J. M. Coetzee must feel rather blasé about being on the Booker shortlist; he has been nominated a total of 5 times, as well as being the first author to win it twice, for his novels ‘The Life and Times of Michael K’ and ‘Disgrace’. He lost out this year to Hilary Mantel, but at least he can console himself with his Nobel Prize.
Coetzee is clearly a writer of considerable merit, so how does his latest offering shape up? ‘Summertime’ is the third instalment of his “fictionalised memoir” which began in 1997 with Boyhood ,and was later followed by Youth. Since it isn’t a straight forward autobiography, the book has to take the stance of a biographer investigating J. M. Coetzee’s life, who pieces together a picture of the writer in his late 30’s, by conducting interviews with various people who were important or influential to the writer. On paper, the idea of a writer fictionalising his life story, and making himself the subject of one of his characters study can begin to sound like a narcissistic ego trip. However, the tone of the novel is one of quiet self deprecation, until it appears that Coetzee is using the novel to try and figure out what people could possibly find interesting about him.
I personally found the novel hard to get into, as the detached third person narrative at times could be aloof and obscure. Rather than connecting with the plot, I found myself simply admiring Coetzee’s style and language use, which is by turns touching and poetic. ‘Summertime’ is perhaps not a novel that will shake the earth, but at the very least, make beautiful vibrations.