Bad Summertime: J. M. Coetzee's Late Comic Phase

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"The girl in the apron turned out to be the totality of the catering by Federico's. By the time she brought in the snacks Alan had downed two glasses of champagne, and that set the pattern for the evening. I stopped drinking early, and Senor C. hardly drank at all; but over supper (roast quail with baby vegetables followed by zabaglione, except that Senor C. didn't have the quail, he had a butternut and tofu tartlet) Alan made serious inroads into the shiraz."

J. M. Coetzee, a Nobel-prize winner and one of my very favorite living writers, is not known for his funny side. A video went around the Internet recently mocking the dignified South African writer's demeanor at a ceremony when Geoff Dyer dared to make a joke about Nadine Gordimer only to receive the stoniest of reactions from the guest of honor (it's still fun to watch).

Coetzee's earliest major novels are also very low in light humor. Waiting For The Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K., for all their moral excitement, are tough, sinewy, dreary narratives about martyrdom and suffering. It's hard to laugh about characters who are being tortured, humiliated and ostracized (usually all at once). But a few sly chuckles starts to peek through in Coetzee's best mid-period books, like the great Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello and the memoir installments.

Some Coetzee readers have expressed disappointment with Coetzee's latest two productions, both of them twisted multi-narrative love stories, Diary of a Bad Year and Summertime. I loved them both; I think they may be my favorite Coetzee novels of all. I also think they are best considered as a matched pair.

This may not seem like a logical grouping, because most book critics described Summertime as a non-fiction installment in Coetzee's memoir series, since it deals with a lead character named John Coetzee. I am pretty sure that this "John Coetzee" character is no more intended to represent the author than characters named David Lurie, Elizabeth Costello or Senor C. are (the fact that this "John Coetzee" is dead, while the real John Coetzee is apparently well and alive, is a tipoff).

Rather than viewing Diary of a Bad Year as a postmodern novel and Summertime as a memoir section, they can both be appreciated for sharing an unexpectedly refreshing characteristic: Diary and Summertime are very funny.

Just look at the meal the stuffy, self-conscious and self-hating old writer Senor C. serves to his meat-eating friends: quail for them, a butternut and tofu tartlet for himself, served by a waiter standing at attention in a private room. Could the self-mockery be any more clear?

It's a familiar kind of self-deprecating comedy, with roots in Larry David and Woody Allen (on the contemporary comedy side) and, certainly, Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky on the literary side.

Both novels are "dialogic" (a term Coetzee has used in literary essays, referring to multi-voice narratives where none of the voices can be considered truthful). Diary presents the pretentious, intentionally overwrought political writings of a bitter old writer, parsed alongside the observations and reminiscences of his female assistant, who naturally sees things from a different point of view. Summertime presents a series of pseudo-interviews in which people -- mostly women and ex-lovers -- describe a dead novelist named "John Coetzee" in past tense. He is revealed to be a deeply earnest but inept soul, a sad sack, a cosmic loser, incapable of understanding what a woman wants, wrapped up in his selfish and foolish dreams.

Much of the humor is sexual, as in the hilarious scene in Summertime where young, virginal "John Coetzee" tries very hard to synchronize an episode of lovemaking to a recording of classical music. The humor also often revolves around food: the same woman who endures this young man's forays into classical dance also sits through an awful backyard barbecue which reveals that not only "John Coetzee" but also his father eat like brutes.

Animalistic, eager, frightened and clueless: this is the self-portrait J. M. Coetzee has been painting throughout his entire literary career. I'm not sure exactly what this self-image means to him, or why it resonates with me and so many other readers so well. I am glad he is spending his late career sharpening his message and brightening his colors: with his last two novels his self-portrait is becoming as vivid, and as tragic -- tragicomic -- as a Vincent Van Gogh.

8 Responses to "Bad Summertime: J. M. Coetzee's Late Comic Phase"

Good post. I'm looking to get into Coetzee and you brush an interesting portrait of his career and thinking process. Thanks!

by Nigel Beale on

I found the way in which Coetzee's characters described the dead J.M. - as a miserable loser - to be the most humorous aspect of the book...it being a comment I think on the fallacy of equating an author's life with his artistic output.

Levi, this is so great! You reminded me how much I loved Summertime. I needed a lift with all this pain in the air. Thank you. And in case you weren't aware Jim H. at Wisdom of the West did a 3-part post on it, which was also a great pleasure to read.

http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com/search/label/Coetzee

His archived posts appear in dechronological order.

I read Elizabeth Costello recently and found it quite knotty in a pleasing sort of way. And funny too. Yes, a departure from Michael K even though one can still see how Elizabeth Costello is an elaboration somewhat on some of the questions coetzee poses in Michael K.

by Ernest L on

I want to learn more about Coetzee, where would you recommend me to start from? When I approach a writer for the first time I like to contextualize and in this case I find it difficult as I know little about African culture and literature. Is Coetzee work connected with South Africa's social challenges and is a good knowledge of South Africa's politics, society and history important for a good understanding of Coetzee? I would appreciate very much an opinion of yours as you have practically read his entire opus.

by Levi Asher on

Hi Ernest. Yes, Coetzee's work definitely reflects the history of South Africa, but I think more than anything else it reflects the tradition of modern literature, from Defoe to Dostoevsky to Conrad to Kafka. His novels are really unlike those of any other writer I can think of. I suggest "Disgrace" as the best one to start with.

by Ernest L on

Thank you very much for the advice Levi! Looking forward to discover this writer myself...

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