Monday, August 11, 2008

Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee

I want to talk to you today about a remarkable man, a remarkable writer, and a fictionalized account of his own childhood. As I read this little book, I took it to be straight autobiography, but others refer to it as fictionalized memoir of his very early years ending at age eleven. The writer is J.M. Coetzee, and the book is entitled Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life.

The prose in this book is as unadorned as the lives it describes, economical and sparse but with a kind of fierceness that rises up out of the simple words. As most of you probably know, Coetzee is a South African writer, and all of the events in this book take place in Worcester and Capetown South Africa. The boy grows up in what he calls a housing estate just outside the town of Worcester where all the houses are new and identical, set in large plots of red clay earth. Although he has an Afrikaans surname, his family speaks English, and his schoolteacher mother makes him wear shoes, speak English without an Afrikaans accent, and think of himself as special. Although his relationship with his mother is very close and he has little respect for his Afrikaans father, he also feels her love as confining, suffocating, creating expectations of him that he is bound to fail.

I can’t recall any autobiographical account written by a man where the relationship with the mother is so paramount, so meticulously described, and so boiling with contradictory feelings. Again and again the young boy in this story returns to the ambivalence of his relationship with his mother, one that swings between love and rage. He knows that she is the pivot point of his life, that she loves him totally, would sacrifice everything and anything for him.
His mother loves him, that he acknowledges; but that is the problem, that is what is wrong, not what is right, with her attitude towards him. Her love emerges about all in her watchfulness, her readiness to pounce and save him should he ever be in danger. Should he choose (but he would never do so), he could relax into her care and for the rest of his life be borne by her. It is because he is so sure of her care that he is on his guard with her, never relaxing, never allowing her a chance.

He yearns to be rid of her watchful attention. There may come a time when to achieve this he will have to assert himself, refuse her so brutally that with a shock she will have to step back and release him. Yet he has only to think of that moment, imagine her surprised look, feel her hurt, and he is overtaken with a rush of guilt. Then he will do anything to soften the blow: console her, promise her he is not going away.

Feeling her hurt, feeling it as intimately as if he were part of her, she part of him, he knows he is in a trap and cannot get out. Whose fault is it? He blames her, he is cross with her, but he is ashamed of his ingratitude too. Love: this is what love really is, this cage in which he rushes back and forth, back and forth, like a poor bewildered baboon.
All through this book, I was reminded of Nancy Chodorow’s excellent book, The Reproduction of Mothering. On the one hand, he sees her great strength, sees how she will stand up to her husband, to anyone, in order to protect her first-born son, but that very love and self-abnegation he also sees as a glaring weakness—she is a power in the home perhaps, but never a power in the world. Never, he thinks, will he give up his own life for another.
Her ant-like determination angers him to the point that he wants to strike her. It is clear what lies behind it. She wants to sacrifice herself for her children. Sacrifice without end: he is all too familiar with that spirit. But once she has sacrificed herself entirely, once she has sold the clothes off her back, sold her very shoes and is walking around on bloody feet, where will that leave him? It is a thought he cannot bear.
The boy realizes about himself that he is, already, an old man in a young boy’s body. He admires the Coloured children that he sees from a distance, admires their beautiful bodies, their smiles and carefree attitudes (though he knows full well that by the time they are his age, ten or eleven, they will be done with school and working, destined to lives of poverty and meaningless labor). In some ways, he even admires the crude Afrikaans children who are free of the high expectations of an exacting mother, though he is repulsed by their big bodies, their crude language, their constant bullying. He has looked up “childhood” in his Children’s Encyclopedia, read that it is supposed to be a time of innocent joy, full of meadows and bunny-rabbits and buttercups. “It is a vision of childhood utterly alien to him. Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.”

If you are a fan of the many excellent novels of Coetzee (who, among many other awards, has twice won the Booker Prize) and of his keen social commentary, I think you will find this little autobiography particularly enlightening, and you will see that, indeed, the child is the father of the man. Along with the sparse, simple prose there is also a deep humility that emerges. He certainly does not see himself as a grand person or one whose early life deserves more than a quick gloss.

While I came away from the book feeling that I had a new and deeper understanding of Coetzee’s fiction, I would not call this a great autobiography. The Times reviewer called the book “The best description of a childhood I have ever read.” That leaves me wondering whether this reviewer had read many autobiographies or autobiographical novels written by women writers. In my view, many women writers write with an emotional fluidity about their young lives that makes this tight-lipped, emotionally constipated account seem hopelessly brief and one-dimensional. Indeed, it seems that the writer is deeply suspicious of emotion, of great joy or even of great sadness. When I compare it to say Lynn Sharon Schwartz’ Leaving Brooklyn, or Jane Lazarre’s On Loving Men, both of which manifest an abundance of emotional honesty and intelligence that stuns me, I have to say that I know little more about the inner life and workings of this sad boy than I knew before reading the book. He seems to guard his inner life from his readers almost as fiercely as he guards it from his mother.

Nevertheless, I appreciate Coetzee’s willingness to write autobiographical memoir, and I intend to pick up the account of his later years. His honesty as a writer is remarkable. I leave you with a final sad line. “Always, it seems, there is something that goes wrong. Whatever he wants, whatever he likes, has sooner or later to be turned into a secret.”

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