In his Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, J. M. Coetzee provides his readers with his own portrait of the artist as a young man. Like James Joyce, Coetzee depicts himself as a boy trying to find himself, to adjust to his society, to come to terms with his parents, and to lay the groundwork for his future career as a writer and an academic. The book focuses on Coetzee’s life from the age of ten to thirteen, formative years marked by an awakening sexuality, a love-hate relationship with his smothering mother, a fascination with literature, and a sense of his alienation and isolation from his classmates.
Narrated in the third person, the book provides readers with a slice of an autobiography, but a very selective and crafted one. While the book proceeds chronologically, Coetzee tampers with time to create a sense of fiction: Certain themes recur regularly, events foreshadow others, and Coetzee is at once a real boy and a symbol of the influence of repressive, racist regimes. Boyhood is about Coetzee, but it is also about South Africa. Rather than discussing the evils of apartheid, Coetzee lets his readers see how apartheid affects relationships through events in his own life.
Boyhood also concerns colonialism, and one of the causes of his parents’ problems is the British/Afrikaans division, itself a legacy of South Africa’s colonial past. As a minority, Coetzee experiences discrimination and persecution at the hands of his Afrikaaner classmates, whom he regards as surly, intransigent, and brutal. He constructs theories about the mental superiority of the British, but these theories are destroyed when Trevelyan agrees to flog Eddie, a seven-year-old “Coloured” boy guilty of a minor transgression. This event is traumatic for Coetzee: He was indebted to Eddie, who had taught him to ride a bicycle. Coetzee cannot forget Eddie and knows that “Eddie will have no pity on him.” Coetzee’s passivity is his sin and the sin of South Africans who passively tolerate similar acts of injustice and the system that condones it.
Coetzee, in fact, describes childhood as a “time of gritting the teeth and enduring.” While much of the enduring involves school, it is his parents who cause him the most psychological and emotional turmoil. His home is a “box,” where he is trapped by an ineffective father and a self-sacrificing, smothering mother. Caught between them, his allegiance wavers, and he vacillates, first betraying his mother by joining his father in criticizing her, and then ultimately rejecting his father. He hates his father’s personal habits and states that he does not want to have a father. For Coetzee, his father is an “appendage” outside the family core. His dislike of his father is also fueled by his father’s limitations: While his father is an attorney, was a soldier, and played rugby and cricket, Coetzee states that, in each case, “there is an embarrassing qualification,” since all these attributes are followed by “but.” These early declarations prepare readers for the father’s later decline when his legal practice fails and he goes into debt.
His attitude toward his mother is almost a case study in psychology. Bent on separating himself from her, he determines to share nothing with her. When his mother, who does not have enough money for three circus tickets, stands outside in the blazing sun while he and his brother enjoy the show, he sees her behavior as exhibiting “blinding, overwhelming, self-sacrificial love” that demands “a debt of love,” which he is unwilling to pay. He cannot, however, even at the end of the book, escape her influence and her judgment. Aware that...
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she “can choose to stop loving him,” he realizes that he is still bound to her.
Much of Coetzee’s youth involves his identity, not just in terms of his ties to his parents but also in his religion, his politics, and his literary tastes. For a variety of reasons, he feels isolated and believes, because of his boyish egocentrism, that he is not normal, that his desires and secrets, even his double life, are not shared by any of his peers. Like most people, Coetzee is haunted by his failures and humiliations, from the woodman’s badge he does not receive, the wrong ground sheets he takes on the scouting trip, and his near-drowning to his blistered feet when he is forced to go barefoot.
Asked about his religion and given three choices (Christian, Roman Catholic, or Jew), Coetzee answers “Roman Catholic,” even though he and his family are “nothing” religiously, certainly not Catholic. This snap decision, irreversible because he fears the disgrace that would follow the discovery of his ignorance, adds to his minority status (most of his classmates are “Christians”) and marginalizes him with the Jews as targets for prejudice. Having attributed his answer to his reading about ancient Romans, he demonstrates his ability to rationalize his decisions. He follows a similar course politically, choosing the Russians (he points out that both begin with “R,” demonstrating his obsession with language) over the Americans. This choice, one he cannot tell others about, again places him in a minority group and adds to what he considers his uniquely “secretive” nature.
The prejudice Coetzee encounters pales beside the prejudice that so permeates South African society that its practitioners are unaware of the consequences of their behavior. His parents’ ethnic and racial slurs are a part of their lives. While they fear that the Jews are taking over the country, they make an exception for Wolf Heller, the father’s Jewish employer. His mother believes Jews are exploiters but prefers Jewish doctors; she says the Coloured people are the “salt of the earth” but gossips about whites with secret Coloured backgrounds. Coetzee is puzzled by these contradictory beliefs. These contradictions are reflected at his school, where, after his “Christian” classmates emerge from their church services, they seek out the Catholics and Jews and physically abuse them. Because he uses third-person narration, Coetzee, as a boy, can only see contradictory beliefs and practices; readers, on the other hand, see the hypocrisy.
In such a world, retreat and isolation enable Coetzee to avoid trouble. The best student in the class, he nevertheless finds the least obtrusive seat in the classroom. Outside the classroom, he finds, in films, radio, and literature, an opportunity to identify with ideal characters he wishes to emulate. Paul Gallico’s story “The Snow Goose” prompts him to be faithful; The Swiss Family Robinson provides the model of a wise, strong father; and Scott of the Antarctic depicts the sacrificial death of Titus Oates. Coetzee’s adult selection of his boyhood favorites focuses his readers’ attention on parental faults and the protagonist’s self-absorption. Interestingly, the only other person in the family who reads is his father, who knows the works of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, and John Keats; but Coetzee, hardly impartial, dismisses his father’s interest as pretense.
Throughout the book, Coetzee also directs his readers’ attention to his boyhood interest in sex and violence, which are combined in Miss Oosthuizen’s flogging of Rob Hart, a handsome, tall, older classmate of Coetzee. According to Coetzee, these floggings are “spells of ungoverned passion,” and he senses that “there is something going on that he is not privy to.” He admits being attracted to Hart, who represents a “world of sex and beating.” This is a world about which the youthful Coetzee is ambivalent. While he often wishes he could participate in his older relatives’ reminiscences about their beatings and even voices his desire to be beaten so that he could be “normal,” all of his classroom behavior is designed to avoid a beating. His sexual confusion and his desire to belong are reflected in the “scene” involving a controversy over where babies come from: Relying on his mother’s misinformation, his efforts to impress his friends with his sexual knowledge only cast him again in the role of outsider.
His awakening sexual interest manifests itself in his appreciation of naked sculptures in the Children’s Encyclopedia and in his disturbing interest in the “blank and perfect and inexpressive” legs of the Afrikaans boys. Rather than believe that his feelings are “normal,” typical of boys his age, he again chooses to see himself as unique. He is the only boy in whom “this dark erotic current runs,” the “only one who desires.” If he differs from his peers, it is only because he intellectualizes his desires by relating them to language, writing them so he can control them. The obscene slang words are discussed in terms of their “heavy and guttural” sounds, the “inviting s and its mysterious final x.” This link between sex and language is also reflected in his quest to master the Greek language: His “teacher” and friend is Theo Stavropoulos, who is rumored to be a homosexual.
In addition to his developing passion for language, Coetzee finds himself and his identity on his mother’s family farm, which he sees as supplying him with “substance.” On the farm, his mother’s family “are the only people in the world who accept him more or less as he is.” He believes that he belongs to the farm, but he adds that he still, despite his efforts, belongs to his mother. Yet, even in this idyllic landscape, easily associated with innocence, familiar themes recur: He prefers his Uncle Son to his father as a father figure; his mother’s Afrikaans speech wars against his father’s English, and he is forced to speak Afrikaans; he goes hunting, but he and the family must resort to night hunting; and he learns why he must not have the Natives handle his gun. Coetzee selects this conformity: The sheep who submit to their slaughter “have calculated the price and are prepared to pay for it—the price of being on earth, the price of being alive.”
Coetzee presents himself as one apart, a loner who is unwilling to submit; and, in fact, although he mentions “friends,” there are few of them who receive more than passing mention. Even his brother receives little attention. The friends he does have are members of “minority” groups: Theo is Greek and a suspected homosexual; Eddie is a Coloured boyhood friend servant; and his cousin Agnes, whom he seems close to, is a girl.
Coetzee is also close to his Aunt Annie, who has a storeroom full of books, among them his great-grandfather Ewige Genesing’s autobiography with a subtitle that links it thematically to Coetzee’s own life: Through a Dangerous Malady to Eternal Healing. The book focuses on boyhood traumas and foreshadows Coetzee’s eventual emergence from his own “malady” to his career as an established writer and academician. After his aunt dies, Coetzee asks only about the whereabouts of his great-grandfather’s autobiography, and he chooses to conclude his own book with his childhood musings about himself as a storyteller: “How will he keep them all in his head, all the books, all the people, all the stories? And if he does not remember them, who will?” This emphasis on “stories” and the reference to “scenes” in the title both reflect the structure of Coetzee’s book, which is not a typical autobiographical work that proceeds in a linear manner. Coetzee is more interested in selecting certain events and characters that are then tied to his development as a writer. Moreover, his choice of third-person narration also gives his readers two perspectives on these events and characters, one from a boy’s eyes and one from an adult’s. The result is an interesting reading experience.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLXXX, October, 1997, p. 117.
Booklist. XCIII, August, 1997, p. 1869.
Houston Chronicle. November 2, 1997, p. Z25.
Library Journal. CXXII, September 1, 1997, p. 181.
The New York Review of Books. XLIV, November 20, 1997, p. 24.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, November 2, 1997, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, July 28, 1997, p. 59.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. November 2, 1997, p. D5.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, September 21, 1997, p. 1.