Youth (J M Coetzee)


When we discussed this at Try Books!  people said it was very well-written, but many were severely irritated by the unsympathetic protagonist and so found it hard to enjoy the book.  Although brevity also counted in its favour.

The book is a fictionalised memoir of Coetzee’s time at university and as a young man in London and Bracknell.  He certainly spares no pains in making the protagonist antipathetic, and succeeds admirably.

My own reactions were rather more complicated.  I certainly enjoyed the classical economy with which he shows us the hero doing something and you see him and his setting and his relation to his setting without it all having to be spelled out in painful detail.  But on a second reading I found the repeated questionings about the nature and mission of the artist a bit deadening and distancing.

Coetzee lived the experiences he described in the first person and the past tense, but he describes them in the third person and the present tense.  This both distances them and prevents easy identification (third person) and holds them in front of your eyes so you can’t get away from them or put them in perspective (present tense).

Try Books! wanted to know what the point of the book was.  My first answer was that it was a kind of anti-Bildungsroman, or a satire on the genre.  Instead of the hero experiencing inner growth as the result of his experiences and so becoming an artist and getting the girl, he feels lonely and miserable and unable to cope.  And doesn’t write anything.  Moreover, instead of the eternal feminine drawing him upwards, the idea of the one woman with whom he will be consumed in mutual passion makes it impossible for him to have a normal relationship with real women.

But I’m not sure it’s only the young Coetzee who is being shown up.  If you consider the actual biographical facts presented here, the hero supports himself through university, lives with a woman a decade older than him, has sex with what seems to be rather a lot of women, successfully establishes himself in a new country and works at the cutting edge of technology with the cleverest men of that country, completes a higher degree…That’s all rather imposing, but we don’t see it–it’s hidden in plain view.

So who’s inadequate now?

Perhaps he’s still the same old clever young man saying I’ll show you all these things and you won’t see them, because you’re stupid and I’m not.

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