Secker & Warburg, $42.95 hb, 169 pp, 0 436 20582 3
In Youth, the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee (who has recently taken to the Adelaide Hills) continues the project he began with Boyhood: Scenes from provincial life (1997). We are told by the publishers that this is a novel; indeed, the use of the third person throughout makes this plausible. But there is little doubt that it is autobiographical, if not autobiography; if it is a novel, then the claim resides essentially in its being an exploration of mood and feeling, rather than external events – with perhaps an occasional fictional elaboration. Whatever the case, Coetzee is intent on tracking the Siberian wastes of himself.
This is done with singular ruthlessness as the central character struggles to find self-realisation. Determined to stand alone at the age of nineteen – self-supporting, scornful of family, at odds with South Africa (while not being at all political) – he constantly interrogates everything he does, or is about to do, and lurches into a compensatory passivity. In Cape Town, an older, more experienced woman moves in on him – on rather than with, since ‘he can’t remember inviting her; he has merely failed to resist’. For a time, until he finds himself falling behind in the class, he is attracted by the purity of mathematics. He will be an artist, he decides, a poet. But he is also fatalistic: destiny is to reveal itself, in part through experience, whatever that may entail. Art, if necessary, must come out of the contemptible side of himself. It has plenty of opportunity. In Cape Town, an unenthusiastic coupling results in the girl having an abortion, which she has to arrange and pay for herself. In London, he effects a particularly bloody deflowering and, although the girl is a close friend of his cousin, cannot stir himself to make a phone call after the event.