Scenes from Provincial Life

Scenes from Provincial Life
J M Coetzee
Harvill Secker, 496pp, £20

David Shields's lightweight diatribe against the novel, Reality Hunger, contains several quotations from the pen of J M Coetzee. In one of these, Coetzee muses on the nature of truth in autobiography: "this massive autobiographical writing enterprise that fills a life, this enterprise of self-construction - does it yield only fictions? How do I know when I have the truth about myself?"

The publication of Coetzee's trilogy of fictionalised memoir - Boyhood, Youth and Summertime - in one handsome volume highlights the uneasy relationship between the reality of his life and the fiction of his books.

Critics had always viewed the first two instalments of this trilogy as somehow hived off from Coetzee's main body of work, in the way that, for instance, we might separate John Updike's Self-Consciousness from the Rabbit novels. Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002) were distant, third-person presentations of Coetzee's life that varied little enough from what we knew of the biography to be treated as straight memoir. They seemed like postmodern parlour games, meditations on the limits of artistic memory.

Little did we know that these reflections would provide the model for Coetzee's output following Disgrace. His later novels sit uneasily in a bookshop's fiction section and withhold many of the satisfactions of the books with which he made his name.

Desiccated and theoretical where the earlier stories were full of vigour, moralising but rarely performing the morality in the way Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) or Disgrace do, Coetzee's most recent novels - Elizabeth Costello, Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year - represent a turning inwards of the artistic imagination. They are closer in style and tone to the trilogy of memoirs than to anything else in the oeuvre.

It is as if he had decided that, in Disgrace, he had achieved all that was possible with the conventional novel and, unable to continue his literary journey, would blow up the vehicle that was carrying him. Or, perhaps, that the concessions and compromises he had to make to write conventional novels were not worth the candle after Disgrace. This also means that we must look with new seriousness on the trilogy of fictional memoir: far from being outside the canon, these books are central to his literary project.

Boyhood tells of Coetzee's early years in the suburbs of a small town in South Africa and his alienation from multiple cultures: his own Afrikaans heritage, the English his parents had adopted, and the black majority which is - as always in Coetzee's work - silent. In Youth, we follow the Coetzee character to England, where he suffers crushing loneliness, works in the cold world of computer programming and dreams of becoming a great poet.

These are the portraits of the artist as a young no one, Künstlerromane without the pay-off of seeing the writer's rise to fame. Youth ends with Coetzee staring blindly at a blank page, paralysed by his inability to write his masterpiece. It is striking that he should put out this record of artistic failure so soon after his real-life masterpiece (Disgrace) appeared.

The publication of Summertime (2009) with these two earlier "memoirs" makes us question again our assumptions about the whole trilogy. Summertime is a mash-up of third-person journals and interviews conducted by the author of a biography of the late John Coetzee. The story covers the early 1970s, the period immediately before the publication of J M Coetzee's first novel, the ultra-violent Dusklands (1974).

So, in the trilogy, we have the story of Coetzee's life leading up to the start of his literary career - after this point, the novels take over (and it is interesting that these memoirs are resolutely third-person, while the first two novels have first-person, albeit unreliable, narrators). Also telling is the subtitle appended to the US edition of Summertime: Fiction. The plot of this final book of the trilogy veers more sharply from what we know of Coetzee's life. The John Coetzee of Summertime is the same single but surprisingly promiscuous nebbish whom we left in Youth, now back in South Africa to live with his frail father. In real life, however, Coetzee was then married with two young children and a promising career in academia

Reading the trilogy is a depressing experience, and not only because the Coetzee character is so unpleasant and self-obsessed. By collecting the books in this way, by making a public fuss of them, Coetzee is reinforcing their importance. These miserable memoirs are mere shadows of his greatest work, and remind us only of the dreary later "novels".

For those of us who dream of a return to the magnificence of Waiting for the Barbarians, The Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace, there is a heartening parallel to be drawn. The pervy, dried-up Coetzee figure in Diary of a Bad Year could have stepped straight from one of Philip Roth's latter novels.

And of course Roth, after the ghastly geriatric squelching of The Humbling, pulled out the near-perfect flourish of Nemesis, as if to prove that he could still do it.

Coetzee read from his as-yet-unnamed new novel at an event in Leeds in June. Let us hope that it leaves behind the sterile ground of Shields's cherished reality and that Coetzee's imagination ranges outwards again.

Alex Preston's second novel, "The Revelations", will be published by Faber & Faber in February

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide