Summertime – J.M. Coetzee

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Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2009

Summertime is a very unusual novel in that it is a fictionalised biography of the author. The book follows a young biographer as he tries to write about Coetzee’s middle years. The strange thing is that Coetzee has already died in the book, so the biographer focuses on locating all the people who were important to him.

I’m afraid that I didn’t really understand the point of this book. Autobiographies are one thing, but I found it very odd to read a book about the author in which you have no idea what is true and what a complete fabrication. I admit to not having read Boyhood or Youth, and so perhaps I am missing something.

I found the writing style difficult to engage with. The constant switching between notes, interviews and prose meant that the book didn’t gel for me. I became distanced from the characters and although I disliked Coetzee’s character for having an affair at one point, most of the time I felt no real connection with him. It was strange that he put himself down so much. The book seemed to be very critical of everything he did:

‘He is stuck up,’ says Carol. ‘He thinks too much of himself. He can’t bear to lower himself to talk to ordinary people. When he isn’t messing around with his car he is sitting in a corner with a book. And why doesn’t  he get a haircut? Every time I lay eyes on him I have an urge to tie him down and slap a pudding-bowl over his head and snip off those hideous greasy locks of his.’

There wasn’t much of a ‘summertime’ feel about it all – the book felt quite depressing.

Overall, it was a well written book, but I just didn’t connect with it.

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30 Comments

  1. Violet says:

    Definitely an odd premise but I quite liked the concept. I’ve been meaning to read something by this author for some time. I’ll remember not to start with this.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, I have been meaning to read his books too, but I didn’t get round to it. I think it was a bad idea to start with this one.

  2. Karen says:

    I must admit having heard the premise and structure of this book I have not been tempted to read it at all. Have you read Disgrace?? I have heard lots of good things about it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Karen, I haven’t read Disgrace, but I am really looking forward to reading it. I have heard lots of good things about it and think I will enjoy reading it much more than this one.

  3. Sandy says:

    Yeah, I was scratching my head with just the description. Huh? I guess it is creative, but I think it not knowing truth from fiction would bother me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, Creative is a very good word for this book, but I think I like books which have a more normal structure!

  4. Claire says:

    I really liked the concept and I think that Coetzee was definitely saying something bigger about the nature of writing and privacy, which I covered in my post about it. It was definitely the hardest book review I’ve had to write to date as I grappled with the themes.
    I loved Disgrace and Summertime made me admire him so much more for sheer brilliance; I’ll definitely be reading more of his work soon. Although I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did some other Booker nominees, I think it has a very good chance of winning.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I think you are right about this being a statement about his privacy, but I disagree with you about this one winning the Booker. I don’t think it is even going to make my predictive short list tomorrow. I’ll be interested to see if he makes the real short list or not.

  5. From the moment I saw the Booker long list, this is the one book I really wanted to read. I love Coetzee’s work (whatever little I’ve read of it). It sounds like an interesting premise, and “experimental” writing.

    Have you read Diary of a Bad Year? I’d be quite curious to find out what you thought of that, for it was one of the toughest books I’ve ever read, in terms of style, but, it was just so well-written, that it blew my mind away. Again, I don’t think the book had a point, but, there’s something about Coetzee’s style of writing that makes me want to read more and more by him.

    Sorry you didn’t like it that much, but I still can’t wait to read it.

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, No I haven’t read Diary of a Bad Year. It sounds similar to this one, so I think you will probably be blown away by this writing too.

      It is strange that How to Paint a Dead Man seemed to have less of a point than this book, but for some unknown reason I loved it.

      I look forward to reading what you make of this one.

  6. mee says:

    The main character in Disgrace is not exactly “likable” too. Sounds like it could be the common theme of his books: old man with “issues”. I haven’t read his other books though. If I do, I might pick his other work.

    Imagine if he wins again. It would be his third! The Booker panels sure like him!

    1. Jackie says:

      mee, I would be very surprised if this book won this year. The standard is so high I think this book will strugle to make the short list.

  7. Beth F says:

    Definitely sounds different. Even though it didn’t work for you, I’m curious now. I’ll have to see if it’s in the library or the bookstore because I’d like to flip through it to see how the different elements were handled (notes, interviews, etc.).

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, Yes, it is very different. It isn’t released in America until December, so you have a little while to wait before it arrives. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

  8. Meghan says:

    A fictional biography of an author does seem a little strange. It would be harder to believe than regular fiction about real people. I think I would find it too difficult to decide what was truth and what was fiction, and taking it all as fiction would make it purposeless. So, maybe I’ll avoid this one.

    1. Jackie says:

      Meghan, That is exactly what I thought – unnecessarily confusing. This is probably a literary masterpiece that I am not appreciating, but it isn’t my sort of thing either.

  9. Jenny says:

    Oh, mercy, I wouldn’t be able to get on with this at all. Autobiographical fiction only works for me when I have a real actual biography of the person on hand to check in with. I can’t focus on the book otherwise because I spend all my time fretting over what’s true and what’s not.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, That is how I felt. Perhaps it is just the way our minds work – not suited to uncertainty!

  10. Steph says:

    Hmmm, I’ve never read any Coetzee, although i did borrow Disgrace from the library (but am not sure if I’ll get to it before it’s due back). He’s definitely an author I’d like to try, but I might not start with this one! The idea of a fictional autobiography is kind of interesting, but like you, I think I would be bothered about not knowing what was fact or fiction… the concept did kind of remind me of Roald Dahl’s Boy!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I remember nothing about Boy. Perhaps it is time for a re-read. I didn’t realise it followed the same concept. I was probably too young to even know what that meant when I read it!

  11. Kari says:

    Ugh, Coetzee is one of my boyfriend’s favorite authors, so I have tried to get into him. I just can’t. He is boring and depressing, and I often don’t see the point. This book sounds awful. I don’t remember Boyhood too much, but I remember thinking it was boring but saying it wasn’t bad just to impress my not-yet boyfriend, haha.

    Disgrace does get a lot of praise. Even my mom liked it, and I never in a million years would have guessed she would like a book by Coetzee. She doesn’t usually like serious books. I still didn’t like it, though.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kari, I’m pleased you managed to hook your boyfriend with Coetzee!! LOL!! I imagine this book is similar to Boyhood, so is probably one you should avoid!

      I will read Disgrace sometime soon. All these comments have made me wonder whether I will actually like it now.

  12. Dan Holloway says:

    I have to say words like self-involved come to mind. I’m wary of Coetzee simply because like Beryl Bainbridge and Martin Amis and Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, I just think if him as a grandee, whcih is ridiculously unfair. But there’s so much new writing out there that’s exciting, I can’t quite believe that so many of the same old names are actually that much better than them all. Rather like Hollywood studios come Oscar time, though, I think it’s the publishers rather than the judges who need to look at themselves – I think they send in the books by the names they think the judges want to see rather than the actual best on their list, because at least that way they know they’ll get their longlist quota filled – if they actually took a punt on their rising stars, they’d risk ending up with nothing, and as the longlist and even more the shortlist props up their literary wings, they can’t afford the risk. So we end up with more Coetzee. Just like we end up with Another Scorsese.

    The cynic would also point out how refreshing it is, at such an exciting time for cover deisgn as the present, that Coetzee’s publishers have moved boldly beyond the tried and tested “dusty road with decrepit beast” from Disgrace.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dan, The best book on the long list this year was Wilderness by Samantha Harvey. It was her debut novel, which just proves that publishers shouldn’t just concentrate on the big names. I really hope she wins, but I have a feeling one of the heavy weights will.

      1. Dan Holloway says:

        Yes, just like the Oscars! There’s a sense that someone gets it because they deserve it or “it’s about time they won” not because of THIS book. I think it happens to a lesser extent with the Turner Prize as well. Mercury Music Prize does the opposite, of course – the “Radiohead syndrome”

  13. praveen says:

    havent read summetime, but i have read disgrace, have read youth and waiting for the barbarians, all by Coetzee…i honestly feel he is arguably the finest exponent of literary fiction today..none of his works correspond to any formal narrative structure, in the manner in which we are used to reading classics…but at the heart of the narrative, his is a powerful bleak, staggeringly moving voice…rather immaterial whether he gets the Booker or not, i personally dont think Coetzee wound care…he has this austere, restrained style of writing, which is such a relief, given the tendency of many literary folks to just play around with the language…

    1. Jackie says:

      praveen, Coetzee is clearly a talented writer, but I find he is just too experimental for me. I just didn’t connect with the writing. If you are a fan of his other books then I’m sure you’ll love this one.

  14. John Self says:

    I agree with praveen and Claire; I thought this book was tremendous and is my favourite for the Booker (having read The Glass Room, The Quickening Maze and partway through Wolf Hall). Coetzee for me is one of the few writers I’ve read where I can immediately see why he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, so while I can understand where Dan is coming from in relation to juries picking safe choices, I do think this book entirely deserves its place.

    Jackie, you said you didn’t really understand the point of the book: I recommend having a look at some other bloggers’ and critics’ responses and you’ll see that there is in fact so much in the book, that most reviews have dealt with only one or two of its aspects. Also if you read a book that’s been widely acclaimed and find that you feel you’re missing something, it can be helpful to read about it elsewhere and see what other people have made of it – this can help direct your own thoughts and bring light where before there was darkness!

    One point: you said in your review that at one point you disliked ‘Coetzee’ (the character not the author) as he had an affair. But wasn’t he single and unmarried throughout the book? So he didn’t have an affair. The woman he had a relationship with was married, so she was having an affair. Anyway it’s all fictional as Coetzee in real life was married with two kids at that time.

    1. Jackie says:

      John, I agree that Summertime deserves it’s place on the Booker list, but was surprised to see Little Stranger on the list, as I thought the writing wasn’t in the same league as the other books (Fingersmith is one of my all time favourite books, so I don’t really like having to say that)

      I have read many other reviews for this book and can see there is a lot of depth to the text, but I don’t like to have to study books to appreciate them. I need to like them on first reading and this book just didn’t entertain me. It was just too weird. I’m sure it is genius, but I’m afraid I don’t want to spend hours studying this book to work out the many subtle meanings.

      On your point – I agree with the technicalities of your argument, but in my opinion anyone who has a relationship with a married person is also committing an offense and I don’t like them!

      1. John Self says:

        Yes OK that was a fine distinction!

        I certainly don’t mean for you to study books for hours. But I think the more books like this you read, the more you get to get more out of them on an intuitive level.

        I too was surprised to see The Little Stranger on the list. I haven’t read it (and might) but I’ve never been that impressed with Waters before. She’s a good writer but nothing special in my view, though I agree that Fingersmith is her best.

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