By J.M. Coetzee
272 pages; Viking
Fact…or fiction: J.M. (a.k.a. John) Coetzee, the Nobel Prize–winning South African author of such intricately wrought tales as Disgrace and Diary of a Bad Year, is an awkward, lonely character, a man who leaves women cold. In the sly biography-within-a-novel Summertime , four women and one man tell an interviewer about the John Coetzee they knew when he was a struggling writer in the politically turbulent 1970s, before his work was recognized. He was nothing more than an "automaton," they report, a "man of wood," apparently incapable of passion. Julia Frankl, a psychiatrist who once had a brief, unsatisfying affair with the fictional (or not) Coetzee, diagnoses his lovemaking as "autistic." Adriana Nascimento, a Brazilian dancer, sneers at the memory of his inept advances ("I shiver for the woman who married him"). Yet behind these withering declarations lurks the sometimes preening wistfulness of characters in search of an author. "I never entered his books," says Julia, "which to me means I never quite flowered within him, never quite came to life." Only his married cousin Margot begins to grasp John's tragic connection to his emotionally shuttered father and to the land of his childhood, drained by apartheid and its violent aftermath. Reading Summertime, you wonder at how artfully this modern master can "sublime" (his verb) the raw material of life and love in an attempt to grasp the truth about human nature, which may, in the end, be just too elusive for words.