Summertime Summary
by J. M. Coetzee

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Summertime Summary

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.

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Summary

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:...

(The entire section is 1,318 words.)