J.M. Coetzee's 'Youth' -- a provincial in England

July 14, 2002|By Paul Taylor | By Paul Taylor,Special to the Sun

Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II, by J.M. Coetzee. Viking. 169 pages. $22.95.

It's not a good sign, when taking on a book that's all of 169 pages, to spend most of your time wondering if you'll make it to the finish line.

That was my problem with Youth. What's worse, I'd had exactly the opposite problem with the only other Coetzee novel I've read -- Disgrace. For that book, I had to force myself to slow down over the final pages because I hated the thought that it was going to end.

Disgrace is taut, penetrating, unsparing. It is the great novel of post-apartheid South Africa, capturing a moment in history when all the rules have changed, all the power relationships have been inverted, the entire social fabric has been turned inside out.

Youth is an unfocused, self-absorbed, angst-ridden ramble of a coming-of-age memoir. It is set in Cape Town and England in the early 1960s, but belongs to no particular place or time. It is about a "worried boy-man, so dull and ordinary that you would not spare him a second thought."

That's how the book's narrator describes the exterior view of its unhappy protagonist. To be fair, young John's interior life is more interesting than his outward appearance. But to be the stuff of great fiction, he needed a far better narrator.

John is an aspiring poet who works as a computer programmer. He's fled the shame of South Africa to make his way in cold, dreary London. He is comfortable in neither world. He has a stream of awkward, joyless encounters with women, who appear, then disappear, as nothing more than stick figures. He is a failure as a poet. A failure as a lover.

What will it take to unlock his passion, his humanity, his muse? He struggles with these questions, over and over. And he read prodigiously. T.S. Eliot. Henry James. Ford Mattox Ford. Proust. Joyce. Beckett. Wilde. Sometimes they seem to provide answers. But not really.

One of the books he reads, Watt by Samuel Beckett, does supply him with a template for his own memoir. "There is no clash, no conflict, just the flow of a voice telling a story," Youth's narrator writes admiringly of Beckett's work, "a flow continuously checked by doubts and scruples, its pace fitted exactly to the pace of his own mind."

Youth is written in the same genre. As I read it, I found myself wondering: Did Coetzee write it as a diary when he was the young man he portrays, stuff it away in a drawer, then publish it 40 years later, after he'd become a literary lion? Or did he write it just recently, looking back? Either way, it disappoints. Why not a bit of clash or conflict, for heaven's sake?

Enough carping; on to one last point. There is a striking feature of Coetzee's prose that runs through both of his books that I've read. It is the torque in the sentence structure. Clean, hard, spare, with a distinctive pace. Such as: "It is not a lie, not entirely." Or: "'Bastard!' she hisses, and is gone." These are tiny gems. Youth, alas, is not.

Paul Taylor was a journalist for 25 years, including 15 at The Washington Post, during which he served as South Africa bureau chief in the mid 1990s. He is currently the founder and director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. His book, See How They Run, was published by Knopf in 1990.

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