30 Mar ‘SCENES FROM PROVINCIAL LIFE’: J.M.COETZEE’S ‘AUTREBIOGRAPHY’

J. M. Coetzee rarely spoke of himself until the moment that he published his fictionalized memoirs “Scenes from Provincial Life”. Starting with “Boyhood” in 1997, in which the young ten-year-old narrator focuses on his years growing up in South Africa, followed by “Youth” in 2002, in which the narrator is a bit older and has moved to London (around the 1960s) and he is willing to leave behind his South Africanness (KOSSEW, 2010) , and finally “Summertime” in 2009, which covers his life once he returns to South Africa, although this last book is narrated through the lens of a biographer who researches and recollects information on John Coetzee as if he were dead.

These three books are put together as a trilogy named “Scenes from Provincial Life” which is the subtitle of both “Boyhood” and “Summertime”, and although “Youth” did not have this same subtitle, Coetzee has referred to it as the “third installment” of “Scenes from Provincial Life.” (KOSSEW, 2010) The three parts of the memoirs are probably a reference to L.Tolstoy’s “Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth”, which is also a way of “declaring Tolstoy as an exemplary writer whose oeuvre proves the significance and in erasability of the authorial component.” (KUSEK, 2012)

“Scenes from Provincial Life” can be read as a trilogy, in chronological order, or separately. Each book is autonomous and self-containing, and therefore, each memoir can be read and fully appreciated individually. All three books contain elements which provide a continuity to the trilogy, and there are plenty of recurring themes, but there is also a rupture between the two first books and “Summertime”. This rupture precisely takes place because, in the final book of the trilogy, J.M.Coetzee decides to write as if he were dead.

The first two volumes of the memoirs are written in the third person and in a present tense, which was a technique which drew the attention of readers, reviewers and critics. The third person narrative perspective together with the present tense constitute a unique choose for writing one’s life, and by doing so, it was said that Coetzee “turned his back on the entire autobiographical tradition”.(DERESIEWICZ, 2002) However, this statement is not entirely true, because as Margaret Lenta mentions, there are plenty of other memoirs which have been written both in the third person and in the present tense. It is Margaret Lenta who introduces the concept of “autrebiography” for referring to Coetzee’s third person fictionalized memoirs, in which the “third person becomes the candid admission of the distance between author and autobiographical subject, the text being a recreation in art of acts and attitudes that are past” (LENTA, 2003)

Coetzee decides to write his autobiographical works in the present tense, and this stresses the tension between the “then” of the event and the “now” of the recollection, which is an effective way of portraying the complexity of individual experience over time (DERESIEWICZ, 2002). Coetzee somehow creates a distance between the events from his past and his narration, but, most importantly in his theoretical works Coetzee firms that “all autobiography is storytelling and all writing is autobiography” (COETZEE, 1992) This statement is central to his work, because he confirms the connection between his writing and his own life.

Coetzee’s use of the “he” for narrating his past life makes sense because he seems to look back at himself with more perspective. The closer the events become to the present, the “he” begins to feel closer to the “I”. In “Boyhood” and “Youth” the events are narrated in a form which makes the reader believe that Coetzee is speaking of someone else: a “he” who is John Coetzee, but at the same time is not because it is a different John Coetzee in a different moment in time. Whereas the events that are narrated in “Summertime” are closer to the present Coetzee, so there would have been a tendency of using the first person narration, in which Coetzee himself feels probably more identified with the narration. But, as we know, “Summertime” is not written in the first person: it is written from another persons perspective as an outsider who investigates Coetzee’s recent past.

In Doubling the Point (1992) there is a discussion around this precise decision of Coetzee, in which he uses the third person for referring to himself and he summarizes his life up to the point where he discusses his studies in Texas. When talking about Texas there is a shift, because the “autrebiography shades back into autobiography” (COETZEE,1992), meaning that Coetzee starts to refer to himself as “I” and not as “he” anymore.

Coetzee’s inaugural lecture at the University of Cape Town in 1984 was entitled “Truth in Autobiography”, where he points out the existence of a pact between the writer and the reader:

The element of trust on the part of the reader has to be strong: there has to be a tacit understanding, a pact, between autobiographer and reader that the truth is being told.
Such a pact is, I would guess, rarely observed to the full [… ] There may be actions or thoughts which he [the writer] feels it is simply too shameful to make public, or which he feels could destroy the reader’s good opinion of him […] There may be things he simply does not understand about himself, or has forgotten, or suppressed. 
(COETZEE, 1985)

After mentioning this pact, and also having pointed out the narrating pronouns, inevitably there is a connection with Philippe Lejeune’s “Le pact autobiographique”. Lejeune suggests a system which allows tagging as autobiography or not according to the fulfillment of the pact. “The identity of the narrator and the principal character that is assumed in autobiography is marked most often by the use of the first person” (LEJEUNE,1989). In “Scenes from Provincial Life” the identity of the narrator and the principal character is marked by the third person:

By bringing up the problem of the author, autobiography brings to light phenomena that fiction leaves in doubt: in particular the fact that there can be identity of the narrator and the principal character int he case of narration “in the third person”. This identity, no longer being established within the text by the use of “I”, is established indirectly, but without any ambiguity, by the double equation: author=narrator, and author=character, from which it is deduced that narrator=character even if the narrator remains implicit. (LEJEUNE, 1989)

When using this system for “Scenes from Provincial Life” something curious happens:

“Boyhood”           author      =   J.M.Coetzee

                             narrator    =   omnipresent narrator

                             character  =  John Coetzee (he)

“Youth”                author      =   J.M.Coetzee

                             narrator    =   omnipresent narrator

                             character  =  John Coetzee (he)

“Summertime”      author      =   J.M.Coetzee

                              narrator    =   Mr. Vincent + (Julia, Margot, Adriana, Martin, Sophie)

                              character  =  John Coetzee (he)

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 12.56.14 PM

According to P. Lejeune’s diagram, “Boyhood” and “Youth” result as autobiographies in the third person, whilst “Summertime” has the structure of a classical (heterodiegetic) biography. Of course that in reality, “Summertime” is more than just a classical biography, because the narrators are constructions of the author for his eccentric self-narration. The book is disguised as a biography, but the coincidence of the author and the character make it obvious that there is an autobiographical intention behind the book. And Coetzee is technically dead throughout the narration of his events.

He does not like to think of death. He would prefer it if, when people got old and sick, they simply stopped existing and disappeared. […] His own death is a different matter. He is always somehow present after his death, floating about the spectacle, enjoying the grief of those who caused it and who, now that it is too late, wish he were still alive. (COETZEE, 2011)

His own death is a different matter precisely because he is always somehow present after his death: because he is not actually dead. He is alive, and he is behind the entire story. But this theoretical death inevitably calls for Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author”.

The good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes. (BARTHES, 1967)

There are several indiscernible voices in “Summertime”: the voice of the biographer, and the voices of those who provide the information about John Coetzee: Julia, Margot, Adriana, Martin and Sophie. By putting together these voices in the last book, together with the initial and final notes by Coetzee himself, there is a pastiche which creates a final image and identity of the deceased John Coetzee. It is a crafty and very clever way of approaching his own life-writing because some things are probably easier to be said through the voices of other people, and by providing the reader with multiple perspectives, the final image that is constructed of Coetzee seems more accurate than if we only hear one single perspective of the narration.

There are multiple self-projections in the making of “Summertime”: for instance, each interviewed subject has an idea of Coetzee, but that is the best part: that this idea is actually projected and implanted by the author Coetzee himself. This literary “cleverness” is probably a result of Coetzee’s training as a literary scholar: as a renown Professor of Literature at the University of Cape Town, and he was made a honorary research fellow at the University of Adelaide. This academic background is definitively influencing his work, and his literary choices are most probably not arbitrary.

“Boyhood” and “Youth” remain largely on the perceptions of the protagonist, which are given form through free indirect discourse (LENTA, 2003). Sometimes perceptions and reactions of other people are also included in the narrative, incorporating the commentary of others in the discourse of the “he”.

All three books are recollected under the name of “Scenes of Provincial Life”, and as I have mentioned before, the titles are direct references to Tolstoy’s “Childhood, Boyhood and Youth”. But they also my be a reference to William Cooper’s autobiographical trilogy “Scenes from Provincial Life”, “Scenes from Metropolitan Life” and “Scenes from Married Life”, and it also echoes one of the sections of Honoré de Balzac’s “Comédie Humaine” which is also titled “Scenes from Provincial Life” (KOSSEW, 2010) These intertextual references also prove J.M.Coetzee’s knowledge in the literary field.

On the other hand, by analyzing word by word the title is another , we come to the following:

SCENE: A unit of action. (A subdivision of an act).

PROVINCIAL LIFE: The life that takes place without any sophistication (not the city life, but more the rustic life that takes place in the provinces).

Which leads to the idea of fragmentation (which makes sense because there are three big subdivisions), and also the idea of the kind of lifestyle which is being described. There is, in all three books a continuity regarding the life in South Africa. Even though “Youth” does not actually have this subtitle, since it is precisely describing his life in London, but there is a continuity nevertheless:

In a miserable English winter, longing for South Africa hits him: “If he were there he could be on Strandfontein beach, running over mile after mile of white sand under a great blue sky”. Months later, exhausted by the struggle with hi MA thesis, “he allows himself the luxury of dipping into books about the South Africa of the old days… memoirs of visitors to the Cape like Dapper and Kolbe and Sparrman and Barrow and Burchell.” This leads him to the crucial recognition: “it is his country, the country of his heart that he is reading about.” (LENTA, 2003)

South Africa is the country of his heart, and it is present throughout the three books. For instance, in “Boyhood” there are continuous references to the Afrikaans people and language, to the South African landscape and to the farm. Although not all the references to South Africa are that good:

What he hates most about Worcester, what most makes him want to escape, is the rage and resentment that he sense cracking through the Afrikaans boys. He fears and loathes the hulking, barefoot Afrikaans boys in their tight short trousers, particularly the older boys, who, given half a chance, will take you off to some quiet place in the veld and violate you. (COETZEE, 2011)

According to Robert Kusek South Africa is presented as a thoroughly sick state, governed by injustice, corruption and discriminatory laws as well as all-pervasive violence; the place where Afrikaners “are people in rage all the time because their hearts are hurt”, while the English are “people who have not fallen into a rage because they live behind walls and guard their hearts well” (KUSEK, 2012)

Besides the continuity regarding South Africa in the three books, there are other important elements which provide the trilogy with a continuos thematic line. For instance, the relationship that John Coetzee has with his parents, and in particular with his father. In “Boyhood” their relationship seems pretty bad:

What he hates most about his father are his personal habits. He hates them so much that the mere thought of them makes him shudder with distaste.

He denies and detests his father. He will not forget the day two years ago when his mother for the one and only time let his father loose on him, like a dog let loose from its chain (‘I’ve reached the limit, I can’t stand it any more!’), and his father’s eyes glared blue and angry as he shook him and cuffed him.

Who is the greets writer in the world? he asks his father. His father says Shakespeare. […] If his father likes Shakespeare then Shakespeare must be bad, he decides. (COETZEE, 2011)

This relationship with his father changes in “Summertime” in the last undated fragments from Coetzee’s notebooks. His tone changes when talking about his personal and emotional relationship with his father. The final pages are seems to have come to terms with him:

In fact he finds it hard to detect what his father cares about, in rugby or anything else. If he could solve the mystery of what in the world his father wants, he might perhaps be a better son. (COETZEE, 2011)

This turn which takes place in the last part of “Summertime” is showing the compassion of the son for the father’s loneliness, and these pages show more about Coetzee’s emotional life than any of the other accounts which are described throughout the book. The end of the book is extremely profound and provides an actual insight to the feelings that Coetzee has in relation to his father: his compassion towards his father’s loneliness together with the resentment which he has carried for many years.

Also, in “Summertime” there is abundant self-referentiality (precisely because J.M.Coetzee is technically dead), and these comments are filled with self-criticism, self-doubt and humbleness. The biographer’s project is motivated because of the importance that J.M.Coetzee has had in the literary world, as a winner of two Booker Prize awards and a Nobel Prize winner in 2003. Coetzee is a renown, established, high-brow quality writer, and somehow this does not coincide with his own self-representation. In “Summertime” he portrays himself (although through the voice of others) as someone “secretive, cold and supercilious, without sensibility, a wonder character: a gloomy fellow: a wet blanket: a stick in the mud” and he barely acknowledges his own works as being any good, but he does includes little notes about different works that he published previously:

Which leads me back to Dusklands. As a piece of writing I don’t say Dusklands is lacking in passion, but the passion behind it is obscure. I read it as a book about cruelty, an exposé of the cruelty involved in various forms of conquest. But what was the actual source of that cruelty? Its locus, it now seems to me, lay within the author himself. The best interpretation I can give of the book is that writing it was a project in self-administered therapy.

He wrote about mea and he wrote about women too. For example -this may interest you- there is a book named Foe in which the heroine spends a year ship-wrecked on an island off the coast of Brazil. In the final version she is an Englishwoman, but in the first draft he made her a Brasileira. (COETZEE, 2011)

There is also self-referentiality in “Summertime” regarding it’s own nature: as the third part of the trilogy of “Scenes from Provincial Life” and also it’s biographical (and not autobiographical) characteristic:

I suspect it was intended to fit into the third memoir, the one that never saw the light of the day. As you will hear, he follows the same convention as in Boyhood and Youth, where the subject is called “he” rather than “I”.

Because in biography one has to strike a balance between narrative and opinion. I haven shortage of opinion -people are more than ready to tell me what they think or though of Coetzee – but one needs more than that to brig a life-story to life. (COETZEE, 2011)

All in all, Coetzee’s “Scenes from Provincial Life” provides an insight to his private life, but in his own peculiar way: Coetzee choses to write about himself by using the narrative techniques as if he were writing about someone completely different. He turns himself into the “he” of his narration, and in the last book he takes it to a different level by including the additional twist of his own death. Having a dead Coetzee as a parting point for the biographer to start his research in “Summertime”, and his interviews makes this last book have a completely different structure to the two first parts of his memoirs. Other people tell his story, from their own perspectives, but we stumble upon questions regarding the truthfulness of these stories. Are the stories told by each interviewee true? Are they factual? And on the other hand, the recurring question regarding the strategies in which a life can be represented in a literary work (KUSEK, 2012)

I have been through the letters and diaries that are available to me. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record – not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer. In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents: in his diaries he is doing much the same for his own eyes, or perhaps for posterity. As documents they have their value, of course; but if you want the truth, the full truth, then surely you need to set beside them the testimony of people who knew him in the flesh, who participated in his life. (COETZEE, 2011)

This is one of the most important moments of “Summertime”, because through the voice of the biographer, he explains the choice of interviewing the people who participated in his life. He puts into question the truthfulness of the writings in his letters and diaries, because he is a fictioneer. But then the question that arrises is wether the interviewees are telling the truth:

-You never met him? I’m surprised to hear that.

-I never sought him out. I never even corresponded with him. I thought it would be better if I had no sense of obligation towards him. It would leave me free to write what I wished. (COETZEE, 2011)

The biographer wishes to be free to write about Coetzee what he wished. But that does not prove the factualness or the truth behind his biography.

-You are being a little hard on him, if I may say so.

-No, I am not. I am just telling the truth. Without the truth, no matter how hard, there can be no healing. That’s all. That’s the end of my offering for your book. (COETZEE, 2011)

Julia seems to believe that she is just telling the truth, but we only receive her account on the events. Of course, then comes the double twist of Coetzee actually being behind Julia’s words, which actually is a self-projection of what Coetzee believes Julia to think about himself. This is done in a very clever and accurate way, and each of the interviewee’s is constructed solidly, with a deep psychology, which makes the book seem realistic.

Also, there is the question of why only five interviews. How does the biographer come to this number and how does he chose the people who will contribute to the biography of J.M.Coetzee?

-Only five? Don’t you think that is a bit risky? Who are we lucky five? How did you come to choose us?

-I’ll give you the names. […] Basically I let Coetzee himself do the choosing. I followed up on clues he dropped in his notebooks – clues as to who was important to him at the time, in the 1970s.

-Do you not run the risk of allowing your book to become no more than -forgive me for putting it in this way – no more than a settling of scores, personal scores?

-Why? Because my informants are women?

-Because it is not in the nature of love affairs for the lovers to see each other whole and steady. […] It seems to me strange to be putting together a biography of a writer that will ignore his writing. (COETZEE, 2011)

Martin here points out how strange it is to put together a biography of Coetzee and ignore Coetzee’s own writing. That is precisely what makes the fragments from his Notebooks are so powerful. The notes at the start of the book are more engaged politically whilst the last notes which conclude the book uncover a profundity and emotional layer which is essential for the book. Also, once thing which has not been mentioned in profundity yet is the structure of “Summertime”: besides from being constituted by the five interviews, this book nearly seems unfinished. By not actually editing the interviews, and just putting all the information together (notes, comments, questions, references to the time, etc), the book seems unpolished.

Of course, it is all done intentionally by Coetzee, but it gives an extremely effective result, as if the book were merely a recollection of information which Mr. Vincent will polish into a book furtherly. This idea of the draft, or the work in process can be seen in different situations, and Margot’s interview is also one of the most interesting because the biographer has already done his editing on her interview, but she is not at all happy with the results of his work. Here are a few of the most obvious examples of the role of edition and non-edition in “Summertime”:

-[…] Of their twelve sons and daughters, the firstborn has already joined the multitudinous shades; in private moments –
-Multitudinous shades?
-Too grand-sounding? I’ll change it. The firstborn has already departed this life. In private moments the survivors have intimations of their own end, and shudder.

-No, I don’t like that. (COETZEE, 2011)

-Now I must protest. You are really going too far. I said nothing remotely like that. You are putting words of your own in my mouth. (COETZEE, 2011)

-Just one question more, one brief question.
-No, absolutely not, no more questions. You have had time enough. End. Fin. Go.
(COETZEE, 2011)

In conclusion, “Scenes from Provincial Life” and in particular “Summertime” is a work which is extremely self-aware. With its unusual narratological pattern it provides a different approach to self-narration which does not follow the same pattern as the majority of autobiographies (FREDMAN, 2007) J.M.Coetzee insists in writing his fictionalized memoirs in the third person narrative, and by doing so he creates an “autrebiography” of himself. This concept is the most accurate way of wrapping up the three books, as a autobiography which takes a step back from the self, converting the self into the “autre”, the other.

Coetzee has become a very well known writer, specially after becoming a Nobel Prize winner in 2003, but for some reason, he still seems to doubt his own talent. In his fictionalized memoir he portrays himself in an extremely harsh and unwelcoming way. The interviewees are far from complimentary, and he himself does not show any love for himself. But J. M. Coetzee rarely spoke of himself until the moment that he published his fictionalized memoirs “Scenes from Provincial Life”, so what triggers these three books to be written?

According to Robert Kusek, what Coetzee wishes to achieve is to ridicule all the attempts that have been made by many researchers all over the world, especially after the bestowal of the Nobel Prize, to learn about the writer’s life for the sheer reason of his being elevated to public figure status (KUSEK, 2012). Nevertheless, this paper is another attempt to learn about the writer’s life, but motivated not necessarily because of his elevation as a public figure, but precisely because of the undisputed power of his works.

And as many researchers all over the world have concluded: this novel is a masterpiece.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BARTHES, R. (1967): The Death of the Author. UbuWeb Papers.

CLARKSON, C. (2009): J. M. Coetzee: Countervoices. Great Britain. Palgrave Macmillan.

COETZEE, J.M. (1992): Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. David Attwell. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

COETZEE, J.M. (2011): Scenes from Provincial Life: Boyhood, Youth, Summertime. United States of America. Penguin.

COETZEE, J.M. (1985): Truth in Autobiography. Inaugural Lecture at the University of Cape Town. Series nº 94.

COLLINGWOOD -WHITTICK, S. (2001): Autobiography as Autrebiography: the Fictionalisation of the Self in J.M.Coetzee’s Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. Commonwealth essays and studies: mélanges 24.

DERESIEWICZ, W. (2002): Third Person Singular. New York Times.

FREDMAN, J. (2007): All autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography: Autobiography and the Theme of Otherness in J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. Växjö University.

KOSSEW, S. (2010): Writing Self as Other: J.M.Coetzee’s ‘life writing’ in Scenes from Provincial Life. Forum for World Literature Studies, Volume 2.

KUSEK, R. (2012): Writing Oneself, Writing the Other: J.M.Coetzee’s Fictional Autobiography in Boyhood, Youth and Summertime. Poland. Jagiellonian University.

LEJEUNE, P. (1989): On Autobiography. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press.

LENTA, M. (2003): Autrebiography: J.M.Coetzee’s Boyhood and Youth. English in Africa.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.