Bookmarks Issue: 
J.M. Coetzee

A-SummertimeJ. M. Coetzee, who was profiled in our Jan/Feb 2004 issue, received the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature and is a two-time Man Booker Prize recipient. His works include Dusklands (1974), Elizabeth Costello (2003), and The Life & Times of Michael K (1983). The South African born author now lives in Australia, where he holds an honorary professorship at the University of Adelaide.

The Story: In this third entry of fictionalized autobiographies (after Boyhood [1997] and Youth [2002]), Coetzee imagines his life story being uncovered after his death. A young English biographer named Vincent travels to South Africa to research a book on the late novelist John Coetzee. He interviews five people who knew the writer in the 1970s, a period when Coetzee was just beginning to earn recognition for his work. As Vincent meets with old lovers and former colleagues, he learns some dark and unflattering truths about the acclaimed writer.
Viking Adult. 272 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780670021383

Portland Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Summertime, with its dark tone softened by surprising dabs of humor, is a rich addition to Coetzee’s formidable oeuvre." John Strawn

Independent (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[E]vocative rather than literal. … How far the reader wants to map the somewhat wintry lament of Summertime back on to J. M. Coetzee’s life depends on how far one is willing to extrapolate plausible fact from nuanced, many-layered fiction." James Urquhart

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s best left to his therapist (if he has one) to determine whether J. M. Coetzee is a hopeless narcissist or is blessed with an admirable sense of self-reflection. … It’s a risky and innovative narrative device, but Coetzee pulls it off with aplomb." Steve Giegerich

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Great men in the winter of their lives often treat the writing of their memoirs as a kind of victory lap, but whatever J. M. Coetzee is after in this third volume of his genre-bending autobiography, it is not self-congratulation." Jonathan Dee

Times (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"All this self-abasement reads very weirdly. … [I]s this really unsparing self-dissection or a sophisticated exercise in self-approval?" David Grylls

Los Angeles Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"And here is Coetzee’s ingenious contrivance: his female characters are more real, more palpable, than the ghost-figure who stands in for him. Ingenious, yes; except that the protagonist’s refusal to protagonize falls as a dulling, tedious burden on what is more a novelized argument than a novel." Richard Eder

Cleveland Plain Dealer 1.5 of 5 Stars
"None of it is terribly interesting. … For an author capable of such extraordinary depth, Summertime feels trivial, an experiment in literary forms that never rises above the dispassion of the experiment." Earl Pike

Critical Summary

Critics didn’t quite know what to make of Coetzee’s newest experimental autobiography, which uses a third-person narrative and is marketed as fiction. Most of the book is comprised of interview transcripts with Coetzee’s former acquaintances, a device which leaves it up to the reader to construct and interpret the true picture of the fictionalized Coetzee. While several critics commended the novel’s dark humor and innovative format, others were left perplexed by the author’s persistent "self-abasement." Upon finishing the novel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer critic noted: "[T]he best I could offer was a dissatisfied sigh." Although Summertime was short-listed for the prestigious 2009 Man Booker Prize, most readers may be better served seeking out the acclaimed author’s earlier works.

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