Review of ‘Boyhood – Scenes from Provincial Life’ by J.M. Coetzee

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Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, offers us great opportunities to explore the world of a young boy who is trying to make sense of the adult world around him.  Coetzee’s novel is set in South Africa between 1945 and the 1960’s and indeed, it is amazing how uncannily similar boyhood in South Africa and boyhood in small-town Ireland in the late 40’s and 50’s seems to have been!  On every page one experiences successive soft shocks of recognition: BSA bicycles, the Meccano set, Superman and Mandrake the Magician on the radio, The Rover and Reader’s Digest, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, the circus, the head colds in winter and the summer visits to the farm, the secret storms in the heart.  As Philip Larkin ruefully has it, in one of his many marvellous poems about childhood, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Coetzee is admirably honest in his refusal to romanticise his childhood or to portray it as a time of the trembling veil before the adolescent artist stepped forth in all his glory.  There was, it seems, precious little bliss in that South African dawn.  The young John in Boyhood defines childhood as follows:

Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny rabbits or at the hearth-side absorbed in a storybook.

This vision of childhood, faintly reminiscent of De Valera’s 1930’s vision of Ireland with ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’, is utterly alien to Coetzee.  Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring the pain and the shame.

School plays an important role in the growth of our young protagonist.  The young John (Coetzee) works hard in school, not out of any real love of learning, but in order not to attract attention, to remain unremarked, untouched:

So this is what is at stake.  That is why he never makes a sound in class.  That is why he is always neat, why his homework is always done, why he always knows the answer.  He dare not slip.  If he slips, he risks being beaten: and whether he is beaten or whether he struggles against being beaten, it is all the same, he will die.

(Note: Where Coetzee is concerned, for every ‘he’ read ‘I’!)

The school scenes are very good, catching with shiver-inducing accuracy, the intense, humid, faintly indecent relation that exists between teacher and pupils.

He has three favourite books, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson and Scott of the Antarctic.  He is unable to work out if Long John Silver is bad or good and, ‘he only likes the bit about Titus Oates (in Scott of the Antarctic), the man with frostbite who, because he was holding up his companions, went out into the night, into the snow and ice, and perished quietly, without fuss.  He hopes he can be like Titus Oates one day.’ !!

Race and religion feature strongly in the novel as you would expect.  There are many religious categories and they do not live in harmony, ‘That is how Jews operate, says Norman, you must never trust a Jew.’  In one passage, the young John must choose at school between religious affiliations: ‘Are you a Christian or a Roman Catholic or a Jew?’,  he is asked by an impatient teacher.  From this multiple-choice quiz, the boy from an atheist family picks Roman Catholic and is thereafter (to his relief) exiled from the school’s official Protestant devotions.  But now he has to deal with more than occasional persecution by Protestant bullies – he also arouses the suspicion of his fellow exiles, the Catholic boys who want to know why he is absent from catechism!

A strong feature of the culture of Boyhood is people’s belief in old tales and stories.  This again, has great echoes for me of the stories picked up by the young narrator in Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark classic.  Remember the story told of a local couple who married and the husband went away to sea and was presumed dead?  The sailor’s spirit comes back to torment his wife who had taken up with another man while he was away.  The priest drove the spirit out, yet at night, the image of a child in pain could be seen in the window.  The house concerned was a local one, so people continued to tell that story and the young boy is entranced by it.  Similarly, in Boyhood, John welcomes the visits to his grandfather’s sheep farm and the family gatherings that take place there and he listens avidly to the old stories.

Boyhood, I suppose, could be said to be a Portrait of the Artist type novel although the epiphanies are not as major as in Joyce’s work.  It is written, like much of Coetzee’s work, in the third person, in the continuous present.  In my mind it has great similarities with other favourite novels of mine, Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane and Mark Haddon’s masterpiece The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Indeed, all three novels share a dystopian view of the world but Coetzee more than the other two has a particularly potent brand of stoic desperation in the face of the world!  I suppose it has to be allowed that his claim to despair is impeccable: South Africa, after all, where he was born and lives and writes, was until recently a very graphic working model of a dystopian, dysfunctional society.  In such richly dreadful circumstances, what novelist could resist writing directly or indirectly about the politics of the day?  However, it has to be said that Coetzee’s fiction is also exemplary in the way in which the author flies by the nets of politics and shows, ‘how not to play the game by the rules of the state’. It surely must be both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of a totalitarian regime, as Coetzee is well aware.  His real achievement is, however, that all his books are so concentrated, so poised, that they do not solely depend for their power on our knowledge of where and in what circumstances they were written.  Surely this is one of the identifying marks of authentic, enduring works of art.

 Coetzee recalls the trials and tribulations of growing up in a provincial South African town at a time when apartheid was on everyone’s lips.  Indeed, the book could be renamed, Portrait of the Artist as an Afrikaner!  South Africa in the 40’s and 50’s was a place very similar to Seamus Deane’s Derry, a place of oppression and cruelty.  Coetzee, however, like Deane in the Irish situation, treats apartheid obliquely, distilling its violence in dark fables of devastation that point a finger at South Africa.  His themes, like Deane’s, lie where the political, spiritual, the psychological and the physical converge: the nightmare of bureaucratic violence; our forlorn estrangement from the land; and a Shakespearean anxiety about nature put out of its order.  Coetzee, in Boyhood, considers it both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of an oppressive regime.  Indeed, it can be said that we are given a very subtle ‘Political Education’ in both novels!

 For most of Boyhood, the young boy has this sense of being ‘unnatural’, ‘damaged’, and ‘deformed’.  But gradually it dawns on him where this apprenticeship in fear and loathing will take him.  The young Coetzee is very perceptive and reflective and he has a very close relationship with his mother.  Walking one day with her he sees a boy running past, absorbed in himself.  The boy is Coloured, as distinct from Native, and is unremarkable, despite having a body that is, ‘perfect and unspoiled, as if it had emerged only yesterday from its shell.’ John knows that if his mother were to call out ‘Boy!’ the coloured boy would have to stop and do whatever she bade him to, such as carrying her shopping basket, and he realises that this boy, ‘who is slim as an eel and quick as a hare,’ is a living reproof to him, and embarrassed, ‘he squirms and wriggles his shoulders and does not want to look at him any longer, despite his beauty.’

He oscillates in his allegiances between his father and his mother.  He joins his father in mockery of his mother when she buys a bicycle and tries to ride it, yet he has never worked out the position of his father in the household, and in fact ‘it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all’.  He wishes his father would beat him, ‘and turn him into a normal boy,’ yet he knows too that if his father were indeed to beat him, ‘he would become possessed, like a rat in a corner, hurtling about, snapping with its poisonous fangs, too dangerous to be touched.’  By the close of the book, when the family has moved to Cape Town, the father has sunk into debt, failure, and alcoholism, and as he sinks, the mother rises: ‘It is as though she is inviting calamities upon herself for no other purpose than to show the world how much she can endure.’

However, the young Coetzee is strident in his acknowledgement that he owes much to his upbringing, especially to the influence of his mother.  She has bequeathed to him an artistic vision, an ability to reflect and observe.  He hates the dull, uninspiring essays he is asked to do in class and admits that if he could he would write something far darker, stranger, far more mysterious: ‘Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightening crackling across the sky.’

On the other hand, his father is a major disappointment.  He has waged war on him from an early age but it is only towards the end of the novel that we realise how serious the situation is.  The family are bankrupt as a result of his gambling and alcoholism and he pours scorn on what he considers to be a pathetic figure.  His mother continues to support her husband, to the boy’s amazement, defending him with the barbed comment, ‘Wait until you have children’.  He comes to realise, however, that she is the rock at the centre of his precarious existence and in one of the many epiphanies in the book he comments: ‘This woman was not brought into the world for the sole purpose of loving him and protecting him and taking care of his wants.’  He has huge respect for her and he says towards the end of the novel, ‘he would rather be blind and deaf than know what she thinks of him.’

Overall, Boyhood presents us with a rather bleak vision.  Coetzee has written elsewhere that South African literature is precisely what you would expect from people living in prison.  Boyhood gives us a clear insight into the prison that the notoriously private Coetzee has himself inhabited: drab suburban housing estates; an alcoholic, distant father, his business career decaying; an overly intimate long-suffering mother.  This is the story of millions of 20th. century families everywhere in the developed world.  But Boyhood is more than this.  However, it is primarily an internal account, the story of an exquisitely painful – almost autistic – self-consciousness, a subjectivity so sensitive and so tender that it seems like ‘a crab pulled out of its shell, pink and wounded and obscene.’  The novel seems to suggest that the best we can do is to try to keep ourselves sane by continuous reflection.  No hope is offered.  There is no happy ending and we do not observe an improvement in John’s relationship with his father or his mother.  If anything he manages to maintain a cold detachment from both throughout.

Tony Humphreys, a noted clinical psychologist, author and all-round guru, has written a very popular book called, The Family: Love it and Leave it.  This is the great adventure which the young protagonist in Boyhood undertakes.  He is endeavouring to cope with his family situation as best he can.  Coetzee ends up writing to make sense of the world he lives in. In fact, he appears to be casting about in his childhood for the roots of his success as a writer: Did it spring from his marginal social position as an English speaker from an Afrikaner background; or from his intensely passionate, sentimental attachment to his father’s family farm; or from the smothering affection of his mother, which made him feel like a solitary specimen, both protected and deformed?  Whichever is the correct version, he feels compelled to write his way out of his own South African prison; and we all benefit from his struggle.

About the Author….

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John Maxwell Coetzee is a South African novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.  Before receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, Coetzee was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, CNA Prize (three times), the Prix Femina Étranger, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize (twice), among other accolades. He relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide. He became an Australian citizen in 2006.

 

 

 

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