The Use of “Fictioneers” to synthesize a whole: The Emerging of a Novelist’s Self in J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime.

summertime coetzee beach fun the self postmodernism

In Summertime by the South African Nobel Prize-winning novelist, J.M. Coetzee, an extreme postmodern self-consciousness of writing the Self emerges. Coetzee continues to state in an interview that all writing is autobiographical: “everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it” (Atwell 117). Coetzee, aware of his status as public figure and accomplished writer defamiliarizes fiction and autobiography by allowing five interviewees to reflect on the late fictional John Coetzee as a distant, awkward human with no distinction as writer, lover, teacher or friend. Leigh Gilmore’s “autobiographics” will be applied to Coetzee’s third autobiographical volume to investigate the author’s construction of the Self. Summertime welcomes multiplicity, self-reflexivity and an interdependent relationship between fact and fiction. This is achieved by means of discrepant interviews conducted with Coetzee’s family, friends and lovers to represent an identity, more specific, “the shifting sides of identity” which will “allow us to recognize that the I is multiply coded in a range of discourses” (Gilmore 42). By using a metafictional narrative strategy the five interviews will be used to explore (1) the authority in a text with a dead autobiographical subject, (2) the nature of novthe narrative structure, (3) the representation of a fragmented Self through humiliation, self-criticism and self-reflexivity, (4) the estrangement of the Self in familial and romantic relationships and (4) lastly, the identity of the Self in a multicultural South Africa. This essay will showcase Summertime as a postmodern autobiography that offers the reader insight into the formative years of John as an artist and will contradict the image of John in the public realm as “not necessarily a warmer person, but someone more uncertain of himself, more confused, more human” (235).

The question of authority in works of literature is a great concern of postmodernism. Coetzee addresses the issue of authority uniquely by pronouncing the death of the author, creating a radical separation of the text and its creator (Kusek 98). A mixture of first- and third-person narration is used in the novel to convey the autobiographical voice and perspective which undercuts the notion of an uncomplicated relationship between the Self, the author and his works. In the posthumous piece Coetzee imagines himself dead and substitutes the impersonal narrator with an biographer named Vincent who focuses on the years 1972-1977 ˗ an important yet neglected period of Coetzee’s life when “he was still finding his feet as a writer” (225). The novel is a draft of Vincent’s biographical work with the late writer’s dated and undated notebook entries at the beginning and end of the novel. In between, Vincent conducts five interviews with John’s cousin and childhood love Margot Jonker, Martin whom he befriended during a job interview for a university teaching position and three lovers, namely a Brazilian widow and dancer named Adriana Nascimento; a Canadian psychologist Julia Frank and lastly, a French academic named Sophia Denoël.

The narrative structure of Summertime is extremely complex and ambiguous: “But what if we are all fictioneers, as you call Coetzee? What if we all continually make up the stories of our lives? Why should what I tell you about Coetzee be any worthier of credence than what he tells you himself?” (226). Sophia’s statement challenges John’s biographer to rethink his assumptions about the value of the interviewees’ accounts in relations to the biographical information that can be found in the private notebooks as well as published works written by the biographical subject, John (Schuh 292). The biographer replies with a question: “But which would you rather have a set of independent reports from a range of independent perspectives, from which you can then try to synthesize a whole; or the massive, unitary self-projection compromised by oeuvre?” (226). Therefore, Summertime’s narrative adopts a polyphonic appearance that functions as a collection of biographical material. The fragmented compilation of independent voices invites the reader to trace the different voices back to the deceased subject in order to synthesize a complete portrait of the young John.

Due to the specific layout of the narration, writing the Self also functions on a metafictional dimension. Sophia’s question of whether her opinion about John should be “any worthier of credence” (226) than his own voice in his writing is complicated when considering the author Coetzee is alive and is in fact writing and constructing the interviews and fragmented notes. The voices and opinions of the characters are composed by the biographical subject Coetzee who features as the author on the cover of Summertime (Schuh 292). The “set of independent reports” is then an important part of the author’s “massive unitary self-projection compromised by his oeuvre” (226). Summertime can then be considered a mere fragment in John’s oeuvre. Through the metafictional aspect of the novel Coetzee seems to evoke the idea that the writer performs the act of imprisoning and appropriating the voices of the interviewees to make them speak in his own voice. Therefore, the different characters in the novel allows a multiple Self to emerge. This act of appropriating another voice is overtly shown when Vincent reunites Margot’s interview as “an uninterrupted narrative” (87) that is “fixed up” (87) and adds a “detail to two to bring the scene to life” (105). Here fiction and fact mix to emerge an elusive image of the Self which causes the readers to doubt the authenticity of the account.

The fictional autobiography’s use of first-person represented in the fragmented present tense notebook entries emphasizes the separation of an authorial voice directing the narrative and the self as John wants to be presented. The novel opens with a section titled “Notebooks 1972-75” which contains incomplete notes about different incidents and topics with italicized phrases such as “[t]o be expanded” (6)  and “[t]o be explored” (9). These personal notes at the end of entries not only indicate self-reflexivity, but hints at continuation and offers further insight into life of the deceased John. In the second section titled “Julia”, John’s biographer interviews a woman who had an affair with John amid her troubled marriage. Responding to the question about the italicized passages, Mr. Vincent replies: “Coetzee wrote them himself. They are memos to himself… when he was thinking of adapting these particular entries for a book” (20). This further complicates the “I”, because John has died before publishing the last phase of his life which would have been the third instalment of his memoirs Boyhood and Youth. John thus loses his autobiographical control and authority to a fictional biographer and five other acquaintances whose reports fragments the Self as suspended between fiction and fact, multiplicity and singularity, biography and autobiography (Schuh 294).

By falling for the “temptation to disguise oneself in the third person”, Coetzee draws attention to the challenge of representing the Self (Grass 7). In Summertime disparagement is an unifying thread among the interviewees. The scrutinising judgement of the past and its memories as seen by both John in the notebooks and others in the interviews, causes an extremely harsh and unwelcome picture of the deceased novelist’s Self to emerge. “None of the interviewees offer a positive image of the writer who is repeatedly the object of ridicule, patronization and contempt” (Kusek 110). One of the reoccurring motifs of the emerging Self is John’s presumed incompetence and inadequacy. Using Julia as a mouthpiece, the protagonist is described as “scrawny”, “out of place” and even adds that there was “an air of failure” around him (21). Apart from his off-putting persona, what appears to be excruciatingly humiliating is his sexual nature.

The novel is filled with self-depreciating phrases, for example “moffie” (103), “heatless” (118), “disembodied” (198) and “an autistic quality” (52). At one point Julia says it never occurred to her to flirt with John: “[H]e had no sexual presence whatsoever… he had been sprayed from head to toe with a neutralizing spray” (24). She states that it is highly unlikely that “he could have been a prince, a satisfactory prince, to any maiden on earth” (80). While Julia thought “John wasn’t made for love” (81), Adriana maintains John is “not made for the conjugal life… for the company of women” (171). Her verdict on John is that he is soft and lacks manliness which is summed up in the following statement: “He was a boy as a priest is always a boy until suddenly one day he is an old man” (176).  Through the various sketches the readers receive from the interviews, an aura of estrangement and detachment from the body emerges as a common denominator in the novel.

The familial tensions reflected in the novel explores the important role family ties play in the shaping of the Self during the specific period of John’s life (ElBowety 19). The father-son relationship in Summertime appears relatively early in the interview with Julia when Vincent enquires about John’s father before discussing the details of her relationship with the biographical subject. During this period, John is supposedly in his thirties and lives with his father in Tokai after an abrupt return from the United States. She refers to the two men as “loners” and “socially inept” depicting that although they shared the same house, they did not share a strong bond (20). When Julia attends a supper at their house, she notes the “flatness of the conversation” and “long silences”, suspecting “discord or bad temper between the two of them” (42). The tension seems to emerge not merely from living together, but from the father’s inability to be proud of his son: “A son in his thirties, and nothing to be said for him but that he could lay concrete” (41-42). Julia’s profession as psychologist sheds light on the father-son relationship by not only narrating events, but also adding her own analysis and opinion to them (ElBowety 21). The absence of the mother figure is emphasized by Julia that asserts die Oedipus complex when she declares that “[b]oys love their mothers, not their fathers” (48). She concludes that he “did not love his father, he did not love anybody, he was not built for love” (48).

Central to the theme of connectedness and alienation is the statement provided by a previous lover: “Here we have a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect… Yet how does he makes his living? He makes his living on writing… on intimate human experiences” (82). The statement serves to underline John’s ability (or rather inability) of connectedness˗ it was not that he was merely distant or remote from human beings, but rather that he was inaccessible to people and beret of love and intimacy. The estrangement that surrounds the deceased writer is conveyed by the marginalizing of the Self in writing to echo the insecurities and failure of the emerging artist. This is conveyed by asserting the biographical subject as a “minor character” (44) within Julia’s marriage problems: “[T]he only story involving John that I can tell… is this one, namely the story of my life and his part in it” (43). In Margot’s narrative, John is described as a “lightweight” (120) and a “lost sheep” (89), while her sister Carol thinks he is “stuck up” (99) and “can’t bear to lower himself to talk to ordinary people” (99). In the interview entitled “Sophia”, a colleague from the University of Cape Town, the interviewee never believed she was with “an exceptional person, a truly exceptional human being” and felt that there was “no flash of lightning from him that suddenly illuminated the world”, because he was “just a man” (242).

The biographical subject turns into a secondary unworthy character in the accounts of the five interviewees. Carol calls him a “thirty-something year old with no prospects” (127), while Adriana claims John was “nothing, just an irritation, an embarrassment” (193). She even questions the very existence of the subject in her interview: “How can you be a great writer if you are just an ordinary man?” (196). The criteria extends beyond the deceased writer’s persona by passing judgement on his published works. The author uses Sophia as a mouthpiece to critique his work: “I would say that his work lacks ambition.” This statement serves to remind the reader of the authorial voice of the author. The interviews trace a character who is scattered to the point of disappearance among the personal histories of the interviewees (Schuh 2930. However, the use of the postmodern technique of self-critiquing the biographical Self allows a unifying yet elusive figure to emerge of John (Schuh 294).

The postmodern novel engages self-reflexivity with the question of the identity of the Self as a white South African. Through the eyes of Vincent’s interviewees, the reader sees a character unable to connect to his English or Afrikaans cultural roots. The novel opens with an account of John’s outrage at reading a newspaper article of a cross-border attack on a house in Botswana which killed seven people: “He reads the reports and feels soiled. So this is what he has come back to!” (4). This is followed by a description of his encounter with a widow who rejects his advice on the interpretation of the term “[n]otwithstanding the aforesaid” (10) in her husband’s will. Even though he has a “degree certificate that makes him an expert commentator on the meaning of English words” (11), she refuses his opinion. This opening dynamic between his rejection and disgust of the Afrikaner culture and in turn the rejection of his authority in English, is a reoccurring motif of cultural attachment and detachment (Jacobs 46).

Margot’s interview is transformed into an uninterrupted narrative that recollects a family gathering at the Coetzee farm during Christmas. The Afrikaans saturation of the narrative serves to show John’s love for the Karoo and his cultural heritage. On the other hand, it is also an indication of his uprootedness and deracination. This is depicted by John’s language mistakes for example, he wrongly uses the word “jok” (lie) instead of “grap” (joke): “Ek jok maar net… Just joking” (122). Furthermore, he makes a grammar error in Afrikaans by saying “[i]n a minuut” which is derived from the English “in a minute” (93). Margot refutes his Afrikaner identity on the basis that he does not belong nor fit into the “tribe”: “She does not know many real [egte] Afrikaners who would accept him as one of the tribe” (95). Yet Sophia explains that while John was committed to the English language, he was prepared to embrace the Afrikaner identity, because “under the gaze of history he felt there was no way in which he could separate himself off from the Afrikaners while retaining his self-respect” (238).

In the section after Margot’s interview, Adriana tells of the incompetence of her daughter’s English teacher. The autobiographical subject’s rootedness in the English language is scrutinized just as his Afrikaner heritage was questioned in the previous section (Jacobs 48). Adriana who wanted her daughter “to learn proper English, from an English person” thinks John “sounds like an Afrikaner” (157). Later she complains to the school principle that he “is not even English, he is a Boer” (187). In Diary of a Bad Year one of the characters speak for the author J. M. Coetzee when he suggests that English does not feel like “a resting place, a home” which confirms his inability to root himself in a mother tongue and cultural identity. The Self is depicted as detached and unable to confirm to a single language and culture which confirms the postmodernist notion of fragmentation and the inability to unify the Self.

Coetzee’s postmodernist narrative warns against the realification of the unified Self by rejecting a coherent narrative. Instead Summertime uses fragmentation, reconstitution and the creation of multiple narrative voices to work against the unifying Self. The novel creates an interdependent relationship between fiction and reality by constructing multiple interviews, each with a different portrait of the deceased John Coetzee. J. M. Coetzee writes himself into fiction with reoccurring themes of identity, estrangement, authority and memory by using different contradicting perspectives which can be synthesized to form a whole˗ “a man more uncertain of himself, more confused, more human” (235).

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Academic Essay written by Nikki Leibbrandt. Plagiarism is illegal.


Attwell, D. “On the question of autobiography: Interview with J. M. Coetzee.” Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa 3.1 (1991): 117-122.

Coetzee, J.M. Summertime: Scenes from Provincial Life. London: Vintage Books, 2009.

ElBowety, R.M. Reinventing the Artistic Self: Coetzee’s Summertime and Matar’s In the Country of Men. MA thesis. The American University in Cairo, 2015. Web. 18 April 2016.

Gilmore, L. Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Self-Representation. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Grass, G. Beim Hӓuten der Zwiebel. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2008.

Jacobs, J. U. “(N)either Afrikaner (n)or English: Cultural cross-over in J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime.” English Academy Review 28.1 (2011): 39-52.

Kusek, R. “Writing Oneself, Writing the Other: J.M. Coetzee’s Fictional Autobiography in Boyhood, Youth and Summertime.” Werkwinkel 7.1 (2012): 97-116.

Schuh, M. “The (Un)making of a Novelist’s Self” ‘Late Style’ in Günter Grass’ and J.M. Coetzee’s Autobiographical Writing.” Writing the Self: Essays on Autobiography and Autofiction. Sweden: Elanders, 2015. 287-294.

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