The self-sustaining anguish of the provincial mind is an enduring theme of classic French fiction. Flaubert subtitled Madame Bovary, the story of a farmer’s daughter who longs for the glamour and vitality of Paris but gets only as far as Rouen, Moeurs de province–Customs of the Province. And Balzac called a crucial grouping of novels–including Lost Illusions and Eugénie Grandet–within La Comédie humaine, his vast cycle of almost 80 novels, Scènes de la vie de province–Scenes From Provincial Life. At 20, J.M. Coetzee, an unabashed Francophile, was convinced that: “The French are the most civilized people in the world.” Like Eugene Rastignac, Julien Sorel, Emma Bovary, and other French characters who seek to leave behind their rustic roots, he found his native country, South Africa, stultifying and embarrassing. Rejecting the Afrikaner culture that begot apartheid and his boorish Boer relatives, Coetzee came to believe that: “South Africa is like an albatross around his neck. He wants it removed, he does not care how, so that he can begin to breathe.” In homage to Balzac and contempt for his own origins, Coetzee subtitled Boyhood, the 1998 memoir of his life between 10 and 13, Scenes from Provincial Life. Youth, the new sequel to that memoir, covers Coetzee’s years from 19 to 24, and, though in it the author manages to escape from Cape Town, its subtitle is Scenes From Provincial Life II. Like Milton’s hell, Coetzee’s province is a state of mind, and wherever he goes he drags it with him.
He goes to London, after completing his studies in math at the University of Cape Town. Though London was his lodestar (“There are two, perhaps three places in the world where life can be lived at its fullest intensity: London, Paris, perhaps Vienna”), Coetzee finds the capital of the Commonwealth to be as disappointing as Dorothy finds Oz. His final months in Cape Town had been desolate. Living on his own in what is, despite a few sordid sexual encounters, anchorite solitude, Coetzee imagines a more glorious destiny than conscription into the South African Defense Force and dreams of transformation through the transcendent powers of love and art. He is attracted to the purity of math but determined to make his mark as a poet. In London, “city of romance,” Coetzee sets out to acquire social cover and financial support while privately pursuing his art. He accepts a job as a computer programmer with IBM and finds himself as alienated and miserable as he ever was growing up near the Cape of Good Hope.
Youth is a literary hair shirt, an exercise in self-abasement all the more excruciating given its author’s illustrious accomplishments. The only novelist ever to win the hallowed Booker Prize twice (for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999), Coetzee has, through eight books of fiction and seven of nonfiction, become one of the pre-eminent intellectuals in the world. He has earned the right to triumphal autobiography, the portrait of an artist who overcomes handicaps and adversities to attain literary majesty. Yet, like Coetzee’s most recent novel, Youth is the story of a man in disgrace. In prose as spare as its analysis is unsparing, it exposes the false conceptions and missteps of a willful wallflower; “at the deepest level,” we are told, “he can see no reason why people need to dance.” Written in the present tense using a third-person pronoun that makes the protagonist (He) as much of a stranger to himself as he is to the chilly English among whom he lives and labors, Youth even lacks the redemptive ending that is the conventional reward for both hero and reader. On its final page, Coetzee is “locked into an attenuating endgame, playing himself, with each move, further into a corner and into defeat.”
When he arrives in England, Coetzee catalogues some of the handicaps that he, an outsider from a disreputable nation, must try to overcome: “An undistinguished, rural family, bad schooling, the Afrikaans language.” Yet, like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, he keeps demonstrating the capacity, indeed the propensity, to make matters worse. This is most apparent in his needy, joyless sexual connections with a series of women for whom he feels no passion. One ends with an abortion, all with bad blood. In most cases, such as his seduction of the virgin Marianne, his cousin’s best friend, and his deceitful treatment of Astrid, a callow Austrian au pair, a reader is inclined to agree with Coetzee’s own assessment that he behaves like a cad.
“Misery is his element,” we are told. “He is at home in misery like a fish in water. If misery were to be abolished, he would not know what to do with himself.” Youth is a chronicle of misery by an author who has never ceased to tread its turbid backwaters. A connoisseur of torment who once believed that “His sole talent is for misery, dull, honest misery,” Coetzee has retained that talent, but he is now neither dull nor honest. Youth, the cunning record of his bleak English years is, despite its insistence on disappointment and desolation, curiously bracing. It is as invigorating as donning the hair of the dog that bit you–or as reading the prose of Samuel Beckett, the Irish-French master whose papers Coetzee would later discover at the Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas, and who became the subject of the dissertation he wrote for a 1969 doctorate from the University of Texas.
In the early 1960s, computers, owned by only a few institutions throughout the world, none in South Africa, were bulky contraptions that one programmed by feeding them large packs of specially perforated cards. With his training in math and his interest in logic, Coetzee seemed a natural for work with this new technology. However, after training sessions at IBM’s London branch, he chafes at the dreary task of computer programming. Stationed in the sterile cubicle assigned him by the multinational corporation, Coetzee finds the job merely tedious. It lacks the passionate intensity that drew him to London in the first place. When he resigns, none of the managers at IBM who interrogate him can fathom why. “I don’t find working for IBM very satisfying at a human level,” he tries to explain. “I don’t find it fulfilling.” Weeks later, forced to find income and to give Britain a reason to renew his visa, Coetzee takes a similar job with another company, called International Computers. The position obliges him to move out of London, to Berkshire, and, though the working conditions are somewhat more cheerful, he, a failure at both love and art, feels he has slid irretrievably into the slough of despond.
Through it all, as if to account in part for how he will eventually overcome emotional and creative paralysis enough to write about it, Coetzee documents his progress as a reader. He recalls enthusiasms for Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Lawrence. Pursuing a Master’s degree in absentia from the University of Cape Town, he conducts research on Ford Madox Ford but is disappointed by Ford’s work beyond The Good Soldier and the four novels that constitute Parade’s End. In a second-hand bookstore off Charing Cross Road, Coetzee discovers Beckett’s novel Watt. “How could he have imagined he wanted to write in the manner of Ford when Beckett was around all the time?” he asks. Beckett’s precise, pitiless prose–”no clash, no conflict, just the flow of a voice telling a story, a flow continually checked by doubts and scruples, its pace fitted exactly to the pace of his own mind”–will be a model for Waiting for the Barbarians, In the Heart of the Country, and Youth itself, as well as the inspiration for a dissertation completed half a dozen years later, half a world away. In the great, domed Reading Room of the old British Library, Coetzee comes across a text by a South African pioneer of the 1820s, and it helps him to define further his own ambition: “write a book as convincing as Burchell’s and lodge it in this library that defines all libraries.”
Like IBM, International Computers occasionally requires Coetzee to share skills and resources with the military. Sympathetic with the nuclear disarmament movement and suspicious that the West does not represent the right side of the Cold War, Coetzee follows orders but questions whether he is being complicitous with evil: “In his opinion, the British ought to take their lead from the French and get out of NATO, leaving the Americans and their new chums the West Germans to pursue their grudge against Russia.” As Youth ends, Coetzee does not yet know that in a few months he will be living among the Americans, for most of the Vietnam War. His graduate work in Texas will further confirm him in his literary calling, though he will feel as much of an outcast in Austin, where, according to a 1984 essay, the inhabitants seemed like “Trobriand Islanders, so inaccessible to me were their culture, their recreations, their animating ideas,” as he is in London. The next installment to Coetzee’s memoirs will surely be set in the Texas capital and subtitled Scenes From Provincial Life III.
Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is author of The Translingual Imagination.