Thursday, 24 December 2009

Boyhood - J.M. Coetzee

Day 9 of the Books, Time, and Silence 10 Days of Christmas

Read: August 2009

in one Tweet-sized chunk:
One of the richest and most rewarding insights into the experience of childhood you will ever read.

is the first of John Coetzee's fictionalised biographies, telling the story of his childhood, from birth through to adolescence. Told with the redolent economic prose and exact lyricism that won him the Nobel Prize, it is a searingly self aware, 'warts and all' view of childhood in 1940s and 50s South Africa and an insight into the mentality of the man Coetzee feels himself to be.

We meet John aged eight or nine, a precocious child with an appetite for learning but few social skills. Outside the homestead he is a shy, retiring type, but at home he becomes something of a tyrant, a demanding and difficult child who craves and disdains love in equal measure.

The Coetzee's live in Worcester, a small city 90 miles from Cape Town in the Afrikaner heartlands of the Karoo. They are middle class Africaner, who by virtue of education “prefer to be English”. His father, a government official/lawyer, has a tendency toward alcohol, and his mother believes that “studying is just nonsense”. Although he has a brother who barely appears, John is a solitary child, a sickly and bookish boy with an active imagination. When choosing sides in the Cold War he picks the Russians because the capital R is “the strongest of all the letters.” He spins glorious fantasies of Troy and of British valour at Dunkirk and devises an automated bowling machine so he can play cricket alone in the garden. He is happiest when he is playing by himself.

for all his precocity, John is distinctly unimpressed with the sort of person he is. Boyhood chronicles not only the promise that literature provides him for escape from provincial tedium, but the weakness and vulnerability of childhood too. He is only too aware of his social shortcomings, and lives a life of doubt, anxiety and self-derision. He is haunted by what seem to be routine and harmless events: getting his hair cut is a “remorseless” experience that leaves him “squirming with shame”, while the very idea of being late for school precipitates nightmares in which “he weeps in helpless despair”.

At school he is an outsider whatever he does. Unlike the other kids he has never been caned, and lives in perpetual fear of it happening. He would like to be beaten, if only once, in order to fit in. It becomes a right of passage to him, but one he cannot bring himself to effect. He tries to go bare foot like the Afrikaans boys, but when his feet hurt instead of sympathy is met by derision from the other boys. When forced to specify his religion at school he makes a spur of the moment decision to identify as Catholic and finds himself ostracised, not only from the protestant and Anglican majority, but the other Catholics who mistrust him and suspect he has lied.

Behind all of this lies apartheid: silent and insidious and vile. If his mother calls to a black man in the street they must come and do her bidding. There are no black children at the school. Yet the apartheid isn't the only social tension, the Afrikaners are ostracised too, their language, poverty and rural ways making them almost as maligned. It is a world the young John feels horribly uncomfortable in, but he is too young to understand quite why. He wants to write, and if he did he would write about “something dark,” something that reflects the world he lives in.

What he does understand is the dynamics of his family. He spends much of his time dissecting and evaluating them, establishing his role within the family and the effect they have on him. He sees himself in his father and for that reason cannot stand to be around him. Of his mother he is more conflicted: torn somewhere between cloying obsession and raging against the claustrophobia of her love. He is made weak by this love which he craves and goes great lengths to inspire, yet lives in fear that his ''ugly, black, crying, babyish core” will be revealed. She has turned him into “something unnatural, something that needs to be protected if it is to continue to live.”

He loves and hates his mother as Coetzee the writer loves and hates many of his female characters. He describes himself as twice-born: once from woman and once from the family farm in Voelfontein. And it is here, where they visit once a year, the young John feels most at home. He “loves every stone of it, every bush, every blade of grass, loves the birds that give it its name, birds that as dusk falls gather in their thousands in the trees around the fountain, calling to each other, murmuring, ruffling their feathers, settling in for the night.” It is is a place he feels free, and a place he returns to in Summertime. “The farm is his secret fate.”

The landscapes of his fiction are scattered throughout, most notably in the relationship he feels for Voelfontein which mirrors that of the farm in
Life and Times of Michael K. Yet what is perhaps most skilled in Boyhood is that it does not read as a work of revisionist history, demonstrating that the young Coetzee was always destined to be a writer. As in Youth it rarely evident that he is to become one of the leading novelists of his generation. At the end, however, there is a tantalising clue. Boyhood ends, as many do, with the death of a relative and John wondering what will happen to her stockpile of stories. Who will remember them now that she is gone?

is a very real, very honest account of childhood, with its joys – cycling around the neighbourhood and going to the cinema – as well as its struggles. As a work of autobiography it is a warm and funny, yet run through with deep discomfort. As with all biographies, it says as much about the person writing it as it does its subject but what resounds throughout is a sense of childhood, a sense that even if it is partly Coetzee projecting his adult self onto the person he was, he is aware enough, and skilled enough as a storyteller, to inhabit his character. The result is one of the richest and most rewarding insights into the experience of childhood you will ever read.

7 out of 10

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