Read: June 2008
It is the 1960’s, the worlds’ youth is living life to its fullest, finding colour and joy in creativity and free love. But in London, John just finds more of himself. He gets a job working as a computer programmer for IBM and is soon living a bland life of monotony with everyone else. He has a few loveless affairs which fail to inspire passion but otherwise lives an increasingly lonely life. But silently, almost impossibly for this genre of novel, young John is beginning to grow up.
Youth takes its title from Joseph Conrad’s great novella of romantic wonder and youth which ends with the immortal phrase: ‘Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour – of youth.’ And this is exactly what we have presented here: the transience of youth. There is not the comic satire of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere, nor the striving of a Dostoyevskyan character, or the raging anger of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, but what there is, is the possibility of future, of a life outside the absurdity of youth. As the novel draws to a close, things begin to work themselves out for John. He finds a job that he is relatively good at and from which he can gain some simple satisfaction, discovers he is pretty good at cricket, and has other talents of which he never suspected. He stops thinking that there is only one way to be a great poet, that he must live exactly like Flaubert or Pound in order to write great works. In short, he comes to realise that life cannot be lived prescriptively, cannot be worried about forever: after a while, you just have to get on with it.
This does not mean that he is suddenly talking mortgage prices and local schools. It is less specific than that. He is just growing up, evolving into his adult self. No longer fighting the world but letting it come to him. And what a pleasure these subtle changes are. Youth is one of the most focused portrayals of the temporary mindset of youth that you are likely to read. Like all Coetzee’s work, it is impeccably imagined, intelligent, graceful, and sparse. Poetic youth may be old literary ground, but Coetzee manages to say something original, something which has been long overdue saying. As a work of fiction Youth is engrossing, well characterised, and involving. As a biography of one of our greatest living authors, it demonstrates a clarity of self awareness which is both rare and a delight.
Coetzee is currently finishing off a sequel to Youth, for publication sometime in 2009 or 2010. I cannot wait to join John once more, to see how mature adulthood will find him. If it is anywhere near as perceptive as this, then it promises to be a very great work indeed.
7.5 out of 10