"Summertime" is a 2009 work of fiction by J.M. Coetzee, a South African writer who won the 2003 Nobel Prize for literature. The book takes the form of a series of interviews of Coetzee's acquaintances by a biographer who is writing a posthumous biography of Coetzee.
This is an unusual format to write fiction in, and I am either particularly well- or ill-placed to appreciate it. I knew nothing about Coetzee before reading the book, other than that he is of the age and nationality of the character described in the book. I do not know how much else the character Coetzee and the author Coetzee have in common, whether in objective or subjective terms. This book draws a picture of Coetzee that is not particularly flattering. It describes an ineffectual, awkward and somewhat hypocritical man. Through the fictional biographer's interviews of two ex-mistresses, a cousin, a colleague, and a woman that Coetzee was infatuated with, we get a story of a man who was a womanizer who was detached from his emotions, and of a thinker who was in denial of the social realities of Apartheid.
I perhaps don't get the joke. To me, writing a fictional biography of yourself where you criticize yourself seems to be a somewhat self-indulgent move, and the unflattering portrayal, rather than seeming honest, seems like a coy way to deflect criticism. Perhaps those who are more familiar with the real life of Coetzee and his works will see strata of irony present in this depiction that do not occur to me.
One of the more relevant points I got from this book is that Coetzee is described as being a skilled writer who lacked passion or originality, and could not produce anything momentous. This seems interesting in light of the fact that Coetzee won a Nobel Prize: an award that has been given, over the past two decades or so, mostly to literary craftsmen without wide popular appeal. And it does seem telling that the Nobel Prize in recent years has not gone to writers who could show us fear in a handful of dust or tell us that Hell is other people, but to writers who write coy, self-deprecatory works of experimental fiction.