The Complete Review offers another curious judgement: “Coetzee is an incredibly talented writer and a master craftsman — and, yes, this is a meticulously crafted book, and one of [Summertime’s] weaknesses is that it is so obviously a construct.” The key words here being “so obviously”. Perhaps the schism then is between those who are troubled by fiction as a construct and those who are not. One has to ask the question begged: how might this novel have been less of a construct; so obviously less of a construct? Of course, one can ask it of every novel.
The question is clearly one that troubles JM Coetzee, the writer currently living in Australia. In contrast, it seems not to be a question that troubled John Coetzee, the dead object of this novel’s attention. His ex-lover and ex-colleague Sophie Denoël, one of the people interviewed by his fictional biographer, offers her opinion of the man’s novels:
I did not read all of them. After Disgrace I lost interest. In general I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion. That’s all.
Such withering criticism is perhaps the clearest guidance to the reader and to the novel itself. By including it, spoken from the mouth of someone both close and distant to the author, the critic is disarmed. How can one criticise a book that pre-empts the worst one can offer? Perhaps this is why the consensus has been welcoming albeit distracted by a witless need to tease out the differences between author-writer and author-character.
The consensus is a conspicuous reversal of that on Coetzee’s previous novel Diary of a Bad Year which is, however, similar in many ways to Summertime, only more formally adventurous . . .