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May 2010

A biographer's virtues

by Carl Rollyson

Summertime: Fiction
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Novelists enjoy taking revenge on biographers. A typical example of this phenomenon is William Golding’s The Paper Men (1984), in which a biographer is featured as a snoop digging through his subject’s kitchen pail. Only in rare instances do biographers not come off as second-raters and sensationalists, as in Bernard Malamud’s Dubin’s Lives (1979). But no writer of distinction has definitively challenged the line Henry James laid down in The Aspern Papers (1888), where the biographer is dismissed as a “publishing scoundrel.” Thus J. M. Coetzee’s Summertime is quite a surprise.

Rather than focusing on the unseemly prying biographer—a young Englishman named only as Vincent, about whom we learn very little—the subject, Coetzee himself (or rather his fictional persona, since the Coetzee of the novel is deceased) draws most of the fire. The biographer’s interviewees, who represent quite a range of ages, nationalities, genders, and occupations, come to remarkably similar conclusions about Coetzee: He was not much of a lover and did not demonstrate the genius that would be expected of a Nobel Prize winner. “Women didn’t fall for him,” reports Dr. Julia Frankl, who had an affair with the writer. His cousin Margot Jonker wonders what happened to the brilliant boy she once loved and why he has become a drifter living with his father. To Adrianna Nascimento, a Brazilian woman who spurned Coetzee’s advances, he is a fool and hardly a man at all. But wait! It gets worse: Sophie Denoël, one of Coetzee’s colleagues who taught a course with him, concludes he is an overrated writer devoid of originality.

The interviews make powerful, compelling reading because the voices are so distinctive. The biographer rarely interjects himself. He asks questions and occasionally responds to his interviewee’s queries, fending off their hostile comments about biographers as gossip-mongers by blandly announcing that they can excise whatever they deem inappropriate from his narrative. The only male interviewee, Martin, is concerned that Vincent’s interest in Coetzee’s personal life will come “at the expense of the man’s actual achievement as a writer.” But this objection is raised perfunctorily and does not merit the attention some reviewers give it as an example of the novel’s supposedly anti-biographical theme.

Quite often the biographer maintains silence in the face of provocative comments calling his integrity into question. He is there to get the story and remains thoroughly professional. As a result, so much of the palaver about the indiscretions of biographers seems petty—especially compared to this engrossing investigation of how friends, family, and lovers assess the man they knew. They are far harder on him than any biographer could possibly be.

Coetzee has used himself—or should we say a simulacrum of himself—to show that biography has a powerful a story to tell, regardless of who is hurt and whose privacy is violated. Coetzee seems an anomaly among modern authors, many of whom put their energies into thwarting biographers and trashing the genre. In contrast, Coetzee addresses the profound human need biography satisfies. It is as if he said to himself, “I cannot control what others have thought of me. In fact, there is a pattern of such reactions that some biographer is bound to shape into a narrative. So why not take a whack at it myself?”

For Coetzee, the biographer is not the issue. In Summertime, we do not even learn Vincent’s full name, let alone the experiences that led him to pick his subject— his motivations are not the point. On the contrary, Coetzee seems to realize that he has drawn the world to himself, and the world will find him out. A biography is not something he owes the public; it is just inevitable, no matter what he does and no matter what kind of life he has fashioned.

In so far as the biographer does present a brief for his work, it is mainly this idea that Coetzee belongs to the world and no permission or authorization is required to write Coetzee’s life. The biographer tells this to one of his wary informants, but at the same time he acknowledges that each of his interviewees knew Coetzee in a particular way and that he wants to preserve their memories. At first, it may seem that Vincent is ceding too much when he agrees to omit certain stories, but the overall pattern of the testimony is so persuasive that eliminating this or that iteration of it hardly matters.

Is this novel a disguised autobiography? The question seems to be dismissed in Summertime when Vincent remarks that Coetzee was a “fictioneer”: “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.” Such comments level the playing field on which biography and autobiography are the contestants. In effect, there is no unimpeachable standard of truth by which a biography can be found wanting. Thus the extracts from the fictive Coetzee’s notebooks do nothing to undermine the biographer’s work.

Summertime is that rare novel that grants biography its autonomy and treats the biographer as an independent agent, not a parasite or a hanger-on to someone else’s life. It is also a work of fiction that perhaps will break the mold Henry James cast for biography, one that has bedeviled its practitioners for more than a century.


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, CUNY
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 May 2010, on page 71
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