04 October 2010


I shook my head twice when I was reading Summertime. Was I reading a novel by J M Coetzee (in picture) or was this written about someone else? But that couldn’t be: the subject of the book shared the same name as the author.

For some time, I was lost. And one of Coetzee’s purposes was achieved. To puzzle the reader, to leaver her perplexed about his personality – is the novel autobiographical, or even taking from the truth in some places, at least? But then why would anyone want to portray himself as one having no ‘sexual presence’? And this laceration of his sexual self continues throughout the book.

Summertime, a collection of fictionalized interviews about Coetzee, is like Coetzee grabbing the reader by the neck and asking her to stop asking questions about him: what is the author like in real life? What of his sex life? What of the things he believed in? Coetzee seems to say, ‘Find the answers in my text, and not in me.’ What one writes may not necessarily be taken from the author’s life. So, even an attempt to scrutinise the author’s life for what he lets out in his work can, in a sense, let his writing down.

For, when one tells stories, one is trying to communicate with the story as a medium. There’s nothing cardinally wrong about looking for an author’s inspiration in his/her personal life: but, what’s the point? What is this obsession with knowing the source of something? Why should something be because of something, and not just exist?

I know the all-too human obsession behind knowing, of course, but Coetzee wants to snub this voyeuristic urge.

It’s also as if to compete with other descriptions of himself: by creating one himself. And, in doing that, try to dispel the aura of a ‘great writer’. What is a great writer but one who reports best her life experiences, sketches in detail the life-pictures she sees around her? So, how much credit for the ‘great writing’ should be attributed to the people in the writer’s life, to the stories she is witness to?

The book obsessively sniggers at the whole idea of ‘great’ and I do see the point of doing so. Some of our so-called literary persons would do well to read this book.


Debby said...

After reading this post, I remembered an afterword by John Irving in the book 'The World According to Garp'. I want to share that here:

"Surely everyone knows the two most common questions that are asked of any novelist, "What is your book about?" And is it autobiographical?

These questions and their answers have never been of compelling interest to me -- if it is a good novel, both the questions and the answers are irrelevant -- but while my twelve-year-old son was reading The World According to Garp, I anticipated that these were the very questions he would ask me, and I thought very hard about how I might answer him...

What I mean, of course, is that it's perfectly understandable and completely permissible for a twelve-year-old to ask those questions, whereas (in my opinion) an adult has no business asking them.

An adult who reads a novel should know what the book is 'about'; an adult should also know that whether a novel is autobiographical or not is beside the point -- unless the alleged adult is hopelessly inexperienced or totally innocent of the ways of fiction."

Vijayalaxmi Hegde said...

Yeah, in a way, how much you understand fiction depends a lot on your life experiences. Thank you for sharing this. Very relevant and true.