YOUTH by J.M. Coetzee


Scenes from Provincial Life II
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Continuing the third-person narrative begun in Boyhood (1997), noted novelist Coetzee (Disgrace, 1999, etc.) pens another morose, yearning, revealing memoir.

The author begins with his late adolescence in South Africa during the 1950s, a time marked for him by confused and confusing sexual initiations, a bookish devotion to the writings of Ezra Pound and other literary modernists, and growing self-awareness. “Wrapped up though he is in his private worries,” Coetzee writes of his earlier self, “he cannot fail to see that the country around him is in turmoil.” When his mathematics tutorial is interrupted by armed policemen putting down a strike, the young man resolves to leave the country for England. Desperate for work, he takes a job as a computer programmer at IBM while devoting his free time to writing a master’s thesis on the novels of Ford Madox Ford. The setting has changed, but his life remains much the same: a sequence of furtive gropings, longings from afar, and gnawing dissatisfactions. “He has come to London to do what is impossible in South Africa: to explore the depths,” Coetzee writes. “Without descending into the depths one cannot be an artist. But what exactly are the depths? He had thought that trudging down icy streets, his heart numb with loneliness, was the depths. But perhaps the real depths are different, and come in unexpected form.” Coetzee labors on, misery piling on misery, until he finally has had enough and leaves his IBM post, much to the astonishment of the careerists and teacart ladies who are his daily companions. Free for only a few weeks of bohemian glory, he finds that in order to escape deportation he must find another job, and so he again takes work as a programmer. There we leave him, grim in the certainty that he will never escape the soul-deadening work of crunching numbers and riding suburban trains.

A fine portrait of the artist as a young drudge.

Pub Date: July 8th, 2002
ISBN: 0-670-03102-X
Page count: 169pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2002


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