Cover image for Youth
Coetzee, J. M., 1940-
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, 2002.
Physical Description:
169 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Library

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The narrator of Youth, a student in the South Africa of the 1950s, has long been plotting an escape from his native country: from the stifling love of his mother, a father whose failures haunt him, and what he is sure is impending revolution. Studying mathematics, reading poetry, and saving money, he tries to ensure that when he arrives in the real world, wherever that may be, he will be prepared to experience life to its full intensity and transform it into art. Arriving at last in London, however, he finds neither poetry nor romance. Instead he succumbs to the monotony of life as a computer programmer, from which random, loveless affairs offer no relief. Devoid of inspiration, he stops writing. An awkward colonial, a constitutional outsider, he begins a dark pilgrimage in which he is continually tested and continually found wanting.Set against the background of the 1960s-Sharpeville, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam-Youth is a remarkable portrait of a consciousness, isolated and adrift, turning in on itself. J. M. Coetzee explores a young man's struggle to find his way in the world with tenderness and a fierce clarity.

Author Notes

J.M. Coetzee's full name is John Michael Coetzee. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940, Coetzee is a writer and critic who uses the political situation in his homeland as a backdrop for many of his novels. Coetzee published his first work of fiction, Dusklands, in 1974.

Another book, Boyhood, loosely chronicles an unhappy time in Coetzee's childhood when his family moved from Cape Town to the more remote and unenlightened city of Worcester. Other Coetzee novels are In the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians. Coetzee's critical works include White Writing and Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship.

Coetzee is a two-time recipient of the Booker Prize and in 2003, he won the Nobel Literature Award.

(Bowker Author Biography) J. M. Coetzee's books include "Boyhood", "Dusklands", "In the Heart of the Country", "Waiting for the Barbarians", "Life & Times of Michael K", "Foe", & "The Master of Petersburg". A professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town, Coetzee has won many literary awards, including the CNA Prize (South Africa's premier literary award), the Booker Prize (twice), the Prix Etranger Femina, the Jerusalem Prize, the Lannan Literary Award, & The Irish Times International Fiction Prize.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

«All he can do well, it appears, is be miserable.» Coetzee has won international prizes for his novels, including Disgrace (2000), set in his native South Africa. But this wry, honest, edgy memoir is the portrait of the young artist as a failure. It's the early 1960s, and Coetzee has escaped family and country for London, where he's free to become the intellectual he's destined to be. He wants to be a poet and have love affairs. Instead, he's trapped, lonely, stuck in a job as a computer programmer (well, he rationalizes, Eliot worked in a bank). He behaves badly (but then, «without descending into the depths, one cannot be an artist»). As in Coetzee's first memoir, Boyhood (1997), the third-person present-tense narrative takes you right into the young man's angst in all its idiotic self-absorption. The ordinary speaking voice and the rhythm of the sentences capture perfectly how he knows he's making a mess of everything, but how, maybe, that will make him a better poet. He would rather be bad than boring, but he has no respect for a person who would rather be bad than boring. The world is erupting--the Sharpeville massacre at home; the cold war and then Vietnam--but what worries Coetzee is how he can fit it all into the story of his life. Time and place are wonderfully particular, but this is about everyone's quest that ends nowhere. Hazel Rochman.

Publisher's Weekly Review

One need not have read Boyhood, Coetzee's previous autobiographical account, to appreciate this sequel, as he continues to look back on his quest for identity and a yearned-for vocation as a poet. Written from a third-person, present-tense point of view, but intimately describing the inner life of John, this slim memoir examines several years of Coetzee's expatriate life as he flees Cape Town in the 1960s to educate himself and pursue his destiny in London. It's a bleak time. A series of failed encounters sexual and social leave the emotionally immature protagonist feeling lonely and isolated. He wavers between pretentious defenses of his artistic purity and self-loathing assessments of his lack of talent and his unease as an outsider. A soul-destroying job as a computer programmer at IBM sucks away his peace of mind. Other attempts to do meaningful work and to establish personal relationships ensue, but the grand moment of definition never comes. John is waiting for romance or tragedy to strike so he can be consumed and remade, but he has only a flawed, naOve understanding of the world. Simultaneously miserable in London and convinced that South Africa is an accursed wound within him, he rejects both as inimical to literature. Booker Prize winner Coetzee's (Disgrace) artistry allows him to write about his youthful self from the vantage point of adult knowledge while reflecting on his self-involved intellectual and social gaucheries with detached, wry humor. Though he fails to make his intense and awkward personality particularly appealing, Coetzee succeeds in defining the dilemma of the artist-as-a-young-man in sympathetic if angst-ridden terms that reflect the doubts of those who decide to devote their lives to literature without any idea of how they can make a meaningful contribution. (July 8) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Picking up where Boyhood left off, Booker Prize winner Coetzee explains how he endeavored to escape from the stifling atmosphere of 1950s South Africa and found himself high and dry in London. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



ONE He lives in a one-room flat near Mowbray railway station, for which he pays eleven guineas a month. On the last working day of each month he catches the train in to the city, to Loop Street, where A. & B. Levy, property agents, have their brass plate and tiny office. To Mr B. Levy, younger of the Levy brothers, he hands the envelope with the rent. Mr Levy pours the money out onto his cluttered desk and counts it. Grunting and sweating, he writes a receipt. 'Voilà, young man!' he says, and passes it over with a flourish. He is at pains not to be late with the rent because he is in the flat under false pretences. When he signed the lease and paid A. & B. Levy the deposit, he gave his occupation not as 'Student' but as 'Library Assistant,' with the university library as his work address. It is not a lie, not entirely. From Monday to Friday it is his job to man the reading room during evening hours. It is a job that the regular librarians, women for the most part, prefer not to do because the campus, up on the mountainside, is too bleak and lonely at night. Even he feels a chill down his spine as he unlocks the back door and gropes his way down a pitch-dark corridor to the mains switch. It would be all too easy for some evildoer to hide in the stacks when the staff go home at five o'clock, then rifle the empty offices and wait in the dark to waylay him, the night assistant, for his keys. Few students make use of the evening opening; few are even aware of it. There is little for him to do. The ten shillings per evening he earns is easy money. Sometimes he imagines a beautiful girl in a white dress wandering into the reading room and lingering distractedly after closing time; he imagines showing her over the mysteries of the bindery and cataloguing room, then emerging with her into the starry night. It never happens. Working in the library is not his only employment. On Wednesday afternoons he assists with first-year tutorials in the Mathematics Department (three pounds a week); on Fridays he conducts the diploma students in drama through selected comedies of Shakespeare (two pounds ten); and in the late afternoons he is employed by a cram school in Rondebosch to coach dummies for their Matriculation exams (three shillings an hour). During vacations he works for the Municipality (Division of Public Housing) extracting statistical data from household surveys. All in all, when he adds up the monies, he is comfortably off -- comfortably enough to pay his rent and university fees and keep body and soul together and even save a little. He may only be nineteen but he is on his own feet, dependent on no one. The needs of the body he treats as a matter of simple common sense. Every Sunday he boils up marrowbones and beans and celery to make a big pot of soup, enough to last the week. On Fridays he visits Salt River market for a box of apples or guavas or whatever fruit is in season. Every morning the milkman leaves a pint of milk on his doorstep. When he has a surplus of milk he hangs it over the sink in an old nylon stocking and turns it into cheese. For the rest he buys bread at the corner shop. It is a diet Rousseau would approve of, or Plato. As for clothes, he has a good jacket and trousers to wear to lectures. Otherwise he makes old clothes last. He is proving something: that each man is an island; that you don't need parents. Some evenings, trudging along the Main Road in raincoat and shorts and sandals, his hair plastered flat by the rain, lit up by the headlights of passing cars, he has a sense of how odd he looks. Not eccentric (there is some distinction in looking eccentric), just odd. He grinds his teeth in chagrin and walks faster. He is slim and looselimbed, yet at the same time flabby. He would like to be attractive but he knows he is not. There is something essential he lacks, some definition of feature. Something of the baby still lingers in him. How long before he will cease to be a baby? What will cure him of babyhood, make him into a man? 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. His sandals cost two shillings and sixpence a pair. They are of rubber, and are made somewhere in Africa, Nyasaland perhaps. When they get wet they do not grip the sole of the foot. In the Cape winter it rains for weeks on end. Walking along the Main Road in the rain, he sometimes has to stop to recapture a sandal that has slipped free. At such moments he can see the fat burghers of Cape Town chuckling as they pass in the comfort of their cars. Laugh! he thinks. Soon I will be gone! He has a best friend, Paul, who like him is studying mathematics. Paul is tall and dark and in the midst of an affair with an older woman, a woman named Elinor Laurier, small and blonde and beautiful in a quick, birdlike way. Paul complains about Elinor's unpredictable moods, about the demands she makes on him. Nevertheless, he is envious of Paul. If he had a beautiful, worldly-wise mistress who smoked with a cigarette-holder and spoke French, he would soon be transformed, even transfigured, he is sure. Elinor and her twin sister were born in England; they were brought to South Africa at the age of fifteen, after the War. Their mother, according to Paul, according to Elinor, used to play the girls off against each other, giving love and approval first to the one, then to the other, confusing them, keeping them dependent on her. Elinor, the stronger of the two, retained her sanity, though she still cries in her sleep and keeps a teddy-bear in a drawer. Her sister, however, was for a while crazy enough to be locked up. She is still under therapy, as she struggles with the ghost of the dead old woman. Elinor teaches in a language school in the city. Since taking up with her, Paul has been absorbed into her set, a set of artists and intellectuals who live in the Gardens, wear black sweaters and jeans and rope sandals, drink rough red wine and smoke Gauloises, quote Camus and García Lorca, listen to progressive jazz. One of them plays the Spanish guitar and can be persuaded to do an imitation of cante hondo. Not having proper jobs, they stay up all night and sleep until noon. They hate the Nationalists but are not political. If they had the money, they say, they would leave benighted South Africa and move for good to Montmartre or the Balearic Islands. Paul and Elinor take him along to one of their get-togethers, held in a bungalow on Clifton beach. Elinor's sister, the unstable one he has been told about, is among the company. According to Paul, she is having an affair with the owner of the bungalow, a florid-faced man who writes for the Cape Times . The sister's name is Jacqueline. She is taller than Elinor, not as fine-featured but beautiful nonetheless. She is full of nervous energy, chain-smokes, gesticulates when she talks. He gets on with her. She is less caustic than Elinor, for which he is relieved. Caustic people make him uneasy. He suspects they pass witticisms about him when his back is turned. Jacqueline suggests a walk on the beach. Hand in hand (how did that happen?) in the moonlight, they stroll the length of the beach. In a secluded space among the rocks she turns to him, pouts, offers him her lips. He responds, but uneasily. Where will this lead? He has not made love to an older woman before. What if he is not up to standard? It leads, he discovers, all the way. Unresisting he follows, does his best, goes through with the act, even pretends at the last to be carried away. In fact he is not carried away. Not only is there the matter of the sand, which gets into everything, there is also the nagging question of why this woman, whom he has never met before, is giving herself to him. Is it credible that in the course of a casual conversation she detected the secret flame burning in him, the flame that marks him as an artist? Or is she simply a nymphomaniac, and was that what Paul, in his delicate way, was warning him about when he said she was 'under therapy'? In sex he is not utterly unschooled. If the man has not enjoyed the lovemaking, then the woman will not have enjoyed it either -- that he knows, that is one of the rules of sex. But what happens afterwards, between a man and a woman who have failed at the game? Are they bound to recall their failure whenever they meet again, and feel embarrassed? It is late, the night is getting cold. In silence they dress and make their way back to the bungalow, where the party has begun to break up. Jacqueline gathers her shoes and bag. 'Goodnight,' she says to their host, giving him a peck on the cheek. 'You're off?' he says. 'Yes, I'm giving John a ride home,' she replies. Their host is not at all disconcerted. 'Have a good time then,' he says. 'Both of you.' Jacqueline is a nurse. He has not been with a nurse before, but received opinion is that, from working among the sick and dying and attending to their bodily needs, nurses grow cynical about morality. Medical students look forward to the time when they will do night shifts at the hospital. Nurses are starved for sex, they say. They fuck anywhere, anytime. Jacqueline, however, is no ordinary nurse. She is a Guy's nurse, she is quick to inform him, trained in midwifery at Guy's Hospital in London. On the breast of her tunic, with its red shoulder-tabs, she wears a little bronze badge, a casque and gauntlet with the motto Per Ardua. She works not at Groote Schuur, the public hospital, but at a private nursing home, where the pay is better. Two days after the event on Clifton beach he calls at the nurses' residence. Jacqueline is waiting for him in the entrance hall, dressed to go out, and they leave at once. From an upstairs window faces crane down to stare; he is aware of other nurses glancing at him inquisitively. He is too young, clearly too young, for a woman of thirty; and, in his drab clothes, without a car, plainly not much of a catch either. Within a week Jacqueline has quit the nurses' residence and moved in with him in his flat. Looking back, he cannot remember inviting her: he has merely failed to resist. He has never lived with anyone before, certainly not with a woman, a mistress. Even as a child he had a room of his own with a door that locked. The Mowbray flat consists of a single long room, with an entryway off which lead a kitchen and a bathroom. How is he going to survive? He tries to be welcoming to his sudden new companion, tries to make space for her. But within days he has begun to resent the clutter of boxes and suitcases, the clothes scattered everywhere, the mess in the bathroom. He dreads the rattle of the motor-scooter that signals Jacqueline's return from the day shift. Though they still make love, there is more and more silence between them, he sitting at his desk pretending to be absorbed in his books, she mooning around, ignored, sighing, smoking one cigarette after another. She sighs a great deal. That is the way her neurosis expresses itself, if that is what it is, neurosis: in sighing and feeling exhausted and sometimes crying soundlessly. The energy and laughter and boldness of their first meeting have dwindled to nothing. The gaiety of that night was a mere break in the cloud of gloom, it would seem, an effect of alcohol or perhaps even an act Jacqueline was putting on. They sleep together in a bed built for one. In bed Jacqueline talks on and on about men who have used her, about therapists who have tried to take over her mind and turn her into their puppet. Is he one of those men, he wonders? Is he using her? And is there some other man to whom she complains about him? He falls asleep with her still talking, wakes up in the morning haggard. Jacqueline is, by any standards, an attractive woman, more attractive, more sophisticated, more worldly-wise than he deserves. The frank truth is that, were it not for the rivalry between the twin sisters, she would not be sharing his bed. He is a pawn in a game the two of them are playing, a game that long antedates his appearance on the scene -- he has no illusions about that. Nevertheless, he is the one who has been favoured, he should not question his fortune. Here he is sharing a flat with a woman ten years older than he, a woman of experience who, during her stint at Guy's Hospital, slept (she says) with Englishmen, Frenchmen, Italians, even a Persian. If he cannot claim to be loved for himself, at least he has been given a chance to broaden his education in the realm of the erotic. Such are his hopes. But after a twelve-hour shift at the nursing home followed by a supper of cauliflower in white sauce followed by an evening of moody silence, Jacqueline is not inclined to be generous with herself. If she embraces him at all she does so perfunctorily, since if it is not for the sake of sex that two strangers have penned themselves up together in such a cramped and comfortless living-space, then what reason have they for being there at all? It all comes to a head when, while he is out of the flat, Jacqueline searches out his diary and reads what he has written about their life together. He returns to find her packing her belongings. 'What is going on?' he asks. Tight-lipped, she points to the diary lying open on his desk. He flares up in anger. 'You are not going to stop me from writing!' he vows. It is a non sequitur, and he knows it. She is angry too, but in a colder, deeper way. 'If, as you say , you find me such an unspeakable burden,' she says, 'if I am destroying your peace and privacy and your ability to write, let me tell you from my side that I have hated living with you, hated every minute of it, and can't wait to be free.' What he should have said was that one should not read other people's private papers. In fact, he should have hidden his diary away, not left it where it could be found. But it is too late now, the damage is done. He watches while Jacqueline packs, helps her strap her bag on the pillion of her scooter. 'I'll keep the key, with your permission, until I have fetched the rest of my stuff,' she says. She snaps on her helmet. 'Goodbye. I'm really disappointed in you, John. You may be very clever -- I wouldn't know about that -- but you have a lot of growing up to do.' She kicks the starter pedal. The engine will not catch. Again she kicks it, and again. A smell of petrol rises in the air. The carburettor is flooded; there is nothing to do but wait for it to dry out. 'Come inside,' he suggests. Stony-faced, she refuses. 'I'm sorry,' he says. 'About everything.' He goes indoors, leaving her in the alley. Five minutes later he hears the engine start and the scooter roar off. Is he sorry? Certainly he is sorry Jacqueline read what she read. But the real question is, what was his motive for writing what he wrote? Did he perhaps write it in order that she should read it? Was leaving his true thoughts lying around where she was bound to find them his way of telling her what he was too cowardly to say to her face? What are his true thoughts anyway? Some days he feels happy, even privileged, to be living with a beautiful woman, or at least not to be living alone. Other days he feels differently. Is the truth the happiness, the unhappiness, or the average of the two? The question of what should be permitted to go into his diary and what kept forever shrouded goes to the heart of all his writing. If he is to censor himself from expressing ignoble emotions -- resentment at having his flat invaded, or shame at his own failures as a lover -- how will those emotions ever be transfigured and turned into poetry? And if poetry is not to be the agency of his transfiguration from ignoble to noble, why bother with poetry at all? Besides, who is to say that the feelings he writes in his diary are his true feelings? Who is to say that at each moment while the pen moves he is truly himself? At one moment he might truly be himself, at another he might simply be making things up. How can he know for sure? Why should he even want to know for sure? Things are rarely as they seem : that is what he should have said to Jacqueline. Yet what chance is there she would have understood? How could she believe that what she read in his diary was not the truth, the ignoble truth, about what was going on in the mind of her companion during those heavy evenings of silence and sighings but on the contrary a fiction, one of many possible fictions, true only in the sense that a work of art is true -- true to itself, true to its own immanent aims -- when the ignoble reading conformed so closely to her own suspicion that her companion did not love her, did not even like her? Jacqueline will not believe him, for the simple reason that he does not believe himself. He does not know what he believes. Sometimes he thinks he does not believe anything. But when all is said and done, the fact remains that his first try at living with a woman has ended in failure, in ignominy. He must return to living by himself; and there will be no little relief in that. Yet he cannot live alone for ever. Having mistresses is part of an artist's life: even if he steers clear of the trap of marriage, as he will certainly do, he is going to have to find a way of living with women. Art cannot be fed on deprivation alone, on longing, loneliness. There must be intimacy, passion, love as well. Picasso, who is a great artist, perhaps the greatest of all, is a living example. Picasso falls in love with women, one after another. One after another they move in with him, share his life, model for him. Out of the passion that flares up anew with each new mistress, the Doras and Pilars whom chance brings to his doorstep are reborn into everlasting art. That is how it is done. What of him? Can he promise that the women in his own life, not only Jacqueline but all the unimaginable women to come, will have a similar destiny? He would like to believe so, but he has his doubts. Whether he will turn out to be a great artist only time will tell, but one thing is sure, he is no Picasso. His whole sensibility is different from Picasso's. He is quieter, gloomier, more northern. Nor does he have Picasso's hypnotic black eyes. If ever he tries to transfigure a woman, he will not transfigure her as cruelly as Picasso does, bending and twisting her body like metal in a fiery furnace. Writers are not like painters anyway: they are more dogged, more subtle. Is that the fate of all women who become mixed up with artists: to have their worst or their best extracted and worked into fiction? He thinks of Hélène in War and Peace . Did Hélène start off as one of Tolstoy's mistresses? Did she ever guess that, long after she was gone, men who had never laid eyes on her would lust after her beautiful bare shoulders? Must it all be so cruel? Surely there is a form of cohabitation in which man and woman eat together, sleep together, live together, yet remain immersed in their respective inward explorations. Is that why the affair with Jacqueline was doomed to fail: because, not being an artist herself, she could not appreciate the artist's need for inner solitude? If Jacqueline had been a sculptress, for instance, if one corner of the flat had been set aside for her to chip away at her marble while in another corner he wrestled with words and rhymes, would love have flourished between them? Is that the moral of the story of himself and Jacqueline: that it is best for artists to have affairs only with artists? Excerpted from Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II by J. M. Coetzee All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.