In the past decade or so, J M Coetzee has conducted a non-stop assault on the conventions of genre. His novels have been largely composed
of academic lectures (The Lives of Animals, Elizabeth Costello) or position papers (Diary of a Bad Year), while important lectures have conversely taken the shape of fiction, most notably his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 2003.
His latest work, Summertime, is the third instalment of the Scenes from Provincial Life trilogy of memoirs that began with Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002). Whether the events described in the previous instalments were autobiographical or not, Coetzee did not force us to confront the contradiction. With the final volume, however, the issue of veracity is pushed to the centre - not least because Coetzee has cast himself as dead in his own memoir.
Summertime is split into three sections. The first and the last parts are ostensibly extracts from his notebooks; the middle of the work (the bulk of it) comprises transcripts of interviews conducted by someone writing a biography of J M Coetzee with people who played significant roles in the author's life between 1972 and 1977: a married woman with whom he had an affair, a cousin, a mother of one of his students and two academic colleagues.
During this time, Coetzee is living with his father (a taciturn, disbarred lawyer heading towards his last days) in a small cottage in Tokai, a suburb outside Cape Town. Having returned from a university job in America under rather mysterious circumstances, he spends his days doing home repairs, teaching part-time and visiting his extended family. By the end of the period in question, his first novel (Dusklands) has come out and he has an academic post at the University of Cape Town.
The basic presumption behind any memoir is that it will relate something worthy of being remembered, but Summertime tests the implicit rules of the form. The years covered suggest that we will be watching Coetzee as he moves into the literary limelight, but what we get instead is
a portrait of the artist as a confused idler, vaguely waiting for something to happen and perfunctorily chasing women in the meantime. The plot of the period is, in short, unpromising material for a memoir, but perhaps this is exactly the point. The first of the interviewees - Julia, the bored housewife who walks Coetzee into a tepid if long-running affair - is insistent on this point. Anticipating that the biographer will edit her story into "a story about John and one of the women who passed through his life", she insists: "I really was the main character. John really was a minor character."
Coetzee does indeed play a minor role in the dissolution of Julia's marriage, just as he is an inconsequential figure in another woman's bleak tale of economic migration. He is a strangely reticent cousin at family get-togethers, someone's co-teacher on a course in African literature. One of the interviewees who slept with him won't talk about it; the other says that "he could perform the male part adequately - adequately, competently, but - for my taste - too impersonally", and she goes on to describe his lovemaking as having an "autistic quality".
Across these interviews emerges a portrait of the artist as a peripheral figure, someone who evokes the interest of others, but only half-heartedly. Consequently, it seems as though Coetzee's project in Summertime and his other "personal" works is to emphasise his ordinariness: that, aside from a facility with language, a certain amount of cleverness, there is nothing to him - no great soul or body of experience that separates him from others.
The final interviewee, his former colleague Sophie, delivers the ultimate verdict. Asked about Coetzee's oeuvre, she says she stopped reading after the publication of the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace (1999) and that his work "lacks ambition . . . Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before."
It is a softly devastating appraisal and even fans of the author's recent work can't help but recognise a sort of truth in her evaluation. Since Disgrace, Coetzee's novels - this one included - have been marked by a refined late postmodernism: a complex yet unobtrusive doubling-over of fictional forms, yet to what end?
Near the conclusion, during the second run of "undated fragments" from Coetzee's notebook, we nevertheless receive a hint of a revelation. He
is writing about theories of education - his own and that of others. The fragment resolves down into an italicised note, a reminder of something to elaborate on while converting these notebooks into a memoir: "His attested incompetence in matters of the heart; transference in the classroom and his repeated failures to manage it."
Is Coetzee here the real Coetzee, 'fessing up to having a penchant for bedding his students? Is this meant to be a tablet of self-revelatory raunch to make up for all the uneventfulness that has come before? Or is it just more metafictional play? Whatever it is, this semi-confession of a proclivity that hovers between the mildly taboo and the clichéd stuff of campus novels, the moment feels like an act of flat impertinence. And, like Summertime as a whole, it represents a way of breaking the genre of the memoir by over- and under-fulfilling its demands at the same time.
Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in the English department at University College London “Summertime" was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize on 8 September