The main themes in Summertime are fiction versus reality, confession and atonement, and unrequited love.
- Fiction versus reality: There are multiple layers of reality and invention in Summertime. John Coetzee, the late subject, is a writer who uses those in his life as material for fiction. He is himself a fictionalization of the book’s author, J. M. Coetzee.
- Confession and atonement: The book questions the function of confessing mistakes. Does it actually help the person who is wronged, or only the person who confesses?
- Unrequited love: John struggles to find a woman whose interest matches his.
Fiction Versus Reality
In Summertime, Coetzee writes about himself as a fictional character through the viewpoint of fictional characters. The John Coetzee of the work has similar tendencies, creating problems for his biographer, Mr. Vincent, who notes,
In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing much the same for his own eyes, or perhaps for posterity.
John even fictionalized his father as a character in his book Dusklands, telling the older Coetzee nothing of this. Through the eyes of those who knew John, then, Vincent hopes to gain a clearer picture of his subject than he can from the man’s own words.
Several interviewees look for the truth of John’s inner life through his fiction writing, unable to find it in their everyday interactions with him. Julia says that, though John was “in love” with her,
He never wrote about me. I never entered his books. Which to me means I never quite flowered within him, never quite came to life.
Adriana, with whom John also had a relationship, concludes,
If he was in love, it was not with me, it was with some fantasy that he dreamed up in his own brain and gave my name to.
She asks Vincent whether she is wrong about him, for “I never read his books.” She wonders if the real man is to be found in his books and if, in this case, fiction is more accurate than reality.
In recasting his interview with Margot as a narrative, Vincent adds another level of confusion between fiction and reality. After he describes a romantic interlude between Margot and her husband, she says,
You can’t write that. You can’t. You are just making things up.
Vincent promises to let her cut whatever she wishes “when I have finished,” but the blurring of fiction and reality has already occurred. Ultimately, John’s former colleague and lover Sophie wonders,
What if we all continually make up the stories of our lives?
The blending of reality and fiction is an essential part of the structure and content of this fictitious memoir.
Confession and Atonement
Confession and forgiveness—or the lack thereof—are a recurrent motif throughout Summertime. Julia regards John’s writing as “a sort of unending cathartic exercise.” Only in his writing could the closed-off John truly confess, thereby expressing the emotional honesty he was unable to communicate in person. Confession does not always lead to forgiveness, however; when Julia’s husband confessed his infidelity, for example, she cursed at him and locked herself in the bathroom. She notes,
After his confession did not win him the approval he was expecting, he turned to lying.
The purpose of confession, therefore, may be either selfish or a true attempt at atonement. To Vincent, Julia confesses her neglect of her own father:
I hope that in the afterlife we will get a chance, each of us, to say our sorries to the people we have wronged.
She uses her regret to motivate a new career as a therapist “to save people from being treated as my father was treated” in the sanatorium. Unable to receive forgiveness from her father, she seeks through proxies to right her wrongs.
In a bleak extract from one of John’s notebooks, confession does no good at all. John destroyed an operatic record of his father’s by scoring it with a razor blade, then denied responsibility for the damage. He wrote (referring to himself in the third person),
For that mean and petty deed of his he has for the past twenty years felt the bitterest remorse.
He confessed his selfish act to his own notebook, but never to his father—and thus no absolution could be gained. When he bought a substitute record for his father, the elder Coetzee could no longer recognize and enjoy the music he once loved: some wrongs, it seems, cannot be righted.
“What is the one theme that keeps recurring from book to book?” Julia notices of John’s work. “It is that the woman doesn’t fall in love with the man.” Summertime includes several examples of unrequited love, which are usually explained by John’s failings. “John wasn’t made for love. . . . There was no way to connect with him,” Julia observes—yet when John did offer genuine comfort, Julia hesitated and didn’t reciprocate. “He and I didn’t fit,” she says, and ultimately, the lack of connection went both ways.
At the age of six, John said to Margot,
I was unburdening my heart to you. . . . And all the time I was thinking, So this is what it means to be in love!
Margot muses soon after that the Coetzees have “too much heart” but also tend to drift and take the path of least resistance. “She had placed her hopes in John,” hoping that he would reverse this narrative, but she found that “he was blessed with the chance and he did not make use of it.” His incompetence and failure were demonstrated when the car he claimed to have repaired broke down, stranding the two of them. Thus, Margot’s fondness for John, which once bordered on romantic, turned to bitterness:
What woman with any sense would want to devote herself to the hapless John?
Men must prove their love through competence and emotion—but not too much. To Margot, John doubted whether he should have returned to South Africa. “Cut yourself free of what you love and hope that the wound heals,” he concluded. Rejected by women, he also felt unrequited love even from the land of his birth.
Adriana noticed her daughter’s crush on John and warned him off, and he responded by pursuing a romance with Adriana herself. She did not reciprocate, for he did not suit her ideals of manhood. She says,
For me it was not natural to have feelings for a man like that, a man who was so soft. . . . He was not a man, he was still a boy.
She believes that John was more interested in being in love than in the actual object of his affections: “Maybe he found someone else to be in love with.” Sophie, too, presumes that John moved on to someone else after her, as she moved on without him:
Unless you have a strong presence you do not leave a deep imprint; and John did not have a strong presence.
He did not deserve long-term love because of his own failings, the women conclude—yet it may have been impossible for him to succeed.
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