The most satisfying book I’ve read recently was Scenes from Provincial Life, a revised collection of J.M. Coetzee’s fiction-memoirs Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime. A comfortingly hefty novel, Scenes from Provincial Life brings together three vital periods in the life of ‘character’ John Coetzee (as distinguished from the living, breathing, Adelaide-residing J.M. Coetzee). It tracks his evolution from reluctant mama’s boy to disaffected early computer programmer to the subject of a biographer’s series of interviews, conducted in an attempt to piece together the now-dead writer’s non-writing life. I came to it soon after finishing the most recent of Coetzee’s novels, The Childhood of Jesus. Both are concerned with how what happens to us makes us who we are, and how we put ourselves together when ‘what happened’ goes missing.
I read Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning Disgrace a few years ago and loved it—a response maybe not entirely fitting, given the gravity of the subject matter. What happens to David Lurie on his daughter’s remote South African farm is immensely real and evocative, especially given the austerity of the text—the novel is only 220 pages long, and all the more devastating for it. There’s a special little chamber of my heart reserved for authors who can make us care about the experiences of a nasty protagonist. Coetzee was given the lease after Disgrace, with other parts of the chamber sub-let by Ian McEwan (Solar), Zadie Smith (On Beauty), and Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap).
Then, in March, a friend invited me along to Coetzee’s sole Australian appearance to promote The Childhood of Jesus. I was given notice not long before the Wheeler Centre event, and without seeing the publicity material I assumed it would involve a brief reading, thematic discussion, and ten minutes of audience questions—the kind of thing you get at most writers’ festival sessions. Instead, Coetzee simply read a portion of the book: a man, Simón, arrives in an invented port city as a refugee, accompanied by a five-year-old who has lost his mother. At the end of the reading he signed copies.
Though I knew Coetzee is a private figure, at first I wondered at the lack of author commentary—where was the unpacking of the idea, the self-effacing remarks about the writing process, the ruminations on the future of the novel? Then, a page or so into his reading, I realised that whether the writer was keen to dissect his work for us or not was irrelevant. There was no need for additions or supplementation during the reading because there are none in the novel.
The Childhood of Jesus eschews backstory. Instead, man and boy arrive in the ‘bloodless’ city of Novilla at the start and proceed from there. The events following their arrival are recounted chronologically and largely dispassionately, with hints about the past confined to Simón’s dialogue as he tries to find first the, and then any, mother to David.
The way in which the story is narrated reflects the Buddhist-like approach Novilla’s other citizens take towards their new lives. Simón is urged to be content with what he has, because desire—for substance, for relationships, for memories—is the source of unhappiness. He battles this idea fiercely, asking ‘whether the price we pay for this new life, the price of forgetting, may not be too high?’, but it does him no good; by the end of the novel his dissatisfaction with the new world leads him back to where he started. The way the city is presented to Simón, the way the narrative is presented to readers, and way Coetzee read to his audience all followed the same straightforward, unadorned style.
Coetzee’s series of autobiographical novels are also about trying to cobble together a life, especially the final story, Summertime. InThe Childhood of Jesus Simón’s and David’s histories have been, as the bureaucrat Ana encourages, ‘washed clean’ through forgetting, but in Scenes from Provincial Life aspects of the character John Coetzee’s past die when he does, leaving only faint outlines in the minds of those who were important to him.
Seen by others, the man we are offered is undeniably flawed—aware and contemptuous of his mother’s overwhelming love for him from an early age, as a young adult John Coetzee procrastinates his way away from writing (don’t we all), establishing for himself a life of crumminess in which his relationships with women are awkward and short-lived. Though this character is nowhere near as repulsive as Disgrace’s David Lurie or Tsiolkas’s slap-deliverer Harry—John Coetzee is his own worst enemy, but not to the extent that he becomes pitiful—theScenes from Provincial Life we get to see are rarely fun or climactic. None of the three memoirs deals with the more conventionally interesting, writerly parts of John’s life. Though moments of intrigue are touched on, such as his mysterious return to South Africa from the United States around the time of the Vietnam War, these stories are delivered second-hand, focusing more on why we want to know than on what actually happened.
If this sounds frustrating, it wasn’t. John is so richly drawn, so complex, and the writing so clean and precise that the collection evokes the gut-deep sense of pleasure that comes from reading something excellent. Though we and Coetzee’s fictitious biographer are left with unanswered questions, there’s a perverse satisfaction in how the interviewees of Summertime undermine the picture of John created in Boyhood and Youth by regularly challenging the validity of a biography.
His ex-colleague and lover Sophie asks, ‘What if we are all continually making up the stories of our lives?’ It’s the conundrum the interviewer faces in trying to understand John Coetzee, an idea the stateless Simón must confront to make sense of a new world, and one of the questions that makes fiction so very, very thrilling to read.
Brooke Dunnell’s short fiction has appeared in various anthologies, including Meanjin. She is currently reading, reading, finishing her first novel, and reading.