Friday, 3 August 2018

Book Review: Youth by J. M. Coetzee one point or another in life many people feel the urge to write the memoirs of their young years and to share them with others, be it only the family, be it the whole world if they can find a publisher. Writers seem even more inclined to reminisce and portray themselves. In the autobiographical novel Youth by J. M. Coetzee, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature of 2003 takes on the role of his own biographer. Almost like a stranger he looks back on the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was just a young man aspiring to be a writer one day. He knows that in the initial stage he won’t be able to earn his livelihood writing and so after graduation from university in Cape Town he becomes a computer programmer in London. His first job depresses him, but the second one stimulates him.

John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in February 1940. After graduation in English and Mathematics from Cape Town University, he moved to London and earned his living as a computer programmer, while continuing in absentia his English studies in Cape Town. For the PhD he went to the USA, but being refused permanent residency there in 1971, he returned to South Africa where he taught English literature at Cape Town University for the following thirty years. Only in 1974, J. M. Coetzee made his debut as a novelist with Dusklands followed by Heart of the Country (1977) and finally Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) that established the author’s international fame. After these he wrote other much acclaimed novels like Life and Times of Michael K (1983), Foe (1986), Age of Iron (1990), The Master of Petersburg (1994), Disgrace (1999), and Elizabeth Costello (2003) along with the memoirs Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), many essays and literary criticism. The latest novels released after having been awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature are The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and The Schooldays of Jesus (2016). Since his retirement in 2002, J. M. Coetzee lives in Adelaide, Australia.

In the late 1950s, the protagonist of Youth studies English and Mathematics at the University of Cape Town. It’s important to him to be independent of his oppressive family, of his mother in particular, so he has several jobs that suffice to pay the rent for his flat, to feed himself and even to put aside a little money for the time when he’ll leave South Africa to become a poet. He stumbles into an affair with a nurse much older than himself who is under psychotherapy and moves in with him unasked for. Mathematics classes become an unexpected challenge.
“[…] The mathematics they are studying has become more modern and abstract, and he has begun to flounder. Line by line he can still follow the exposition on the blackboard, but more often than not the larger argument eludes him. He has fits of panic in class which he does his best to hide.”
In poetry he admires Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, but feels unable to write anything worthwhile himself. He believes that he is too young and lacks life experience. Meanwhile tensions between blacks and whites in his country are constantly growing and after the carnage of Sharpeville in 1960 he knows that he must leave as soon as possible to avoid being conscripted. So right after graduation he moves to London and before long he gets a job as a computer programmer with IBM. As a precaution, he hides his poetical ambitions from his colleagues whom he finds terribly reserved.
“[…] Everything is going well, he has attained his first goal, he ought to be happy. In fact, as the weeks pass, he finds himself more and more miserable. He has attacks of panic, which he beats off with difficulty. In the office there is nothing to rest the eye on but flat metallic surfaces. Under the shadowless neon lighting, he feels his very soul to be under attack. The building, a featureless block of concrete and glass, seems to give off a gas, odourless, colourless, that finds ins way into his blood and numbs him […], turning him into a zombie.”
The cinema, notably the films of Ingmar Bergman, helps him to escape and he has several fleeting affairs. When Cape Town University offers him a bursary for postgraduate study, he jumps at the opportunity to register as a Master’s student in absentia and to pass his free time in the Reading Room of the British Museum doing research on the novels of E. M. Forster. Eventually, he leaves IMB because he can bear it no longer there, but after a while he has to resume working. Another company takes him on as computer programmer and he loves his job there…

Although Youth is an entirely autobiographical novel, the author distances himself from his own coming-of-age experience telling it in third instead of first person as if he were just an unconcerned observer really. As a result, the book reminds me in a way of James Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man although it’s very different in style – of course. Since it’s a memoir, it’s difficult to say how little or much of the story is fictionalised and embellished to protect from shame and ridicule the author himself and above all other people, but all things considered the novel feels to me for the most part honest and very authentic. Unfortunately, the characters surrounding the author and protagonist seem rather lifeless and shallow to me even though this may be with intent. In addition, there are a few passages that are unnecessarily lengthy to my taste and reveal too much of the long-time professor of English literature behind the words. Descriptions of surroundings and states of mind, on the other hand, are detailed, rich in powerful, often unusual images and poetical. In other words, the language is beautiful and makes for a very pleasurable and smooth read.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Youth by J. M. Coetzee enormously and my first literary encounter with this en-NOBEL-ed writer makes me look forward to plunging into fiction from his pen, too, as soon as I find the time. His way of presenting himself in the memoir as just an average young man searching for his direction in life and for his voice as an author, really pleased me. Moreover, much that he said really struck a chord with me the aspiring writer however late-blooming I may be by comparison. It was nice also to get an insider’s view of a time – the early 1960s – when there already were computers although only very few in the world actually knew what such a room-filling machine was, did or could do. It’s a colourful literary snapshot of the past (and much more than this!) that deserves my recommendation without any doubt.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.