Summertime is a fictionalized memoir by J. M. Coetzee.
- The book is composed of interviews between a biographer and five people who knew the late writer John Coetzee. It begins and ends with material from John’s notebook.
- John was in brief romantic relationships with two of the interview subjects, Julia and Sophie. One, Adriana, was uninterested in a relationship with him.
- The other interview subjects are John’s cousin, Margot, whose interview is written into a narrative by the biographer, and Martin, John’s colleague at the University of Cape Town.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The novel Summertime is composed largely of interviews between a biographer, Mr. Vincent, and five subjects who knew the late John Coetzee (a fictionalized version of author J. M. Coetzee). The book opens with pieces from John’s notebooks between 1972 and 1975, as he struggled to maintain a household with his widower father. Living in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, they witnessed racial violence and political scandal, which John mined for material. He also described the physical labor of shoring up his house’s rotten walls and observed his lack of success compared to a former classmate.
The first interview subject, Dr. Julia Frankl, met John in 1972, when he was twenty-six. Because he was “neither rich nor handsome nor appealing,” she concluded that he must be clever. Upon learning of her husband’s infidelity, Julia initiated sex with John. John avoided her thereafter until Julia wrote him a letter; he then invited her and her two-year-old daughter to have dinner with him and his father. The Coetzees served a simple meal that Julia scorned, though she respected John’s care for his father. Her own father, suffering from dementia, was neglected in a sanatorium.
Because Julia regarded her own infidelity as a mistake, she forgave her husband, Mark, for his. Soon, though, she learned that he planned to resume his affair on a trip to Hong Kong. While he was gone, she restarted her sexual relationship with John, and he gave her a pre-publication proof of his debut novel, Dusklands. They disagreed about the purpose of writing, an intellectual argument Julia enjoyed, but fought when John insisted that the two try to time their lovemaking to Schubert’s music. Julia was uninterested:
The whole business struck me as forced, ridiculous. Somehow or other my remoteness communicated itself to John.
Julia’s hesitation “really annoyed” John. “He didn’t like his pet theories to be made fun of,” she says.
When Mark returned from Hong Kong, he found a used condom in his and Julia’s bedroom. The resulting fight left Julia feeling “like a spanked child,” and she decamped to a hotel. Mark locked her out of the house and freezed her bank accounts, so Julia asked John for help. He made love with her at the hotel, but left while she was asleep—an abandonment Julia still finds unforgivable. Though he invited her to stay at his house, she soon ended their affair.
The interview with John’s cousin Margot has been stitched into a narrative by the interviewer; this narrative is interspersed with Margot’s comments, some of which show that she is troubled by the interviewer’s interpretation and narration of her story. Margot recalls a Christmas when John returned disgraced to the family farm in Voëlfontein after years abroad and various legal troubles. Margot bonded with John over shared memories and worried over his frail father, while her sister, Carol, was critical of John’s diet, appearance, and manner.
On a drive to the declining town of Merweville, where signs of apartheid were vanishing, John showed Margot a property he was considering buying for his father. She found the place shabby and declined to look inside. John’s car overheated as they drove back, and he was unable to repair it. Stranded overnight, the two told stories until John fell asleep. Margot regards both his sleep and his inability to maintain the car as evidence of family failings: choosing the easy path because of lack of courage.
In the morning, John walked back to Merweville, then returned to the car to get Margot on a donkey cart with a man headed to Voëlfontein. When the...
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two reached the family farm, Carol criticized John’s plan to buy property, saying,
His ambition is to be a poet . . . . This Merweville scheme has nothing to do with his father’s welfare.
Margot asked him about it the following day, and he denied writing poetry. He admitted that he was unsure whether it was a good decision for him to return to South Africa, “where I have never fitted in.”
After Margot and her husband left the Christmas gathering, she wrote John a letter exhorting him to marry. John replied formally, hurting her feelings. Margot did not write again, preoccupied with Carol’s long-desired move to the United States. After the move, Carol and Margot’s elderly mother was to live with Margot. Soon after, Ma experienced a health crisis and was hospitalized in Cape Town, so Margot called John for help. The Tokai home he shared with his father was close by, and John brought Margot to stay with them. She was dismayed at the house’s dinginess, telling John,
You could change your fate tomorrow if you would just put your mind to it.
When they returned to the hospital, John refused to see Ma and said she wouldn’t know him.
The third interview, conducted through a translator, is with Adriana Nascimento, a Brazilian-born immigrant to Cape Town. Widowed when her husband was attacked during a workplace robbery, she taught dance classes, and her older daughter, Joana, worked at a grocery store. Her younger daughter, Maria Regina, took English classes from John, who made the students recite poetry. Concerned about John’s skills and the content of the class, Adriana invited him to tea. She was unimpressed with his manner and his Afrikaner background and believed he was leading her daughter on. She warned him off the next day in a note, to which he replied with an invitation to a picnic with him and his father. The outing was ruined due to rain, but Adriana was not displeased by the day, as John’s limitations became clear to the infatuated Maria Regina.
John pursued a romance with Adriana, but she refused to reply to his letters. He then enrolled in one of her dance classes. Disturbed by his presence and ineptitude, she asked him to leave both her and her daughter alone, then removed Maria Regina from John’s class. This drove a wedge between mother and daughter. John eventually dropped the dance class and sent a final letter, which Adriana returned unread.
The fourth interviewee, Martin, was a candidate alongside John for a position in English literature at the University of Cape Town. After John’s job interview, Martin invited him to tea. They discussed being white relics of colonialism in South Africa, a topic and conversation to which John later alluded in a fragmentary memoir. Martin won the university post, and he and John eventually co-taught a course on poetry. John was a poor teacher, Martin believes, only wanting the security of a paycheck.
Summertime’s fifth interview is with Sophie Denöel, a former French instructor at the University of Cape Town. In 1976, she and John collaborated on an African literature class. Both white, they attracted mainly white students at a time when “politics pushed its way into everything”—probably because John was “anti-political,” in Sophie’s estimation, more interested in utopias than in reality. They began a brief affair, during which John gave Sophie a copy of his manuscript In the Heart of the Country. She noted his troubled identity as a white South African who rejected nationalist politics but was nostalgic for his youth. Ultimately, their relationship ended because Sophie wanted it to progress, and John wanted it—like South Africa—to remain the same.
The book’s final section consists of undated fragments from John’s notebooks, most relating to his relationship with his father. The last extract recounts when John’s father developed laryngeal cancer. After surgery, the older man lost the ability to speak and was sent home with intense health needs. John had to choose between either neglecting his writing to care for his father or neglecting his father:
There is no third way.
His choice is left unclear to the reader.