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Puppet and Puppet-master

Joshua Billings

coetzeeJ.M. Coetzee
Harvill Secker, 2009
272 Pages
ISBN 978-1846553189

J.M. Coetzee’s third volume of “fictionalised memoir” holds a cracked mirror up to the man as artist. Summertime consists of research notes for a biography of the recently deceased novelist John Coetzee. The book presents a series of interviews with important figures from John’s life, most of them women he has disappointed in one way or another: there is the married woman with whom he has a dead-end affair, the cousin he disappoints through his fecklessness, and the imperious Brazilian he pursues with pathetic ineptitude. What emerges, in the eyes of one, is a portrait of the artist as an “unimportant little man”.

Though Summertime is autobiographical, it is not autobiography; its account is similar to—but, crucially, not identical with—the facts of Coetzee’s life. [1] Instead, Coetzee constructs a person he might have been, and then brutally anatomizes him. As in his previous Diary of a Bad Year [2] (2007), Coetzee abdicates the narrative voice of his earlier work, offering control of the story to others. The fictionalised John writes in propria persona only briefly at the beginning and end of the novel, in a series of journal entries from the period and then in sketches (ostensibly from just before his death) for a planned memoir. The reader is left to piece together narrative from these fragments and the recollections of others.

The most powerful voice belongs to Adriana, a Brazilian single mother who finds herself in South Africa after her husband falls into a coma. Female desire has always been a weakness of Coetzee’s characterization (he writes more or less desexualized women well, as in Foe and Waiting for the Barbarians), so Adriana is a particularly memorable creation. Her observations turn the tables on a male perspective that has often sympathized with women’s lack of power, but has rarely succeeded in representing female sexuality.

Adriana remembers Coetzee as her daughter’s English teacher, full of heady ideas about the role of the educator, which she interprets as inappropriate advances on her child. But it is the mother whom John really desires, and his pursuit is clumsy but tenacious: he writes letters and poems that she barely glances at, takes the family for a rainy day on the beach, and, as a last straw, shows up as a student in her dance classes, where his lack of rhythm becomes a disruption. Adriana’s recollections are hilarious and acute, usurping John’s powers of description to cut him down as dancer, lover, and writer:

This man was disembodied. He was divorced from his body. To him, the body was like one of those wooden puppets that you move with strings. You pull this string and the left arm moves, you pull that string and the right leg moves. And the real self sits up above, where you cannot see him, like the puppet-master pulling the strings.

Coetzee, puppet-master of his body and his characters, pulls the strings of life, but does not appear to live it. “How could this man of yours be a great man when he was not human?” The question hangs over the book as a lingering doubt about man and artist alike. That it comes from Coetzee himself only increases its unsettling power.

Still, there is a curious evasiveness about Summertime. The image of John is a distorted one, refracted both through the memories and personalities of the speakers and through the recording of the biographer, Mr. Vincent. We learn about Vincent only through responses to him: Adriana cautions him against idolizing his subject, while another interviewee complains that he has distorted her story; Vincent’s habit of jumping to conclusions annoys all of his interlocutors. In his final interview, Vincent lays his cards on the table:

There was an image of him in the public realm as a cold and supercilious intellectual, […] Now, I don’t believe that image does him justice. The conversations I have had with people who knew him well reveal a very different person – not necessarily a warmer person, but someone more uncertain of himself, more confused, more human, if I can use that word.

Certainly, this is the picture of John that Vincent’s interviews reveal. But is this image any truer than the “public” one? Coetzee constantly reminds us that multiple perspectives do not coalesce into a single biographical truth, but remain the fictions of an all-powerful puppet-master. The man recedes from view while the author beckons us to follow. The chase is maddening and exhilarating.

It is also melancholy, particularly in comparison with the earlier Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002), both clear-eyed but tender episodes from Coetzee’s (fictionalised) life. These short works offer precisely the kind of coherent narrative that Coetzee’s most recent novels—Diary, Slow Man (2005), and Elizabeth Costello (2003)—flaunt. In Slow Man and Costello, Coetzee introduces the novelist Elizabeth Costello as a surrogate for his own questioning. Her eccentricity, sadness, and extraordinary creative power focus attention, within a story, on the storyteller. Through Costello, Coetzee asks whether writing allows an individual to transcend his limitations, or merely to shift the burden to characters. Such deferred self-reflexivity is characteristic of his late style, with the result that Coetzee’s novels hesitate on the brink of narrative, unwilling—or unable—to cohere. Accordingly, Summertime’s final section reprints fragments of what would have been the third installment of memoir, left unfinished at Coetzee’s death. They offer tantalizing glimpses of the story he might have told, as the plurality of voices suggest the person he might have been.

The postscript to Elizabeth Costello, “Letter of Elizabeth, Lady Chandos, to Francis Bacon” underscores a crisis that has conditioned Coetzee’s writing from that work forward (and which begins, suggestively, around the time Summertime’s John dies). The letter in Costello complements Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s famous “Chandos Letter”, written a century before. In Coetzee’s revision, Chandos’s wife writes in despair of her husband’s overwhelming, self-destructive attempts to find transcendent meaning in the everyday: “We are not made for revelation, I want to cry out, nor I nor you, my Philip, revelation that sears the eye like staring into the sun.” The omnipotence of the creator—for Chandos, Costello, and Coetzee alike—is blinding.

In his recent works, Coetzee turns his eyes away from the sun, relinquishing the powers of language and narrative control. “Those abstract words […] fell apart in my mouth like mouldy mushrooms”, writes Lord Chandos in Hofmannsthal’s “Letter”. Like Chandos, prototype of the modernist crisis of speech, Coetzee claims to have given up language even as he continues to write. Coetzee’s crisis, though, is a postmodern one, not of speech but of the speaker. The problem is not that he cannot speak coherently, but that he can, and all too well; his authorial power has become too strong, shaping the world around him into a reflection of himself. And so in place of a single narrative, we have a plurality of voices, none of them claiming authority.

Ultimately, this is no less a construction than the omniscient narrators of Coetzee’s earlier works. The appearance of openness is deceptive, more subtly evasive than the totalizing narrators of his earlier novels. In Summertime, the small man and the great artist appear as mise-en-abîme, infinitely reflecting and infinitely obscuring one another. The result seduces, disturbs, and compels: puppet-master and puppet are one.

Joshua Billings [3] is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Merton College, Oxford. He is a contributing editor of the Oxonian Review.