Cracking the Frozen Sea

A sombre and subversive fictional memoir from one of the most accomplished writers of our time

01 January, 2010

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.

The novel consists of a series of interviews that Vincent conducts with five people who knew him at different points during this five-year period. Additionally, there are autobiographical fragments from the notebooks of John Coetzee, written in the third person but referring to himself, possibly notes towards a memoir that he meant to write but didn’t.

At one level, Summertime can be read as a literary biography. By setting it in the years preceding his recognition as a writer, the novel answers to a natural readerly curiosity about the elements that shaped Coetzee’s vision. For instance, the novel develops the thought—also alluded to in Youth—that what appeals to Coetzee is not politics, but justice. His lover and colleague Sophie Denoël’s word for it is ‘Utopian,’ this longing for “the day when politics and the state would wither away.” This does not mean that Coetzee is ever fanciful. What we experience in Summertime is a bleakly segregated South Africa and the flight of Europeans from a country whose history of tensions is reaching boiling point, a flight made with as much sense of entitlement as the journey once made inward “to the remote tip of a hostile continent [to] keep the flame of Western Christian civilization burning.”

But in telling us that John Coetzee didn’t like writers who espoused a political programme, Sophie also reminds us that we are reading a book of subversions. Take Summertime’s elliptical nature. We have glimpses of, rather than the full story, of how the protagonist lived for five years of his life. Julia says that the story of her relationship with John has a head and a tail but no body; Adriana, a Brazilian dancer and immigrant to Cape Town, whom John Coetzee briefly falls in love with, barely communicates with him; and one of the interviewees, an ex-colleague called Martin, questions the basis of the whole project, wondering why Vincent is seeking out memories of short-lived love affairs and personal entanglements rather than “the man’s actual achievements as a writer.”

THERE IS NO DOUBT that Coetzee enjoys such subversions, getting his made-up biographer to say things like: “I have been through his letters and diaries. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted…as a factual record—not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer.” This is not unfamiliar, this sense of playfulness with which writers can, from fictionally posthumous standpoints, portray themselves. Philip Larkin does it, for instance, in the poem Posterity, getting his imagined biographer to complain: “I’m stuck with this old fart at least a year…One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys.” Walt Whitman does it, in a much grander and more complex way, in Song of Myself  declaring at the end “I too am untranslatable.”

Coetzee works through both approaches in Summertime, permitting posterity to pass its verdict on him and at the same time rendering himself out of reach. As for the verdict, he seems to take grim pleasure in depicting it as a mostly negative one. “To my mind, talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You have also to be a great man. And he was not a great man,” says Adriana. She has not read any of Coetzee’s books and it doesn’t seem to affect the significance of her testimony on the man. Sophie, on the other hand, has read the books and says, “He had no special sensitivity that I could detect, no original insight into the human condition.” Summertime is full of reminders of John Coetzee’s frozen heart – his supposed limitations as a writer, and his anti-sociablity and gracelessness as a person, of all of them couched in sentences as direct and devastating as these.

But in writing this as fiction, Coetzee also does a Whitmanesque vanishing trick. All future biographical projects on him will, to a lesser or greater extent, falter in the face of this novel because by giving us so much about his life that seems like fact and yet casting it in the mould of fiction, the ‘real’ Coetzee retreats from us.

Yet Summertime would be no more than an exciting addition to the category of books that play with the identity of the author in relation to their work if Coeetzee didn’t also bring to it the urgency of truth-telling. The novel is imbued, like all Coetzee’s work, with the longing to reach a plane of unconditional honesty. To quote the witnesses again, Julia says, “I am just telling the truth. Without the truth, no matter how hard, there can be no healing” and Adriana echoes her: “I am not giving you romance, I am giving you the truth. Maybe too much truth. Maybe so much truth that there will be no place for it in your book.”

This is where the force of Summertime lies, and it’s a force that expresses itself in Coetzee’s very idiom, in the clarity and spareness of his sentences, in the breathtaking care with which he weighs his words. In the light of South Africa’s history, Coetzee’s steady gaze (his fictional biographer notes it as one of his virtues) and his steadfast use of the word ‘truth’ acquires a special poignancy. In the novel Youth, he went one step further, reminding himself and us that honesty can become its own kind of sophistry. “As for ruthless honesty, ruthless honesty is not a hard trick to learn. As a poisonous toad is not poison to itself, so one soon develops a hard skin against one’s own honesty!” How then might fiction unlock the frozen heart? Perhaps not all writers wield that axe, but do the great writers? Coetzee seems to laugh at the notion. “A great writer? How John would laugh if he could hear you!” says Sophie. “The day of the great writer is gone for ever, he would say!”

THOUGH THE THREE NOVELS in this trilogy can be read separately, this is a theme for which it is worth considering them together. The subtitle of Boyhood, as of Summertime, is ‘Scenes from Provincial Life.’ This comes, of course, from Honore de Balzac. Balzac’s mid-nineteenth century fiction tends to portray bourgeois values taking over what he considered the more stable moral values of an older French aristocracy. Coetzee’s theme of the provincial trying to find a way into the cosmopolitan is a typically Balzacian theme, and like Balzac, he too apparently misses the old aristocrat-peasant relations; we are reminded in Summertime that Boyhood expressed this nostalgia. “He was all in favour of the old, complex, feudal social textures which so offended the tidy minds of the dirigistes of apartheid.” But the theme of the breakdown of feudalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie is complicated in Coetzee’s case by colonialism. In Boyhood, Coetzee explores the secret longing to belong to the land and the conflicted history that makes this belonging impossible. “As far back as he can remember this love [of the land] has had an edge of pain.”

Youth develops the same theme in a different direction. A young Coetzee arrives in the London of the early 1960s in order to become a poet. He wishes to cast himself in the mould of the great writers, notably TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, as well as the Russian Joseph Brodsky, who is doing five years of hard labour to pay for the affront of being a poet, and DH Lawrence, from whom one may learn how to “smash the brittle shell of civilised convention.” He longs to emulate his heroes but repeatedly fails not just because of his uncertainty about the worth of his poems and stories, but also because he cannot summon the courage, the resoluteness,or the hunger he is certain underlies the literature he considers great.

What adds weight to what could be a story of any young person’s search for himself through literature is Coetzee’s background in South Africa, the country which, he says, hangs around his neck like an albatross, and his wish to rid himself of its horrors. The project to become a great writer, to be in London and have something of the greatness of English literature rub off on him through sheer physical proximity, is impeded by his South African background, by his ‘air of colonial gaucherie.’

In writing this series of semi-autobiographical books and making his split self the subject of examination, Coetzee explores the relation between someone with a colonial inheritance and the act of writing in the coloniser’s language. “There is nothing special about English. It is just one language among many,” says Coetzee in Summertime and yet in Youth, sitting in the British Library and reading about the early explorers of South Africa, wanting to recreate their sense of discovery, he feels the first excitement about expressing something new in English as a South African. For Englishmen, on the other hand, the language is old: “This country, this city are by now wrapped in centuries of words.”

This awareness of his own historical position in relation to his words, this refusal to yield anything to historical inevitability marks all of Coetzee’s work. In Youth, the unnamed protagonist marvels from his distance in London at the very basis of South Africa: how could a handful of Dutchmen have landed on a South African beach and claimed the country as their own? In Summertime, the questioning continues: Coetzee declares the presence in South Africa of people like himself “legal but illegitimate”. He does not want to absolve himself of this history – he wants to bring it onto the page. Will this act lead to great literature? Will it crack the frozen sea? Not for a moment does Summertime let us think of this question as outdated or superfluous—just acutely difficult to answer.