The main characters in Summertime are John Coetzee, Mr. Vincent, and the interviewees.
- John Coetzee is a fictionalization of Summertime’s author, J. M. Coetzee. John passed away before the interviews take place.
- Mr. Vincent is John’s biographer and conducts the interviews that make up much of the book.
- The interviewees include Dr. Julia Frankl, a therapist who had an affair with John; Margot Jonker, John’s cousin; Adriana Nascimento, who spurned John’s romantic advances; Martin, John’s colleague at the University of Cape Town; and Sophie Denoël, also a colleague, with whom John had a brief romantic relationship.
A fictionalized version of Summertime’s author, J. M. Coetzee, John Coetzee passed away in the early 2000s. Through the viewpoints of five people who knew him in life, different and mainly unflattering facets of John’s cryptic character are revealed. He had limited success in his pursuit both of an academic career and of love, romance, and sex. His early lover Julia recalls him as a shambling recluse with “an air of failure,” while his cousin Margot observes,
Of the Coetzee men, he was the one blessed with the best chance . . . and he did not make use of it.
As a white South African who studied literature in the United States, John was unable to impress objects of affection with his background or University of Cape Town interviewers with his education. He was troubled by his presence in South Africa as a white individual—a relic of colonialism—yet he co-taught a class on black African literature with another white instructor to mostly white students. His ex-lover Sophie grants that “he was not awarded the Nobel Prize for nothing,” but she sees his writing as “lack[ing] ambition. . . . Too lacking in passion.”
Mr. Vincent is John Coetzee’s biographer. He began his project during John’s lifetime but chose never to meet with his subject so that he could write a biography without preconceived notions. Vincent’s goal is “telling the story of a stage in [John’s] life, or if we can’t have a single story then several stories from different perspectives.” Vincent prefers interviews over John’s own documents due to John’s tendency to confabulate. When interviewing Julia, Vincent refers to his proposed book as an academic text, and when speaking to Sophie, he calls it a “seriously intended biography”—yet he turns his initial interview with Margot into a fictionalized narrative with aspects Margot insists she never communicated. Vincent is English and married, with a son who is almost four years old.
A widower who lived with his son John in a crumbling house in the Tokai suburb of Cape Town, the elderly Mr. Coetzee was in poor health. He had a second son who lived in England and whom he disliked to discuss. He spoke English with a strong Afrikaans accent and seemed “unbearably sorrowful” to Julia. To Margot, John admitted that the elder Coetzee had only a tiny pension on which to live and that he could probably never retire from his bookkeeping job despite his frailty.
Dr. Julia Frankl (née Smith)
Twenty-six when she met John at a grocery store in 1972, Julia was at the time an attractive married mother of a toddler. Julia initiated an affair with John after learning of her husband Mark’s infidelity with a coworker. She sees herself as having been the dominant and seductive force in her relationship with John. After her daughter, Chrissie, grew up, Julia returned to college and studied science and medicine en route to becoming a therapist. Her motivation for this course of study was her guilt and dismay about her elderly father’s poor treatment in a sanatorium after he began to develop dementia.
Julia’s ex-husband and the father of her daughter, Mark was an investment manager for the wealthy who traveled a great deal for his job. He was unfaithful to Julia and enjoyed her sexual awakening after she began a secret affair with John. Julia saw Mark not as a fellow adult but as “about thirteen. . . . In respect of maturity [he] was therefore closer to the child than he was to me.” In 1988, Mark and Julia divorced.
Margot, John’s cousin, initially recalls him fondly and even had youthful plans to marry him. At the time of John’s Christmas visit to South Africa in the 1970s, Margot had been married to Lukas, a sheep farmer, for ten years. She worked as a bookkeeper in Calvinia, living apart from her husband all week and returning home to Roggeveld for the weekend. Lukas and Margot had no children, though she yearned for them, and she considered herself barren. After Margot took a trip with John, during which John’s car broke down and stranded them overnight, her fond feelings turned bitter: “she had hoped for much from John, and he ha[d] failed her.”
Lukas, Margot’s husband, drove her to work in the city every week and returned to their poorly-producing farm. He supplemented his income transporting animals for slaughter. Margot believed Lukas would be “the best of fathers” and mourned their childlessness.
Margot’s sister and John’s cousin, Carol is married to a German engineer who was, at the time Margot recalls, eager to leave South Africa for the United States. A chic dresser and a cosmopolitan among farmers, Carol nevertheless regarded herself as an Afrikaner and saw the English as uppity. Carol rejected John upon his return to South Africa, as she believed his tarnished reputation would threaten her ability to emigrate.
Adriana is a Brazilian-born dancer. She and her husband lived in Angola (he working for a newspaper, she for a ballet troupe) before leaving for greater opportunity in Cape Town. She is widowed and has two daughters, Joana and Maria Regina, the latter of whom took English classes from John. Adriana was protective of her daughters and warned John away from taking special interest in Maria Regina. When he instead began writing to Adriana, she stored his numerous letters with indifference and eventually discarded them. In 1977, she and her daughters returned to São Paolo.
Joana and Maria Regina Nascimento
Joana and Maria Regina are Adriana’s daughters. When they lived in Cape Town, Adriana’s elder daughter, Joana, was dutiful, while Maria Regina, John’s student, was rebellious and chafed under her mother’s questioning about the poetry John taught. Adriana believed that Maria Regina was infatuated with John, who seemed to be playing with her feelings. As an adult, Maria Regina lives in Chicago with her second husband.
Martin was the winner of an English literature lectureship at the University of Cape Town for which John also applied. Like John, Martin is a white South African. He and John eventually co-taught a course on poetry, which left Martin unimpressed by John’s teaching abilities.
An instructor in the University of Cape Town’s Department of French, Sophie collaborated with John on an African literature class once he joined the English faculty. Sophie’s marriage ended while she lived in Cape Town, and her husband returned to their native France. A onetime lover of John’s, Sophie broke off their affair when John proved unwilling for their relationship to alter. She read some of his work and was relieved not to see herself in its pages, then lost interest in his writing.
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