Youth ~ J.M. Coetzee

youthYouth takes up sometime after Boyhood. John finally has some level of freedom. Freedom mostly from his over bearing mother. But he believes he’ll never be free in South Africa. His dream is to go to London. Immerse himself in the bohemian life; surround himself with art and artists.

Although he hasn’t saved up enough money yet, he is forced by circumstance to leave South Africa early. He finds himself in London. Ah, but the practicality of life clashes with his artistic aspirations – he settles into a job at IBM. He finds himself writing less and less poetry, becomes more and more interested in prose. He’s a voracious reader and is dabbling in a treatise on Ford Maddox Ford. This he soon realizes is a dead end. He went into the project with certain assumptions, which did not prove to be correct.

Prose, fortunately does not demand emotion: there is that to be said for it. Prose is like a flat, tranquil sheet of water on which one can tack about at one’s leisure, making patterns on the surface.

In London he is  lonely and runs through a series of desultory affairs.

There is another thing he notices. He has stopped yearning. The quest for the mysterious, beautiful stranger who will set free the passion within him no  longer preoccupies him….he cannot help seeing a connection between the end of yearning and the end of poetry. Dies it mean he is growing up? Is that what growing up amounts to: growing out of yearning, of passion, of all intensities of the soul?

John quits IBM and drifts until he is forced to find another job or be sent ignominiously back to South Africa. This he cannot abide. He gets another job as a computer programmer – this this time outside of London. The pursuit of art and self-expression seems to have been abandoned. He thinks of Destiny. Of Fate. In this way (and in this way only) this book hearkens back to Kelman’s Kieron Smith, boy.

If you’re a reader of Coetzee, you’ll recognize the voice, the cold logic  and brutal self-observations of the narrator. What raises Coetzee’s fiction to a heady level, works here to deaden the impact. John is an unlikeable sort.  For the brilliance of his fiction, I so want to like the man. We are given very little reason to do so here. But should I insist  on an equal place for the man and his fiction? Coetzee seems to insist on a complete separation, even as he blurs the lines. In Youth, “he” admits to waiting for the world to come to him, rather than he go to it.

Perhaps in Summertime the latter will occur.



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