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...
(The entire section is 1,140 words.)