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An Unsparing Look At A Writer Named Coetzee

Jan 18, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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A lot of smoke and mirrors cloud the reader's view as J.M. Coetzee's new novel, Summertime, begins. Questions of identity and the relation of the writer's life to his work come under scrutiny. The major premise of the plot is that a much-lauded South African novelist — named John Coetzee — has died, and there's a biographer going around interviewing people, mostly alert and sensitive women, about his life before his great literary success.

The results of these interviews make up most of this intriguingly designed novel. Coetzee was a learned but restrained fellow, as many of the interviewees (old girlfriends, some family members) testify. He was also standoffish, with little social sense, but he spoke and wrote good English. Alas, a bad lover, one of them puts in. Though as his Afrikaner cousin Margot points out in her emotional session, his concern for his ailing father shows through. As does his love of the South African outback.

Toward the end, the biographer pushes one of his former lovers, a French academic who was his colleague at university, to make an assessment of Coetzee's work. "In general," she says, "his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing."

"Too cool, too neat," she goes on. "Too easy. Too lacking in passion ..." Well, not in this new book, with its candor and frank design, and intricate passions on display.

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