Friday, 10 April 2009

Youth - J.M. Coetzee

Read: June 2008

Following his critically acclaimed childhood biography, Boyhood, Coetzee returns to the realms of fictionalised biography to chronicle his, well, youth. We find John in the middle of university, trying to reconcile his instinctive appreciation for the simplicity of maths with his yearning to be a poet. He is surrounded by youth, can imagine nothing outside it. In the best traditions of literature, he is the young man who dreams of being great but knows not where to begin, who sees life being lived all around him but has no idea how to be involved in it. As with Milan Kundera’s young poet Jaromil, life is always elsewhere, to be chased down and lived to the very fullest extent. Women are at best a mystery to him, he is socially uncomfortable and introverted. He wants to get away from the scenes of his childhood, but is not sure where exactly to go. Paris is the bohemian capital of poetic youth, but he speaks no French. So he opts for London, and heads off on a grand adventure, his chance to turn life into art.

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.

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

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