Fear and Loathing in South Africa

In his autobiography, ‘Summertime,’ J.M. Coetzee presents himself, his fellow Afrikaners and Israelis in a very bad light.

Nirit Ben Ari
Nirit Ben-Ari
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Nirit Ben Ari
Nirit Ben-Ari

“Summertime,” by J.M. Coetzee, Vintage, 272 pages

“Summertime,” the third part of the autobiographical trilogy (preceded by “Boyhood” and “Youth”) by John Maxwell Coetzee the white South African winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who has never been caught smiling in public is a groundbreaking autobiographical work.

Originally published in 2009 and recently translated into Hebrew, the book is composed of a series of fictitious interviews conducted by a character named Vincent – ostensibly Coetzee’s British biographer – with figures from the writer’s adult life: a lover, a cousin, a dance teacher with whom he seems to have been in love, and two colleagues from the University of Cape Town, where he taught. In addition to the interviews there are two other sections, seemingly taken from the diary of the famous author, some from 1972-75 and some undated, whose degree of authenticity is unknown.

If in the first two books of the trilogy Coetzee plays with the rules of this genre by writing about himself in the third person, in this part he is not even committed to the genre’s most basic truth: In “Summertime” Coetzee is a dead man. An autobiography is presumably meant to be faithful to the truth.

But why? After all, even when the work “obeys” the rules of the genre it’s written in the first person, more or less in chronological order, with real names and places the writer cannot absolutely promise that everything really happened that way, because every autobiography is written from memory. And memory, as we know, is deceptive.

In addition, when a person relates what happened to him in the first person, not only does his memory play a role, so does his point of view; after all, every event is experienced differently by different people.

Coetzee’s decision to write about his life in a manner that leaves the reader very few “footholds” in reality only the place (South Africa), the books he published, his trip to America and his opposition to the apartheid regime are known elements of his biography in effect reflects the truth of the autobiographical act: the admission that there is nothing that can be cataloged under the heading “This is what happened.”

Instead of telling what happened, Coetzee uses the autobiographical genre to say what Coetzee thinks of Coetzee. Insipid, worn out, autistic, lacking passion, not made for love, a bad lover those are only some of the author’s descriptions of himself through the eyes of the characters he has invented.

“So dumb,” says Julia – a neighbor who was also a lover – about him. “So cut off from reality.” All the female characters in the story the lover, the cousin, the dance teacher scorn him as a man and a lover: “I’m telling you, I get the chills when I think about, you know, intimate relations with a man like him,” says the dance teacher. “I don’t know if he ever married, but if he did, I shiver for the woman who married him.”

Nor do the characters shower him with praise as a writer: “How can you be a great writer when you know nothing about love?” said the teacher, adding that one doesn’t feel this is a writer who exploits his medium to say something that has not yet been said, “which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat ... too lacking in passion.”

The neighbor who was also his lover says, without admiration, that his writing is merely a therapeutic endeavor.

As in the other parts of the trilogy, in “Summertime” Coetzee’s biography intersects with public history – the era of apartheid in South Africa. To the reader who is uninterested in politics, “Summertime” is a text about the author’s life.

For the political reader, the book is the story of white South Africa: The black natives are almost nonexistent in “Summertime.” They appear as shadows, never speak and never have a name or an identity. They are farm workers, professionals, passersby, service providers, prisoners who breathe the same air as the whites. The only one who is actually named is the leader of the black population, who was in prison at the time, Nelson Mandela. He appears for a moment, a signifier of a certain time and place, and immediately disappears.

‘Legal but illegitimate’

Coetzee seems to hate apartheid not because of his love for the blacks and their culture, but due to his profound disdain for the Afrikaners, whom he sees as hard-hearted and lacking morals, decency and culture, “people under whose despicable rule he lives,” provincials “who were born on farms or in small towns in the hinterland and isolated within a language spoken nowhere else in the world”; due to his disdain for a country in which poetry, the object of his desire, “is not a manly activity”; and due to his admiration for the culture and language of the Western nations.

Seen in terms of a personal-political act, his belief that South African whites should themselves engage in manual labor is particularly prominent here. He insists on learning how to fix the car, take care of the garden and do home repairs to prove through his sweat that he is different from the people of his nation.

This echoes the character of Lucy from his book “Disgrace,” who refused to report her rape by a gang of blacks who used her to avenge apartheid. Coetzee, like Lucy, who may be either heroic or ridiculous, wants to atone for the sins of apartheid: her through her body and dignity, and him through manual labor.

Coetzee sees his presence in South Africa as “legal but illegitimate,” and depicts his emigration not as an ideological act, but simply as a way of avoiding the army. We had a right to be there, a birthright, says a colleague describing their understanding of their presence in South Africa “but the basis of that right was fraudulent. Our presence was grounded in a crime, namely colonial conquest, perpetuated by apartheid ... We thought of ourselves as sojourners, temporary residents, and to that extent without a home, a homeland.”

Although in “Summertime” the political and personal are intertwined, Coetzee is “anti-political” – as Sophie, a university colleague, attests – since “he thought that politics brought out the worst in people”; the rule of Christian civilization in Africa, he writes, interests him like last year’s snow. She says he was “utopian,” did not believe in national liberty but, ultimately, in “the closing down of the mines, the plowing under of the vineyards, the disbanding of the armed forces, the abolition of the automobile, universal vegetarianism, poetry in the streets.” As Coetzee sees it, the most political antiapartheid act is the act of art.

The mature Coetzee of “Summertime” is portrayed as hostile to his homeland, which pollutes him even when he is far away. On the one hand, he wants to ignore the political injustice, like his father, who reads only the sports pages in the newspaper, and to be involved only in poetry and art.

On the other hand, he cannot get rid of his feeling of belonging to a homeland that is nailed to his heart which he compares to a wound that does not heal: “Perhaps a clean break would have been better after all. Cut yourself free ... and hope that the wound will heal.” But he immediately wonders, how can he get rid of those nails. He puts the answer into the mouth of Martin, a white colleague at the University of Cape Town: “We cultivated a certain transience in our feelings toward it ... we refused to invest too deeply in the country, since sooner or later our ties and our investment in it would be annulled.”

Feeling of belonging

One moment Coetzee accepts his fate of belonging to a nation whose language, culture and appearance he despises, and to a country in which he never found his place, and he is aware that his life is implanted in a space shaped by apartheid. But the next, he rejects this fate. True Afrikaners, says his cousin, would not have accepted him as a member of the tribe. “In order to be accepted as an Afrikaner, nowadays you need, at the very least, to vote National and attend church on Sundays,” she says, adding that she can’t imagine her cousin “putting on a suit and tie and going to church.”

Coetzee is doubtful about his “right” to the country because of an uncomfortable feeling “that it belonged not to him but, inalienably, to its original owners.” But despite his ambivalent attitude toward his Afrikaner homeland and roots, he cannot free himself of his feeling of belonging to them. Under the discriminating eyes of history he writes about himself, “He didn’t see how he could separate himself from the Afrikaners while retaining his self-respect, even if that meant being associated with all the Afrikaners were responsible for, politically.”

Not only can’t he separate himself from his political affiliation. He is also doomed to belong to Afrikaner society in terms of his body: his pathetic body, lacking charm and passion, stiff. They are incapable of dancing and cannot be taught to do so that’s how he describes them and himself.

It’s impossible to read “Summertime” – in fact all of Coetzee’s books – without thinking about Israelis. When his lover Julia describes how the South African whites saw themselves as Israelis, one gets an unpleasant feeling, because the political culture of South African whites is painfully similar to our local political culture: “In those days the white South Africans liked to think of themselves as the Jews of Africa, or at least the Israelis of Africa: cunning, unscrupulous, resilient, running close to the ground ... hated and envied by the tribes they ruled over.”

One gets the same feeling when Coetzee describes his people as having rejected history “as a mass of slanders put together by foreigners who held Afrikaners in contempt and would turn a blind eye if they were massacred by the blacks down to the last woman and child. Alone and friendless at the remote tip of a hostile continent, they erected their fortress state and retreated behind its walls. Behind a smokescreen of patriotism, they are calculating how long they can keep the show running before they will need to pack their bags, shred any incriminating documents and fly off to Zurich or Monaco or San Diego.”

Insensitive, vulgar, seeing themselves as victims and always right.

J.M. Coetzee. Believes the most political antiapartheid act is the act of art.Credit: Reuters
Summertime by J.M. Coetzee



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