The second installment of J. M. Coetzee's fictionalized "memoir" explores a young man's struggle to experience life to its full intensity and transform it into art. The narrator of Youth has long been plotting an escape-from the stifling love of his overbearing mother, a father whose failures haunt him, and what he is sure is impending revolution in his native country of South Africa. Arriving at last in London in the 1960s, however, he finds neither poetry nor romance and instead begins a dark pilgrimage into adulthood. Youth is a remarkable portrait of a consciousness, isolated and adrift, turning in on itself, of a young man struggling to find his way in the world, written with tenderness and a fierce clarity.
Most authors contemplating their younger days brim with a naive self-love. But early in the second volume of his wonderful autobiography, J.M. Coetzee, writing in the third person, gives a strikingly spare and unsentimental portrait of himself as he was at university. Studying mathematics and working four part-time jobs, he was proving something that only fledglings need to prove, "that each man is an island; that you don't need parents." The two-time Booker Prize winner chooses to describe himself physically at the least flattering moment possible: cheaply dressed and caught in a downpour, trudging along a South African road in the intermittent glare of headlights. The young Coetzee consoles himself that "being dull and odd-looking were part of a purgatory he must pass through in order to emerge, one day, into the light" of love and art. This agonized mix of vanity and despair, self-loathing and consolatory fantasy, all in a provincial setting, is so sharply accurate an evocation of late adolescence that one is reminded of Anton Chekhov's young characters: comic, pitiable and quite possibly brilliant, desperate to try their intelligence in a larger arena.
For Coetzee, that cosmopolitan sphere was London, and his younger self arrives there from South Africa in the 1950s, with visions of poetry readings, love affairs and eventual fame. In fact, he gets a job writing computer programs for IBM and dwells in loneliness, consoling himself with the thought that as poets once stupefied themselves with absinthe and opium, he now submits to the rigors of "soul-destroying office work." His personal life is equally empty and uneventful. He is too self-centered, self-conscious andfearful to love anyone, although he does manage to make one girl pregnant and several unhappy.
The effectiveness of this self-portrait comes from its absolutely unmediated quality. There are no apologies made, no reference to later moments of enlightenment or mitigation. Yet there is also no doubt that this gauche youngster is utterly remarkable. In the Reading Room of the British Museum, he delves into the obscure memoirs of South African pioneers and is fired with the idea of writing a fictional account as authentic in its details, but "whose response to the world around it will be alive."
The question he asks himself in relation to this venture hints at the greatness of the writer he will become: "Where will he find the common knowledge of a bygone world, a knowledge too humble to know it is knowledge?" The ability to value what is humble, ordinary and therefore powerfully truthful is a quantum leap for the young man who so recently compared himself unfavorably to absinthe drinkers and libertines, and who searched for a mysterious beauty to be his muse. He notices that poetry and yearning seem to die away simultaneously, and fears that growing up means the extinction of all passions.
He needn't have worried. He soon develops a surer sense of his own taste, and he becomes inspired after reading Samuel Beckett's Watt. With passions intact, he is cultivating a nascent sense of authentic self. One proof is that he suddenly finds, entering his third year in England, that he enjoys playing cricket with his fellow programmers. He had previously renounced the game "on the grounds that team sports were incompatible with the life of a poet," but discovers that he is surprisingly skillful at it. One of the few mentions of happiness, and the only use of the word "ecstasy," comes in writing about these lunchtime matches.
And yet, his rare sense of well-being, of happy bachelorhood, comes when his sense of the world is growing more complex. His computer work turns out to support the British government's missile program, and he is often sent to a facility "ugly with the ugliness of a place that knows no one will look at it or care to look at it; perhaps with the ugliness of a place that knows, when war comes, it will be blown off the face of the earth." He recognizes himself as an enabler, an accomplice in the Cold War.
His dilemma, initially a moral one, becomes an artistic one as well. For while he can imagine doing the right thing, he can't imagine any poetry arising out of it: "The right thing is boring," he thinks. Abruptly the reader is confronted with a cliff-hanger ending. Having been brought to the brink of artistic discovery, we feel Coetzee's youthful sense of impasse, his despair, his bafflement, his more adult self-loathing. He stands like a man on the edge of a great abyss, amid obscurity, fear, self-doubt and confusion. To discard what he has been told and act in accordance with his own true emotional responses to the worldto women, to cricket, to books, to political injusticeis something he is just learning to do. In that growing sense of authenticity lies the power that will carry him forward, to the passionately honest novels, including Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace, that he will eventually write. But to see that bold and desperate leap forward, alas, we will have to wait for the next volume.