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.
This week, Anne Tyler's new novel explores one man's rudderless existence, and Elizabeth Gilbert offers an older and wiser follow-up to Eat Pray Love. Also, a narrative of life in North Korea, and in Summertime, J.M. Coetzee offers a fictional biography of the author ... J.M. Coetzee.
A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert and Felipe, the man she fell in love with at the end of her best-selling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, promised to love but never marry. (Both survived painful divorces.) They are forced into a decision by a Homeland Security agent who detains Felipe at an airport: They must marry or he cannot live with her in the U.S. During months in exile, she agonizes about her reservations and explores the meaning of marriage across cultures and its historic implications for women.
I read Committed in one sitting, fascinated by the idea that the megaselling author had ditched the first draft of the sequel to Eat, Pray, Love. My guess is, she changed in the course of the writing. She seems wiser the second time around. Her conversations with her mother and grandmother give a telling and touching three-generational perspective to Committed.— Jane Ciabattari, NPR reviewer
Hardcover, 304 pages, Viking Adult, List price: $26.95, pub. date: Jan. 5
By Anne Tyler
Liam Pennywell is a genial man whose life has been beset by a series of failures that he accepts without argument. When we first meet him, at age 60, he has just lost his job teaching philosophy at a middling private school and is downsizing into a prefab apartment complex next to a shopping mall on the outskirts of Baltimore. He plans to live out the rest of his life reading books and avoiding his nagging ex-wife, three grown daughters and sister — who buzz in and out of his life with an energy and purposefulness that stands in contrast to Liam's rudderless existence. As the story begins, Liam is shaken out of his dormant state by an intruder who enters his new apartment through an unlocked patio door and knocks him unconscious. Liam, who has no memory of the blow, becomes obsessed with reconstructing those missing hours and sets off on a series of improbable adventures that reawaken him to his past.
This is a book more about character than plot. The story itself is no page-turner; a burglary, a romance, a betrayal and a plot twist all feel more flat than the characters who experience them. But the actors, who aside from Liam are almost all women, spring to life as a bundle of exquisite details. People like Eunice, Liam's love interest, were, he observes, "subject to speckles and flushes; their purses resembled wastepaper baskets; they stepped on their own skirts." Liam's youngest daughter, Kitty: "her fingers long and flexible, ending in nail bitten nubbins — lemur fingers." His pushy sister, Julia, insists on bringing beef stew to a convalescing Liam even though he hasn't eaten meat in three decades. I know these women and they form a dysfunctional family that makes for an engaging read. Liam himself is more of a cipher who threatens to break through into a fully conscious adult, only to frustratingly retreat back inside himself.— Vivian Schiller, NPR president and CEO
Hardcover, 288 pages, Knopf, list price: $25.95, pub. date: Jan 5
Nothing To Envy
Ordinary Lives in North Korea
By Barbara Demick
North Korea is among the most opaque and wretched countries on the planet. Trying to write a narrative book about the closed, Stalinist nation is a task most journalists wouldn't take on a bet. But Barbara Demick has pulled it off. Demick, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Seoul, spent seven years interviewing defectors who lived in the North Korean city of Chongjin at the height of a famine that cost up to 2 million lives. Relying on their remarkably detailed recollections, she has crafted a vivid, oral history of a single city in the darkest days of one of the world's worst regimes.
The topic is so bleak, it took me three weeks to crack this book. But Nothing To Envy is much more than a chronicle of slow-motion starvation. At times, it's a page-turner; at others, an intimate study in totalitarian psychology. Demick's greatest achievement is rendering her North Korean subjects as complex and compelling characters — not the brain-washed parodies we so often see marching in unison in TV reports.— Frank Langfitt, NPR business correspondent and
former Beijing bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun
Hardcover, 336 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $26, pub. date: Dec. 29
By J.M. Coetzee
Summertime is the third of J.M. Coetzee's fictionalized autobiographical novels. In the first two, Boyhood and Youth, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist provided glimpses of his coming of age in South Africa and London, respectively. In Summertime, he takes a different tack. The book is set soon after the death of the fictional writer J.M. Coetzee. It's told through a series of interviews between a fictional biographer and five people who knew the "late" writer before he became famous. The interviews are bookended by two sets of the writer's notebooks, which trace his metamorphosis into a novelist. In real life, Coetzee is a notoriously private man, and much of the fictional Coetzee's life differs starkly from the author's own experiences, so where fiction ends and autobiography begins is anybody's guess.
J.M. Coetzee is on most lists of great contemporary writers, but it wasn't until I read Summertime that I understood why. His prose is spare and elegant, gut-wrenchingly sad and, when you least expect it, funny. The book's central character, the late eponymous novelist, appears only in the recollections of various associates, yet his presence looms on every page. But if it's more of the writer's life one seeks, look elsewhere. Coetzee's tendency to give his fictional self a story that wildly varies from his own made the work all the more appealing. Key plot elements, such as the fictional Coetzee's relationship with his widowed father, are demonstrably false, while others, such as hints about why he returned to South Africa from the U.S., seem to point at the truth. Frustrating? Sure, but the book left me guessing, and wanting more. Still, there is little doubt that Summertime is an intensely personal novel that gave me a glimpse into the minds of one of the great writers of our age — or did it?— Krishnadev Calamur, editor, NPR Digital News