Ordinary yet challenging, these two adjectives are sometimes repetitively associated with Coetzee’s works. Sudip Bhattacharyya thinks he can justify that the nobel laureate’s artistic balance between these two, can be a trigger for freelancers and amateur writers – “A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us”. Ordinary like a rusty axe but challenging nonetheless. Let’s find out what is there in this book that gives you the confidence to take up writing.
I have heard it time and time again: there is beauty in the ordinary. It is a cliché, one used by independent filmmakers and scrappy writers – in fact, this could be the era of the ‘ordinary’, where media wants you to believe your life, your 9 to 5 job and your interests mean something.
Growing up, I never felt there was much use for the ordinary – I loved adventure stories and comic books, and when I grew up a little bit more, I preferred the sweeping fantasies of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Think back yourself, and you will realize how little we have read regarding ordinary lives. We prefer to think larger than life, we love seeing a grand picture, and this is not a recent phenomenon at all. The feeling of ‘Larger than Life’ comes to you inside a movie theatre the same way it came to people hundreds of years ago, while they watched an extraordinary play. These feelings may inspire you, but sometimes they can act as a deterrent in your life.
Have you ever dabbled in writing?
Before you begin to write, there is that mountain ‘Larger than Life’ to overcome. Whenever I tried to write, the first thought that came to my mind is: how can I write about something extraordinary, when I had lived the most ordinary existence? At this time, when I have nearly given up writing due to work pressure and general weariness, J.M. Coetzee has emerged as a saviour.
Summertime is a cheeky pseudo-autobiography about a certain John Coetzee, a sort of memoir collated from what five people thought of him. This John Coetzee is dead, has achieved fame, has won his Nobel and, presumably, died content. His extensive bibliography is there to be admired and his rave reviews are there to be read; however, through the eyes of five people, John Coetzee is ‘reduced’ to an ordinary personality. The pre-author John who emerges from the interviews is awkward, silent, but with stubbornness and ideas which later formulate his stories. In the landscape of South Africa, he is simply unimportant; it is only his love for poetry or his seeming lack of achievements that might bring him under unfriendly scrutiny. This John tries to love, miserably fails; tries to teach and fails again; tries to build a reclusive utopia for himself in an unforgiving land… and fails. Sometimes he feels as dry as the Karoo, with the hint that there is a person of depth inside – but this never comes out as the persons interviewed deal with severe practicality. They have no time for poetry. To them, John’s antics – trying to have sex while listening to classical music, writing long letters to someone to profess his love, deciding to rent a house at an impractical location as a writer’s retreat – all seems the work of a silly little man. Repeatedly he is belittled as someone sexless, and even though he has sexual encounters with a mistress, it is not fulfilling or dramatic because “he secretly liked it when a woman was cold and distant”.
He is an underdog without the charm: “Perhaps; but I am a difficult person to live with. My difficulty consists in not wanting to live with other people.”
Summertime deals with ordinary people sharing their stories about an ordinary person. On one hand it is hilarious, and on the other hand it is frightening to think how bitterly (and perhaps wrongly) you can judge a person after he is gone. With John ‘safely’ dead, his quirks can be judged in harsh light. This is literature the author has to enjoy writing: I am sure J.M. Coetzee enjoyed this self-flagellation.
I will describe Summertime as charmingly mundane. It’s dry wit and self-deprecating humour kept me engaged, but I was never ‘swept away’ by its beauty, ‘moved’ by its language. I will never tell anyone, ‘Summertime changed my life’. I will talk about it with restrained zeal. Coming back to why I said Summertime will make you want to write again, the reason is simple – Coetzee is undoubtedly a skilful author, but if he can stick so consistently (not to mention, entertainingly) to the ordinary, why can’t you?
Write your ordinary stories, if you still want to. I understand Coetzee is not the best example of a writer bound to the ordinary – his refuge is in fiction. Through his exercise in Summertime he maintains how uninteresting he is outside of his fiction; maybe he is just like you. There is another secret reason Summertime will make you think about writing again. If you leave some fiction behind, maybe it can also be your refuge from the unavoidable bitterness your leaving this world will bring.