Monday, November 16, 2009

Coetzee, Coetzee, Coetzee

You know his name and maybe you even picked up one of his novels once. His essays -- you've seen them here and there -- are smart, if also stolid, and always leave something wanting right at that thick part of the tongue. That's what you think. Ah, and he's won the Booker, you remember, he's a South African who's won the Booker. Twice was it? A Nobel too, can that really be right? ... You ask your friends: 'Coetzee?' you chime. 'Oh. Good. Yes,' they say, 'great books, good writer.' You inquire further: 'What have you read, I'm looking into reading something of his. Dusklands? Disgrace? The one with the lectures and a journey to the afterlife -- what is it -- Elvis, no, Ellen, no, Elizabeth Costello?' They are not so sure. 'Oh yes, it was that one, with the -- you know -- what you said...' they reply, miffed.

Coetzee would love such a conversation. I'm sure of it.

And that's what his new one, Summertime (Viking, Dec 24, 2009), is all about.

More Closely: The novel is about an author named John Coetzee. Or rather, it's about a young, British academic searching for the truth about the writing and life of this author, John Coetzee. Told through salvaged pages of Coetzee's diary as well as 5 interviews with people who knew Coetzee well during the time when 'he was finding his feet, literarily speaking,' Summertime offers readers an author's attempted interpretation of his own legacy, however puzzling and contradictory the idea of such a thing may be. Laced with fact and fiction, like his past novel, Diary of a Bad Year, it is a strange book which deserves to sit at many places on one's bookshelf.

In that light, Coetzee's book is a good one. It is inventive, startling, and in its best moments, piqued by improbable moments of gravitas and sentimentality which disclose this stoic writer's inner fragility; much moreso than Diary, I think, also. So I liked it. Not all the way through, but I liked it and find myself returning to it (and its evasive novel-shape) much more often than I'd like to admit.

In the end, I think I want to say that Coetzee weaves a tight basket. Threading fiction and memoir, and the novelistic with the dry and academic, he has done a good thing by once more giving us another suberbly crafted book, even when it's sure to tie us up in knots.

So tell your friends: 'I read his new one, Summertime. It was interesting and now I think I know why he's got so many medals. And you know, even though it didn't strike me so much when I read it, I can't stop thinking about it.'


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