Youth by J.M. Coetzee [Book Thoughts]

Youth is a fine novel, but far more appreciated by a young artist for whom Coetzee has the pathos of one who has felt your pain.


Youth by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee is a South African writer (we have writers!) who, at some point in his life, decided to jump ship on his country of origin since it has a readership the size of a bridge club. A wise decision: Coetzee has gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and is the first to have won the Man Booker Prize twice. He’s most well known for The Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace (both I’ve read).

Wikipedia calls Youth a ‘fictionalized autobiography’ (whatever that means). Perhaps it does have a high degree of historical and emotional accuracy but it reads as a novel. And are not all novels partially autobiographical to begin with?

The 1950s: Youth describes the early adulthood of John, a young man studying Mathematics at the University of Cape Town while working odd jobs to make ends meet. John has left his home, his overbearing mother and his ‘failure’ father, and he leaves South Africa too when political revolution seems imminent. John harbours the dream of becoming a poet, feels a kinship with the great writers and poets of ages gone by, and he hopes that England will offer the chance to mould him into one. We follow his jobs in England, his trysts with various women. John hopes to meet that one woman who will see the artist’s fire burning beneath his dull exterior and will inspire him to reach his true potential through their passionate lovemaking. John is a lonely man.

Perhaps Coetzee too is a lonely man; the sense of isolation and self-exile that shows up his other works is present here. But I connected with the book quite directly due to my circumstances. In SA, John mentions living near Mowbray station and going to UCT’; I live near Mowbray station and went to UCT. He mentions finding South Africa ignorant and devoid of literary spirit; in 50 years not much has changed (It’s awful that Coetzee is the most globally acclaimed writer to have ever come out of SA and one can barely find his books in SA’s bookstores).

Youth is a story of a young man’s yearning, foolishness and pain but can it appeal to more than an artist who’s tried/is trying/will try to walk Coetzee’s path? I’m not sure. But to a young artist it is inspirational, wholesome reading of the kind that is seldom found. Coetzee is sympathetic and understands, and he’s honest in a way that is so stark that it’s difficult to react to. I often praise writers for their wit on this Blog, but Coetzee’s compassion and honesty is equal to if not greater than that wit.

And Youth does feel like one of Coetzee’s novels. It’s subtle, it won’t hold your hand, and yet Coetzee can pierce through to the heart of a matter with poignant precision. He will say things that most writers will not. And he’ll do it a quiet, understated way. Beyond all of that, it’s just good reading.

Youth is a fine novel, but far more appreciated by a young artist for whom Coetzee has the pathos of one who has felt your pain.

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