real-fake (auto)(biography)? Well, it is both more simple and more complex than that. This is merely a novel and that is, already, already more than enough. Summertime is always tempting us to misread it as a biography of some kind (transcripts, interviewees, references to real events in J.M. Coetzee's real life, even a jacket cover photo that shows JMC at the age he was when the events we are reading about were taking place). We can enjoy it more, however, and get much more from it, if we remember that this is a novel; if we note that Summertime is very clear to remind us of this simple fact all the way down; and that it is about the very temptation it induces fully to misapprehend it.

Despite what some reviewers have suggested, then, this is not a fictionalised biography of John Coetzee because the texts we read are not yet worked up to the standard that biography (even fictionalised biography) demands. For example, when speaking to his interviewees, our would-be biographer says that he will change aspects of the interview if his interviewees are not happy with any part of what he has written; often, they are not happy, and call for changes to the text. These are, then, fictionalised transcripts presented as unfinished. This, then, isn't just J.M. Coetzee's fictionalised autobiography of his life during the 70s in South Africa when he was writing some of his most important work. It isn't just this because this is a novel and JMC knows, as a novelist, that some of all its levels of meaning, despite his care, will always evade him. Indeed, what makes Summertime such a very good book is that it is precisely that lesson that is emphasised in a careful reading of it. Despite how knowing a writer JMC is and despite how knowing he makes us feel and helps us be (and reminds us we should be in general as readers far more attentive than we habitually are) something remains outside of his grasp. Texts, like people, can never be wholly self-aware or self-available nor can they ever be fully appropriated. Therapists, recall, can be nutters too!

Indeed, the way to read Summertime I think is to see how it tempts (aware, of course, of the Freudian overtones of the word) a particular response (the response we've seen in many reviews, the response to it as fictional autobiography) which actually, over the piece, it fully counsels against. Summertime requires a creative, novelistic reading not a reductive, (pseudo-)biographical reading; indeed, is about such a reading. On a quick glance, it looks like this fragmentary 'thing' is something that the reader is being asked to bring together into a unitary whole (to finish the unfinished biographical fragments and turn the pieces into a whole biography). But that is the most dangerous misreading of them all. And that is the temptation that this particular novel (and, indeed, the Novel -- Literature as a whole, as a fragmentary history) warns us fully away from. This is what Summertime is about.

The last chapter of the book containing yet more of John's notebook entries evidences this most clearly. JMC gives us five short fragments of John's unfinished notebook materials that act as a coda to the novel we've just read. The temptation here -- and I think JMC is tempting us, and I'm not sure if this may actually be a weakening in his resolve, if he really does want to help orientate us with a Key to All Mythologies -- is to see each of these fragments as representing each of the major themes of the novel, perhaps even the themes of JMC's life itself. But life doesn't have 'themes' and only an overly simplistic reading of a novel thinks that listing a work's themes somehow 'gets it down'. We have, then, in the fragments, the father/son relationship, John's education, his relationship with women, with writing , with death (and this is the order in which they appear, tempting us to think about such themes hierarchically). But we do not, with this, capture all that the novel is about. The biggest temptation -- to return to Blanchot's formula -- is to read this novel as myth. To think that any novel can ever be read by reducing it to its themes; to think a novel is about just what it is ostensibly about, and not to see that as a possibly very conscious mis-steer, or a very easy way of reducing it to -- following Blanchot -- just one third of all it could be on a more sympathetic reading. It is not only that something always remains after we've reduced a novel to its themes -- which is a commonplace; Moby-Dick, we all know, is not just a novel about a monomaniac -- but to say that we've barely begun even to focus on what it is about even after iterating a whole list of themes, presenting a synopsis, deconstructing its ambiguities, etc.. JMC tempts us to do so, but the whole novel works to show that it would be foolish to succumb. Summertime is about the very misreadings which have subsequently happened to it. It is an ambiguous schooling in the ambiguous nature of writing (and reading) – an ambiguity that it sometimes looks as if JMC is seeking to control, but which the whole novel simultaneously shows is always one step ahead of both him and us, the readers.

To see Summertime as a failed or veiled (auto)biography, then, is precisely to fail to read it as a novel. JMC has foregrounded the Real -- it is about John Coetzee who has written novels called what JMC's novels are called and who shares many verifiable life events with JMC -- only to show the Real is never congruent with the Truth. It is not then of much interest to disentangle how much of JMC's actual biography inheres in his latest work. Rather, we should see that Summertime perpetually problematises a fixed point from which to orientate oneself about anything -- particulary about reading the Novel and particularly about reading this particularly fine example of the modern novel by one of its best practitioners.

Readers Comments

  1. Great piece, Mark. It really seems that you can be in two camps with Summertime. You either love it or you've miss the point (of Coetzee's intentions; of the form of the book and so on). Did you see the Newsnight Review discussion on the Booker shortlist? The part on Summertime had me screaming at the screen...

  2. You may have just sold the book to me.

    Though, I do have a reservation here. I remember when I was reading reviews of Coetzee's other late work(Costello, Diary of a Bad Year), there was a similar polarisation about them, and the people who said the analog of what you are saying here in one case said that Costello's lectures were her opinions, not Coetzee's. Later, I found out that those lectures had been given at other times by Coetzee himself.
    No real point, except to warn against over-interpretation :).

  3. Ronak, you said the same thing at my blog yesterday. Evidently you didn't read my reply. Coetzee gave lectures *as* Elizabeth Costello: see Princeton UP's webpage for the book:
    Even his Nobel acceptance speech was written in the voice of a fictional character.

  4. Coetzee didn't give lectures *as* Elizabeth Costello. He read stories about a novelist called Elizabeth Costello who give lectures. At least that was the case in Princeton.

  5. Sorry, gives.

  6. Penelope, I've got a headful of more hairs for you to split if you'd like.

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