DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE that books give meaning to our lives, John Coetzee asks his lover Julia in Summertime. “A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us,” says Julia, paraphrasing Franz Kafka.
The question Summertime asks but does not answer is: what if it is the novelist’s heart that is the frozen sea? Is it possible then to still hold to Kafka’s view about the power of fiction? Summertime is the third novel in a trilogy of fictionalised memoirs; the second novel, Youth, asks the same question though from the perspective of an aspiring rather than actual writer, while the first, Boyhood, explores a child’s troubled sense of identity in relation to the land of his birth.
In Summertime, the life of writer John Coetzee, between the years 1971/72, when he returned to South Africa from the United States, and in 1977, when he first gained public recognition for his writing, is being chronicled by a biographer called Mr Vincent. John Coetzee, at the time this biography is being researched, is dead. He is—with regard to many of the biographical facts known to the public—the same person as the writer JM Coetzee of South African origin, novelist (in one scene, Coetzee presents Julia with a copy of his first novel, the just-published Dusklands), and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.