Summary and book reviews of Summertime by J M Coetzee

Summertime

Fiction

by J M Coetzee

Summertime
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2009, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2010, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

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About this Book

Book Summary

Summertime is an inventive and inspired work of fiction that allows J.M. Coetzee to imagine his own life with a critical and unsparing eye, revealing painful moral struggles and attempts to come to grips with what it means to care for another human being.

A young English biographer is researching a book about the late South African writer John Coetzee, focusing on Coetzee in his thirties, at a time when he was living in a rundown cottage in the Cape Town suburbs with his widowed father - a time, the biographer is convinced, when Coetzee was finding himself as a writer. Never having met the man himself, the biographer interviews five people who knew Coetzee well, including a married woman with whom he had an affair, his cousin Margot, and a Brazilian dancer whose daughter took English lessons with him. These accounts add up to an image of an awkward, reserved, and bookish young man who finds it hard to make meaningful connections with the people around him.

Summertime is an inventive and inspired work of fiction that allows J.M. Coetzee to imagine his own life with a critical and unsparing eye, revealing painful moral struggles and attempts to come to grips with what it means to care for another human being. Incisive, elegant, and often surprisingly funny, Summertime is a compelling work by one of today's most esteemed writers.

22 August 1972

In yesterday’s Sunday Times, a report from Francistown in Botswana. Sometime last week, in the middle of the night, a car, a white American model, drove up to a house in a residential area. Men wearing balaclavas jumped out, kicked down the front door, and began shooting. When they had done with shooting they set fire to the house and drove off. From the embers the neighbours dragged seven charred bodies: two men, three women, two children.

The killers appeared to be black, but one of the neighbours heard them speaking Afrikaans among themselves and was convinced they were whites in blackface. The dead were South Africans, refugees who had moved into the house mere weeks ago.

Approached for comment, the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs, through a spokesman, calls the report ‘unverified’. Inquiries will be undertaken, he says, to determine whether the deceased were indeed South African citizens. As for the military, an unnamed ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
INTRODUCTION
With Summertime, Nobel Prize-winning novelist J. M. Coetzee has delivered one of the most profound and searching books of his extraordinary career—a meditation on identity and love, an unrelenting exploration of the personal and spiritual costs inherent in the making of art, and a cunning pseudo-autobiography. Coetzee has a reputation as a bold and inventive novelist, and Summertime bears that out in its innovative structure. Rather than a straightforward narrative, the book comprises interviews conducted by Mr. Vincent, a fictional biographer who is writing a book about a deceased writer named John Coetzee. This meta-fictional framing device works brilliantly as Vincent’s successive interlocutors reveal their ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Though it may strike an odd note of praise, the most admirable quality of J.M. Coetzee's Summertime is the author's monastic restraint. As the novel develops through a disjoint series of interviews with characters from the early career of the now famous writer J.M. Coetzee, practically every page calls out for the real Coetzee to break the fourth wall of narration and intervene on his hapless hero's behalf. No such intrusion is forthcoming. Instead, we play rapt audience to lovers, family and colleagues whose recollections painstakingly depict the fictional Coetzee as a calamitous failure of a human being, unable to make contact through the walls of his genius... More than just an academic exercise in meta-fiction, this is an understated yet riveting portrait of the artist as a young man.   (Reviewed by Micah Gell-Redman).

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Media Reviews

Los Angeles Times

[H]ere is Coetzee's ingenious contrivance: his female characters are more real, more palpable, than the ghost-figure who stands in for him. Ingenious, yes; except that the protagonist's refusal to protagonize falls as a dulling, tedious burden on what is more a novelized argument than a novel.

New York Times

[T]he vandalism Coetzee commits upon the easily checked facts of his own life ultimately serves to sharpen a question that does seem genuine, and genuinely self-­indicting: Doesn’t being a great artist demand, or at least imply, a certain greatness of spirit as well?

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The biographer's efforts to describe his subject ultimately result in an examination that reaches through fiction and memoir to grasp what the traditional record leaves out.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. ... a fascinating hybrid, weakened only by Mr.Vincent's pace-killing interruptions, that becomes simultaneously enlightening and amusingly evasive. The real Coetzee's austere integrity and terse candor make this the best yet of his ongoing self-interrogations.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Another brilliant excursion into the nature of writing and the complexities of place and the making of a personal identity.

Globe and Mail (UK)

Summertime contains a breeze of poetic Coetzeean prose that virtually reads itself; for this and its clever conceit, its shell-bound criticism, the book is worth encountering.

Globe and Mail (UK)

Summertime contains a breeze of poetic Coetzeean prose that virtually reads itself; for this and its clever conceit, its shell-bound criticism, the book is worth encountering.

Guardian (UK)

Summertime is both an elegant request that the sum of Coetzee's existence as a public figure should be looked for only in his writing, and ample evidence, once again, why that request should be honoured.

The London Times (UK)

[A]n imaginatively distorted and distorting portrait of the artist as outsider.

The Independent (UK)

... a subtle, allusive meditation: an intriguing map of a weak character's constricted heart struggling against the undertow of suspicion within South Africa's claustrophobic, unpoetic, overtly macho society.

Telegraph (UK)

The cumulative effect of Coetzee’s unblinking honesty and his never-wavering artistic seriousness, is an understanding of the creation of a great writer.

Reader Reviews

Bonnie Brody

Biography of a Living Writer - Supposedly Written After His Death
This is a wonderful book. John Coetzee writes a 'biography' of himself that supposedly has been written after his death. The biographer interviews family members, old lovers and colleagues of Coetzee. What comes out repeatedly is that Coetzee was a...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

J.M. Coetzee
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 9, 1940, J. M. Coetzee* studied first at Cape Town, earning degrees in English and mathematics. He worked for several years as a computer programmer while he researched his thesis on the novelist Ford Madox Ford. In 1968 he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a PhD in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages. His dissertation was on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.

After three years as an assistant professor at SUNY Buffalo, his application for permanent residence in the U.S. was denied as a consequence of his anti-Vietnam war activism. In 1972 he returned to South Africa and joined the faculty of the University of Cape Town where he held a series...

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