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