Summertime, the third volume of J.M.Coetzee's 'fictionalised memoir', has been surprising and impressing me. It packs a huge punch, this fragmentary volume of notes and interview transcripts by a fictional biographer pursuing traces of a younger 'J.M.Coetzee' in South Africa, after his fictional death. What an undertaking! - the Nobel laureate imagines how relations, friends and lovers might have seen a version of himself in the 1970s, a quiet, odd, unmarried teacher and barely published writer, returned to Cape Town and living, in his thirties, with his widowed father. It's told mostly through their voices, yet always entirely his own harsh, eccentric voice. It's something we could all do: speculate on how our intimates might describe us. But, think about it, put yourself there... I can quickly see that I'd do one of two things: construct a rosy, seamless image - the wish-fulfilment version, or go way the other way and indulge my darkest fantasies of how they all disliked and despised me really.
This seems at first to veer towards the latter extreme, as all these different voices evoke a sad and unappealing figure. But, then, why do we warm so much to 'John Coetzee' and laugh and cry for him? (well, I did). Why do we start to ponder on the limited perspectives of this lover, this cousin, this colleague of his in the setting of Apartheid South Africa that now seems so far off? These characters are on the liberal side, no stalwarts of the system, but deeply affected by the brutality and isolation of that society, their expectations narrowed by the coarser aspects of provincial Afrikaner culture. The pictures they paint - the shabby, unkempt house of the two men, the polite poverty of the 'coloured' servants and farmworkers, the haunting vastness of the Karoo - are compelling. But they are patently unreliable narrators. They remark on this themselves when the fictional biographer reads back to them what they said at their last meeting with him. So, then you think (well, I thought), aha, that's the point, it's a clever plot to get you on his side, make you like and feel for this outsider figure despite it all! But it's not that either. It dips between layered viewpoints, grips and repels and grips again and constantly disconcerts. It endlessly subverts, but a steely and uncompromising bottom line resists subversion - the core image of a man loathing and refusing violence and oppression and all that stem from and perpetuate them, and of the way in which a persona based on refusal may become stiff, carapaced, unreachable.
About fifty pages in, I realised I love this book - the way it's quiet extremism speaks to mine, the way it pushes both emotions and intellect in all directions at once. I love it so much, it makes me hate all the books I've read lately that weren't this one - outrageous feelings of affection and partisanship for an ambiguous, delicately woven, but nonetheless bald and shocking work.