The autobiographical impulse seizes some novelists, such as Henry James, at the end of their creative labors; they relax at last from the trouble of disguise and manipulation and tell it like it was, as it is remembered, much as the host of a generous feast avails himself of his guests’ garnered good will by sleepily rambling on about himself. Others, like Philip Roth in “The Facts,” take a mid-career opportunity to establish, amid a crowd of fictions, some baseline data. And an increasing number of writers begin, as did Frank Conroy in “Stop-Time,” with autobiography, as if to get themselves out of the way before they settle to business. J. M. Coetzee, the inventive, austere, and penetrating South African novelist and critic, has published, in his early sixties, the second installment of what seems to be an ongoing memoirist project: “Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II” (Viking; $22.95).
Its predecessor, “Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life,” appeared five years ago, and perhaps better earned its subtitle: the hero, named John (as in John Michael Coetzee) and rendered in the third person and the present tense, is indeed a provincial boy, living, until a move late in the book, in a bleak, new but dusty housing estate outside the town of Worcester, north of Cape Town. Dates and ages are left vague, but he seems about eight, and in what I took to be third grade, when we meet him, and is thirteen when we leave him, back in Cape Town, where he and his family—father, mother, younger brother—came from. “Scenes,” rather than a continuous history, are what we get, as the book’s partial publication in magazines like Granta and Artes suggests. The longest, least glum chapter depicts the family farm, which is run by John’s father’s brother Son and bears the pretty Afrikaans name Voëlfontein—”Bird-fountain.” Excellent and deeply felt as the evocation is, it is something of what we expect from a memoir of a white southern African’s childhood, as are Coetzee’s accounts of his rather brutal schooling and his intimations of a precarious and unfair racial situation. Less usual is the dour flavor of the child’s complex self-awareness. He has a “sense of himself as prince of the house” and dislikes both his parents for it—his father for failing to exert a father’s leadership in the household, and his mother for loving him too much, making him fight for independence from her and turning him into “an irascible despot” at home and a physically timid overachiever at school. Coetzee declares, “Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.”
As John turns thirteen, he becomes “surly, scowling, dark. He does not like this new, ugly self, he wants to be drawn out of it, but that is something he cannot do by himself.” His brilliance at school gives him little pleasure; it just breaks life into a relentless series of tests. (The test, which we pass or fail, is a recurring image in Coetzee.) John imagines no happy future that his cleverness may win for him, though he holds to “the idea of being a great man” and the conviction that “he is different, special.” His state of mind, young as he is, is wintry: “His heart is old, it is dark and hard, a heart of stone.” Writing tame exercises for English class, he thinks:
What he would write if he could . . . would be something darker, something that, once it began to flow from his pen, would spread across the page out of control, like spilt ink. Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightning crackling across the sky.
This exactly captures the Gothic quality of an early Coetzee novel like “In the Heart of the Country,” but John has years to wait till the writing of books. “Boyhood” ends with him at the funeral of his Aunt Annie, a schoolteacher who once said to him, “So young and yet you know so much. How are you ever going to keep it all in your head?” Aunt Annie had devoted herself to translating and publishing a religious book by her missionary father, a book that winds up as copies, bound and unbound, stacked in a closet. When the boy asks where the books have gone, no one knows: “He alone is left to do the thinking. How will he keep them all in his head, all the books, all the people, all the stories?”
”Youth” picks up John’s story six years later, when he is nineteen and living alone in Cape Town, a university student surviving on academic odd jobs, and ends when he is twenty-four, residing in London as a friendless computer programmer and a frustrated poet. The second volume lacks the bucolic bright spots and familial furies of “Boyhood” but has an overriding, suspenseful issue: when and how will our hero find his vocation, evident to us readers if not yet to him, as a world-class novelist? In his account he is almost uniformly listless and miserable: “Misery is his element. He is at home in misery like a fish in water. If misery were to be abolished, he would not know what to do with himself.” To the consoling argument that “misery is a school for the soul” and a necessary immersion for the would-be artist he counters, “Misery does not feel like a purifying bath. On the contrary, it feels like a pool of dirty water. From each new bout of misery he emerges not brighter and stronger but duller and flabbier.”
At the age of twenty, in the wake of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the formidable black reaction, as an increasingly repressive white government called for more conscripts in its National Defence Force, he leaves South Africa for London, without completing his university degree. In London, he feels unwelcome, “a graceless colonial . . . and a Boer to boot.” He is sex-starved. The beautiful English women he spies on the streets, not to mention the “tall, honey-skinned Swedes” and the “almond-eyed and petite” Italians, seem impossible to meet, let alone impress; the lower-class English women among whom he works, though they have “a cosy sensuality . . . the sensuality of animals brought up together in the same steamy den,” are even hard to understand, with their “triphthongs and glottal stops.” The few conquests he does make, including a plump seventeen-year-old au pair from Austria, feel like mistakes. His only comfortable liaison is with an old South African girlfriend who arrives in London, sets herself up as a night-club waitress, and with her fast and cheery ways has soon left him behind. Meanwhile, his literary aspirations dwindle to picking through the literary magazines at Foyles and Dillons, wondering whether he should switch from poetry to prose and whether he should imitate Henry James or D. H. Lawrence, and sitting in the Reading Room of the British Museum plowing through the many lesser novels of Ford Madox Ford, toward completion of a master’s degree in absentia from the University of Cape Town.
An optical defect, as it were, of autobiographical writing is that the narrator, relating the feelings and events that he has endured, appears more passive than he or she could have been; he is modestly blind to the impact he made on others, his own initiatives and aggression. Coetzee portrays himself as a lonely dunce at love, mooning over exotic movie stars like Monica Vitti and Anna Karina, yet by his own desultory count he was a considerable seducer. At the tender age of nineteen, in Cape Town, he acquired a thirty-year-old live-in mistress, an attractive and somewhat disturbed nurse who showed him how sex, for a man, brings with it the whole woman, with her possibly inconvenient troubles, agenda, and ego. He acquired skill at dodging the consequences of involvements: still in Cape Town, he got a girl pregnant and let her cope with all the details of the abortion, and in London he allowed his docile little Austrian, after their last night together, to ease herself out the door in demure silence while he feigned sleep.
Coetzee writes of “London, the city on whose grim cogs he is being broken,” while recording impressive survival skills. Jobless, he answers an I.B.M. ad for computer programmers (“He has heard of computer programming but has no clear idea of what it is”) and, after taking an I.Q. test (“He has always enjoyed IQ tests, always done well at them”), becomes a trainee and then a programmer. How many aspirants to literary greatness have enough incidental mathematical ability to succeed as computer programmers? True, Coetzee portrays the job as dreary, but he performs creditably; when he quits, after more than a year, to concentrate on becoming a poet, I.B.M. resists his departure. Later, when his work permit needs renewal, he lands another computer job, in the Berkshire offices of International Computers, and rises to the point of installing a program of his devising in the Atlas computer “housed at the Ministry of Defence’s atomic weapons research station outside Aldermaston.” Though his Cold War sympathies are pro-Russian, he finds himself part of the free-world military effort, and in that uncomfortable position—”a twenty-four-year-old computer programmer in a world in which there are no thirty-year-old computer programmers,” a would-be poet “well aware that his failure as a writer and his failure as a lover are so closely parallel that they might as well be the same thing”—his chronicler leaves him.
We know from other sources that Coetzee will go on to America, where he will earn a doctorate in linguistics at the University of Texas; the sequel concerning this step promises some relief from the climate of failure and balked ambition that pervades “Youth.” (This climate is transferred to the allegorical landscape of his early novel “Waiting for the Barbarians,” whose hero, the elderly Magistrate, has a young man’s air of being adrift, self-critical and self-indulgent in equal portions; the harrowing tortures that the shadowy Empire inflicts upon him might be construed as cousin to the torments of employment with the imperial International Business Machines.) Toward the memoir’s end, there are a few hopeful developments: the hero acquires spectacles for his deteriorating eyesight; he discovers the highly congenial novels of Samuel Beckett; he generates, in recreational computer time, out of words from Pablo Neruda, some “pseudo-poems” that are published in a Cape Town magazine and make a small local sensation. He begins to realize that South Africa, “a wound within him,” must be his subject. The eventual triple winner of the CNA Prize, South Africa’s premier literary award, and double winner of the Booker Prize is struggling to be born.
In the meantime, these recollections of a stymied, melancholy Afrikaner in London are more entertaining than is easily explained. We like the hero, for all his fecklessness and dogged self-denigration, much as we like the raving heroes of Hamsun’s “Hunger” and Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground”: naked honesty engages us. The brainy, taut prose speeds us along. True, vivifying details are sparse. A young colonial seeking a foothold in London is also the topic of V. S. Naipaul’s most recent novel, “Half a Life,” and fiction’s leeway allows him a satiric animation and a colorful particularity that are rare in “Youth.” There is nothing in Coetzee’s memoir, for example, like the comic dialogue of the West Indian hero’s affair with his Panamanian mentor’s coarse but luscious girlfriend, June, who works behind a perfume counter and exudes its aura along with blunt sexual advice, or of the lefter-than-thou snobbery of well-heeled bohemia. Coetzee’s project does not permit him to linger at such scenes of metropolitan life; his characters are all incidental to “the story of his life that he tells himself,” a concept expressed in “Boyhood” as “the only story he will admit, the story of himself.” His setbacks and humiliations merely graze the inner core of self-regard, where, in “depths of coldness, callousness, caddishness,” he circles the riddle of becoming an artist: “Does giving rein to his penchants, his vices, and then afterwards gnawing at himself, as he is doing now, help to qualify him as an artist? He cannot, at this moment, see how.”
It cannot be easy, decades later, to take an accurate but aloof view of the youth one was. Coetzee’s delicate self-mockery threatens to become condescending, and “Youth” ‘s repeated rhetorical questions verge on burlesque. “Will our solitariness lift, or is the life of the mind its own reward? . . . Does his first venture into prose herald a change of direction in his life? Is he about to renounce poetry? . . . Must he become miserable again in order to write?” Yet the suspense attached to this stalled life is real, at least for any reader who has himself sought to find his or her voice and material amid the crosscurrents of late modernism. Coetzee, with his unusual intelligence and deliberation, confronted problems many a writer, more ebulliently full of himself, rushes past without seeing. His eventual path, via Beckett and the purity of mathematics, was a kind of minimalism, a concision coaxed from what he felt as his innate coldness. “If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry. But warmth is not in his nature,” he concludes. While he was still in Cape Town, his taste moved from Hopkins and Keats and Shakespeare to Pope, “the cruel precision of his phrasing,” and, even better because wilder, Swift; he feels “fully in accord” with Pound and Eliot’s attempt to bring into English “the astringency of the French.” In one of his courteous, admirably thorough reviews, Coetzee remarks that Doris Lessing “prunes too lightly” to be a great stylist, and his own paragraphs and plots feel sharply pruned, at times as brutally disciplined as Parisian lime trees. The academic hero of his novel “Disgrace,” hearing an African talk orotundly, reflects:
The language he draws on with such aplomb is, if he only knew it, tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites. Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them.
A delectable tension exists in this writer between a youthful wariness of tired, termite-ridden words and a childish desire to spill ink, out of control, to unload what is in his head. Even the low-energy years described in “Youth” take on, in the clipped telling, a curious electricity; the astringent pages leave us keen to read on.