'Summertime' by J.M. Coetzee

'Summertime' by J.M. Coetzee
(Ellen Weinstein / For The Times)

J.M. Coetzee

Viking: 266 pp., $26.50

Fortunately "The Tempest" has no sixth act. What could Shakespeare have made out of Prospero after he broke his wand and renounced his magic? Just another pensioner with nothing to do but hang around, rehash old miracles, talk about himself.

J.M. Coetzee, after a string of severe, demanding, sometimes parched, often-brilliant novels, has been turning inward. Two years ago, the journey led to "Diary of a Bad Year," whose central character, C., is barely even the writer's alter ego (strike the "alter"). Odd, and in some ways awkward, the novel is wonderfully serious fun: Coetzee alternately wrestling with and laughing at himself.

The wrestle continues with "Summertime," darker, undeniably intelligent and less fun. Coetzee has important things to say and says them -- but the magic wand is discarded.

No playful C. in this one: just John Coetzee (now we know what the J. stands for), a "great" novelist (you sense the author wryly affixing quote marks), and dead, furthermore. A would-be biographer turns up in South Africa to interview those who knew him. Solemn and pedantic, the biographer provides a target for one of (our) Coetzee's themes: the futility of connecting the artist's life to the work.

Most of "Summertime" consists of the stories told and partly withheld -- so much for interviews; there's also a hint of lying -- by several women and a man. At the start there are a few surviving notes by the young John Coetzee. They serve as scene-setters for the horrors and absurdities of apartheid times.

Five black activists are murdered by the police, themselves clumsily disguised as black. The novelist Breyten Breytenbach, living in Paris and married to an Asian woman, is allowed to return for a month to visit a sick mother. Because of the laws against racial mixing his wife is classified as a one-month white.

After this overture come the interviews. The man, a former teaching colleague, speaks briefly and unrevealingly. It is the women -- one a cousin, two briefly lovers, a fourth who both suggests and denies an obsessional entanglement -- who provide the insight. But the insight is principally into themselves as complex characters. John Coetzee is largely an absence: withdrawn, dimly seen; there, but as a silence is there.

Julia, an unhappy housewife, meets him casually. Intrigued precisely by his vagueness, his unprepossessing scruffiness, she seduces him. Describing him as sexually "autistic," she is bemused by his lack of an affirmative presence. With impatient intelligence she tries to figure him out. She reads his first book, "Dusklands" -- it is, of course, the real Coetzee's first book -- and is unimpressed. (For characters to confront an author is not new, of course. Pirandello did it, so did Unamuno. But surely Coetzee goes further by having his invention become his literary critic.)

Julia's sharp curiosity gives liveliness to the interview and makes up in part for the passiveness of her vague lover. The passiveness has several meanings. One is to signal John's rejection of the grotesque activism of South Africa's apartheid society. But as it plays out through the succeeding interviews, the effect is depressively flattening.

In the second and longest interview the flattening is unrelieved since it is partly shared by the speaker. Margot, John's cousin, has idealized him as a restless dissident in their large, privileged family. She takes a disastrous trip with him; his ramshackle truck breaks down and they are marooned overnight. Although they hug to keep warm, what she hugs is absence.

Furthermore, the breakdown stems from his refusal to have a mechanic service the truck. The Afrikaners owe their prosperity to exploiting black labor and others: John's protest goes to the extreme of refusing to hire anyone for physical work. And his "I am not really here" stance accounts for the judgment by the women he meets that he is something less than a man.

Julia and Margot show a certain indulgence; another lover, Sophie, feigns indifference (she cuts short an interview that hides more than it reveals). Whereas Adrienne, a Brazilian dance instructor, is splendidly indignant. Her life is a struggle; she is a political exile, her husband has been fatally mugged by Capetown thugs, and she fights to raise her teenaged daughter.

The daughter develops a swooning crush on John, who is her English instructor. Adrienne interrogates him with a ferocity that is the liveliest and sometimes funniest thing in the book. His posture of not quite existing infuriates her; and when, nevertheless, he shows signs of falling in love with her, the fury increases. His quietist abstraction is of no use to a woman who has to battle daily to survive. Yet she is fascinated as well.

John's persistent withdrawal -- Julia wittily calls it his "project to turn himself into a gentle man" -- stands for something besides political protest. By making him tenuous to the point of invisibility, Coetzee is denouncing any association of the artist's person with the artist's work -- as, for example, Adrienne's protest that "if you want to be a great writer . . . you have also to be a great man."

And here is Coetzee's ingenious contrivance: his female characters are more real, more palpable, than the ghost-figure who stands in for him. Ingenious, yes; except that the protagonist's refusal to protagonize falls as a dulling, tedious burden on what is more a novelized argument than a novel.

Eder, a former Times book critic, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.