Saturday, 10 January 2015

Could you write a book like 'Summertime'?

I've just finished reading 'Summertime' by John Maxwell Coetzee.  In this masterpiece work, nominated for the Booker Prize, Coetzee writes as a unnamed biographer piecing together stories from Coetzee's life after he is dead by interviewing his friends, lovers and acquaintances.

Of course, there is more to the narrative than Coetzee himself.  The interviewees speculate as to the reasons why he is seen as an outsider in his own family, exploring familial expectations of South African men in the '70s.  Coetzee grew up during the first years of Apartheid, and the narrative considers the political implications of being witness to those years, and what it means to feel like a stranger in one's own country (as a white man, he and many of his friends are conscious of a feeling that they have a right to live where they are born, but that that right is somehow illegitimate by virtue of their imposed presence on someone else's country.)

On the way, he considers his personal inadequacies by examining his feelings about his uncomfortable relationship with his father and his feelings about his professional underachievement.  He also recounts specific events from his sexual and romantic past, and even critiques his own writing, and how it could have been better.

In the hands of a lesser storyteller, 'Summertime' could have been difficult to read, but Coetzee is probably the most decorated English-speaking author in the world, and he manages to frame a critique of himself and everything he is, and has achieved without seeming insufferably self-centred.

I'm writing about this partly as an exercise to myself and partly to throw the gauntlet down to you, dear reader-who-writes.  I'm assuming this is most of you.

So this is my challenge: Would you - could you - write a book like 'Summertime'?

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