- Unexpected Cosmopolitans: Media and Diaspora in J. M. Coetzee's Summertime
South African politics and society in the 1970s are subjects conspicuously avoided and everywhere implicit in J. M. Coetzee's fiction of the decade. A curious debut by any standard, his first novel, Dusklands, was published in 1974 by Peter Randall's antiapartheid Ravan Press, a publisher based in Johannesburg that printed books targeting the nation's white minority. In three years, Randall's civil rights would be suspended by the state for his antiapartheid activities; it would take eight years for Dusklands to be reprinted by a London press, Seeker and Warburg, and nine for Coetzee to publish a novel, Life and Times of Michael K (1983), set in a recognizable, contemporary South Africa. The opening gambit of Coetzee's Summertime (2009), in contrast, pitches the reader a short series of notebook fragments dated 1972-75 that are as saturated with the gritty details of South African politics, people, and places as the newspapers they frequently reference. Through this constricted spatiotemporal aperture, Coetzee's most recent work offers an occasion to investigate the way reflections on the specific geotemporal location of South Africa in the 1970s unexpectedly reveal the nuanced and conditional nature of Coetzee's globalism.
For a novel that promises in its subtitle, Scenes from Provincial Life, to complete his autobiographical trilogy, Summertime [End Page 127] is an abrupt departure. The third-person voice cultivated in Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), which begin in equally laconic fashion with the lines "They live on a housing estate. . . ." and "He lives in a one-room flat," respectively, has been replaced by a new distancing technique: in Summertime, readers are told that the writer J. M. Coetzee has died. 1 Coetzee's "death of the author" is less a play on Roland Barthes than a thought experiment of the kind that gave us the character Elizabeth Costello or a novel like Dusklands, with its apocryphal Dutch and Afrikaner archive purportedly by eighteenth-century Boer colonist Jacobus Coetzee. Summertime contains a set of interviews and elaborations allegedly collected by a young British academic, Mr. Vincent, framed by notebook fragments. Through this material we develop compelling, selectively counterfactual, versions of Coetzee's life that cut close to the autobiographical bone. The impression we absorb as readers of Vincent's interviews and transcripts is of the young Coetzee as a scraggly failed romantic, a man whose overly cerebral awkwardness clashes with his ambitions to be a physically gifted sexual partner and manual laborer. It is in part because the book reminds us time and time again that Coetzee is a "fictioneer" whom we cannot trust (the book, after all, holds a counterfactual premise as its founding axiom) that the reader is encouraged to follow the literary and historical leads that cast us out along geographic and intertextual trajectories that belie John Coetzee's South African confinement.
Summertime is, as Coetzee's wound-be biographer Mr. Vincent claims, a work that turns our gaze (not to mention Coetzee's own) back to the years in South Africa during which he finished Dusklands and conceived much of his early work. But this curiously rewarding fiction succeeds not because of the accuracy of Vincent's instinct that the years 1971-77 are, as he puts it, "an important period of his [Coetzee's] life . . . a period when he was still finding his feet as a writer" (225), but rather because of a more diachronic shuttling across times and worlds brought into relief by Summertime as prose fiction. In part, this essay takes seriously Coetzee's many encouragements to look to written work rather than sniff trails from bodies of text to those of writers by situating Summertime intertextually; to do otherwise would be to ignore the sound advice given to Vincent by one of Coetzee's former colleagues: "I repeat, it seems to me strange to be doing the biography of a writer while ignoring his writing" (218). More precisely, the ruse of the posthumous biography—here poorly conceived by Mr...