Literature should generate lively public debates — all scholars worth their salt will proclaim. We believe in the importance of culture and think that intellectual tussles over significant books, and not celebrity gossip, should grace the front page of newspapers. In reality, such prominent literary arguments rarely happen. Yet half a year ago, South African and international magazines as well as the online media exploded with such a debate — some have called it a feud — that has been flaring up periodically with follow-up responses. The original argument involved novelist and lecturer in creative writing Imraan Coovadia and his colleague at the University of Cape Town, Ian Glenn. The subject is J. M. Coetzee, arguably the best-known South African writer. His work, his legacy (now that he no longer lives in his native country), and the status of South African literature at home and abroad are the stakes in this heated exchange, which irrupted with the publication of the first authorized Coetzee biography.
Readers familiar with Coetzee’s work and style of writing must have been only mildly surprised when in his latest volume of autobiographical fiction, Summertime (2009), the author imagines himself dead. After all, in Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002) he wrote about himself in the third person, distancing his aged authorial stance from his younger self; conversely, in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) he foreshortened the gap between reader and protagonist through a demanding and difficult to sustain first person, present tense narration.
In Summertime a young scholar of English literature rummages through the deceased John Coetzee’s notebooks. He interviews the author’s friends and lovers to form a picture of the early 1970s, when the aspiring writer had just returned from the United States and was completing Dusklands. Coetzee has always subjected himself and his protagonists to rigorous scrutiny; in Summertime he imagines an unflattering portrait a lover might have given him — a scrawny man with an abstracted look, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and sandals: “There was an air of seediness about him too, an air of failure….I didn’t get close enough to check out his feet, but I was ready to bet the toenails weren’t trimmed” (21). Was the writer trying on, like a new hat, the uncomplimentary gossip that crops up after a literary master passes away? Or was it the self-confident pose of a literary god unswayed by trivial concerns?