A Review of Youth by J.M. Coetzee

. The story is tortuous because it reminds its readers of something that seems to go hand and hand with youth – the desire for glory, for greatness, for artistic achievement and admiration without the tedious work of application. John is a hard character to stomach because we have been there.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

by JM Coetzee
Vintage, 2003, 169pages
ISBN 0-099-43362-1

Youth is a short and tortuous novel which follows John, a young man with lofty literary aspirations through a mathematics degree, a move from a politically unstable South Africa to London where he works towards a Masters degree in literature and begins work as a computer programmer. Many critics have argued that this sparse Beckettian novel is really a memoir, to be read as a prelude to Coetzee’s own great writing career. Whatever parallels there may be to Coetzee’s young life, this book is clearly a novel, and it deserves to be judged as a complete work. The story is tortuous because it reminds its readers of something that seems to go hand and hand with youth – the desire for glory, for greatness, for artistic achievement and admiration without the tedious work of application. John is a hard character to stomach because we have been there.

While waiting fruitlessly for the muse to strike, John becomes involved in a number of unsatisfactory relationships, attends arty films, writes a few bad poems and takes on two programming jobs. Throughout the novel, John is generally lonely, unkind, bored, frightened and unappealing. While this may not be an original theme as such, the novel is written in the third person, present tense which gives it a kind of Kafkaesque starkness. It reads as a cold confessional, as the narrator stumbles along in the dark trying to discover what has gone wrong in his life and why both Love and Art, two things he associates with one another, have forsaken him:

What will cure him, if it were to arrive, will be love. He may not believe in God but he does believe in love and the powers of love. The beloved, the destined one, will see at once through the odd and even dull exterior he presents to the fire that burns within him. Meanwhile, being dull and odd-looking are part of a purgatory he must pass through in order to emerge, one day, into the light: the light of love, the light of art. for he will be an artist, that has long been settled. If for the time being he must be obscure and ridiculous, that is because it is the lot of the artist to suffer obscurity and ridicule until the day when he is revealed in his true powers and the scoffers and mockers fall silent. (3)

In the background the world is in turmoil. There is the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, protest marches, the Cold War, and the prelude to the Vietnam war. At one point, John even writes to the Chinese Embassy in London offering to teach English in China in an attempt to engage himself in something – the do something positive. John has to deal with his complicated feelings towards South Africa, “a wound which bleeds within him,” his feelings about the west with its money oriented industry represented by IBM, and with his feelings of guilt for his lack of purpose. He is a 1960s character and although the background is subtle and the story mainly focuses on John’s ennui, we also get a fairly clear picture of the life of an immigrant during this period.

The other characters in the story, John’s friend Paul, his lover Jacqueline, his IBM colleagues and bosses, his Indian neighbours, his later lovers Sarah, Caroline, Marianne, Astrid or his friend and colleague at International Computers Ganapathy, are sketched only lightly. We know that he senses what the “right” thing to do is, and also that he senses that “the right thing” is the antithesis to “Art.” We also know that often John does the “wrong” thing. He is cold and disconnected with his “friends” and associates. He is awkward with his neighbours and unable to reciprocate their dinner invitation. He is cruel and detached with Sarah and Marianne. He also makes juvenile and appalling judgements in his mind about Art, artists and women:

…artists have to live with their fever, whatever its nature, good or bad. The fever is what makes them artists; the fever mustbe kept alive. That is why artists can never be wholly present to the world: one eye has always to be turned inward. As for women who flock after artists, they cannot wholly be trusted. For just as the spirit of the artist is both flame and fever, so the woman who yearns to be licked by tongues of flame will at the same time do her best to quench the fever and bring down the artist to common ground. therefore women have to be resisted even when they are loved.(31)

These mental illuminations are so full of cliched and trite sentiments – so adolescent in fact that one suspects that they are meant to be taken as tongue in cheek. This is confirmed by other elements of humour throughout the book. At one point, John is reading Ford Madox Ford on Provence and decides to buy fish fingers instead of sausages “in deference to Ford,” frying them in olive oil and sprinkling them with garlic salt. Another point in the novel John reveals that his highest aspirations were for a French girlfriend: “If he had a passionate affair with a French girl he would be touched and improved, he is sure, by the grace of the French language, the subtlety of French thought. ” (74)

Despite his ridiculous generalisations and revelations of immaturity, John is not without sensitivity. At one point he stands before Robert Motherwell’s Elegy for the Spanish Republic and is “transfixed. Menacing and mysterious, the black shape takes him over. A sound like the stroke of a gong goes out from it, leaving him shaken and week-kneed.” (92) He is moved by beautiful lines of poetry such as Brodsky’s “As dark as the inside of a needle,” and at another point, lying on his jacket in a Hamstead Heath park, he suddenly feels a moment of joy listening to the cries of children, birdsong and insects. He also recognises the empty nature of his work at IBM – the dullness and repetition of his work and the lack of camaraderie, and even though he doesn’t express it well, one senses he has touched upon something important there. His pleasure at working at International Computers later – his sense of accomplishment and of wanting to work for the right side is one which elicits sympathy in the reader.

John may be unpleasant. He is also immature and even boring, but what makes Youth an interesting book, taking it beyond merely a failed bildungsroman into the realm of a serious novel, is that John is a character which readers will be able to recognise. We may not want to identify with him. After all, he never makes it. He admits that his one talent is for misery, and he ends up unhappy, lonely, feeling a failure and ready to give up his delusions of grandeur for what he perceives will be a dull life:

The upshot is that he is sitting alone on a Sunday afternoon in an upstairs room in a house in the depths of the Berkshire countryside, with crows cawing in the fields and a grey mist hanging overhead, playing chess with himself, growing old, waiting for evening to fall so that he can with a good conscience fry his sausages and bread for supper. At eighteen he might have been a poet. Now he is not a poet, not a writer, not an artist.” (168}

John’s constant rhetorical questions are tedious, and the first person present tense narration is unsettling, but the story moves quickly, and perhaps there is a moment of revelation in the end. John sees himself “locked into an attenuating endgame” but at twenty four, he is still a youth after all.

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