Together, ”Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life,” ”Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II” and now ”Summertime” constitute one of our time’s greatest testaments to the full development of a writer’s consciousness.

Few recent writings can compete with the depth and artistry of these three fictionalized memoirs (or memoiristic fictions) in illuminating the stages of this Nobel Prize-winning and twice Booker Prize-winning author’s maturity.

In ”Boyhood” — one has to look as far back as the great 19th-century classics of childhood or James Joyce’s ”Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” for apt comparisons to this monumental effort — Coetzee identifies his conflicted feelings toward his Afrikaner heritage. ”Youth” takes us to Coetzee’s years in England as a failing poet, literary scholar and IBM computer programmer.

Now comes ”Summertime,” which deals with the years from 1972 to 1977, when Coetzee had returned to South Africa (after having practiced linguistics in America and having been thrown out of the country for protesting the Vietnam War) to live in the Tokai suburb of Cape Town while taking care of his ailing father. These were years of relative obscurity, when he had written ”Dusklands” and ”In the Heart of the Country” and was leading up to ”Waiting for the Barbarians” while teaching at the University of Cape Town.

”Boyhood” and ”Youth” are written in objective third-person, but ”Summertime” is more formally experimental, reminding us often of Coetzee’s ”Diary of a Bad Year.”

Vincent, a young English biographer, is interviewing five people who knew the now-deceased Coetzee. They include a married woman named Julia Smith with whom he had a brief affair, and his cousin Margot (earlier seen in ”Boyhood”), now happily married, whom he visited along with the rest of his family at their ancestral farm.

”Summertime” begins and ends with fragments of Coetzee’s diary, as though these were the limits to which Coetzee was willing to go to satisfy his readers’ curiosity about his personal life.

In all three books, Coetzee is haunted by whether he is too cold and distant for normal human relations, particularly with women. Is he suitable marriage material? Can he perform well in bed? Julia’s verdict in ”Summertime” is that ”he was not a prince but a frog he was not human, not fully human.”

When Coetzee’s truck breaks down near the deserted town of Merweville, and the two have to sleep together in the cabin, his cousin Margot asks, ”Is he by nature as heatless as he is sexless?”

Thus Coetzee takes care of the superficial indictments of his character that any future biographer might undertake; he shifts the focus to his ethical discipline instead. In all instances, the women emerge as practical and pragmatic, condemning Coetzee for being in love with abstract ideas of them.

Julia mocks Coetzee for his coldness, but he is taking care of his father at considerable cost in autonomy. He is always busy repairing their ramshackle house because he loathes the white caste’s shunning of manual labor. His vehicle breaks down with Margot because he insists on doing the repairs himself.

The final, short interview transcript is with Sophie Denoell, Coetzee’s university colleague, who judges his writing thus: ”His work lacks ambition. Too lacking in passion.”

Unlike the other women, Sophie is an intellectual, a stand-in for Coetzee’s critics. Sophie is misjudging Coetzee’s writing, just as in earlier sections the women intimate with him have misjudged his character.

Coetzee’s biographer is focused not on his writing, but on the fissures in his character, as biographers are apt to do. Coetzee has successfully executed the high-wire act of prejudging his life and work before his own death, in essence setting up an impossible roadblock for would-be biographers.

Some may misjudge his character and writing as cold, but warmth and compassion of a rarefied kind overflow these books. He may not want to believe it, but he is a giant among giants.


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