Portrait of the artist

J.M. Coetzee’s coming of age

December 04, 2003

Who has not heard of the impoverished artist, toiling in obscurity until one day he is recognized and given his due? It is a modern myth that fuels many young people to write, paint and draw, to test their mettle, to articulate thought into form. It is ironic that while we are young and energetic, naïve enough to dream big, we lack the experience of living, the raw material from which art emerges. While the desire is strong, understanding is often limited. To an artist, the vitality of youth is no compensation for the wisdom that comes with each passing year. As the scale tips toward age, the moment approaches when insight and understanding must be transfigured into art before the energy to produce dwindles and, finally, dissipates.

Youth, by J.M. Coetzee, is an exploration of a young man’s psyche over the course of four years. His aspirations and fantasies are ruthlessly laid bare. Coetzee, with a superbly nuanced style, presents us with an 18-year-old white South African—identified passingly as John, but bearing the autobiographical marks of Coetzee himself—who is a wholly unsympathetic character. A student of mathematics at the university, he seems to lack a feeling of connection to anyone in his life. He is cold inside, though not particularly cruel or callous. He is average in most ways, though he is clever enough to be aware of his own limitations. He secretly hopes to be a poet.

From the start, there’s a tension between the youth’s desire to be a poet, to be extraordinary, and the fact that he is, simply, ordinary. Which is to say that he lacks the very passion he admires. His matter-of-fact exchanges with the people in his life and his tendency to evade difficult or dangerous situations make him a poor candidate for the artist’s life. Yet it may be that his choices are merely due to his youth, his inexperience. Coetzee keeps that question alive throughout the novel—within the youth as he ventures out into the world, and within the reader, who must ask, will he outgrow this?

Much should be said about Coetzee’s skillful use of language, putting the reader right inside his subject’s head. One evening, the young man leaves a party with a woman he has just met. “Hand in hand [how did that happen?] in the moonlight, they stroll the length of the beach.” He uneasily follows her lead, trying to enjoy the spontaneity and the possibility of making love with an attractive stranger. He wonders if it’s 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?” He wonders about his ability to please her and then puts that concern to rest, remembering that “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.” Coetzee, with precision, immerses the reader in the young man’s state of ignorance. It is satire at its most earnest.

The youth’s lack of experience and insight is described with a fluency that elicits smiles and embarrassment. Upon reflection, the youth discovers that he lacks a “dark center.” He is, unlike the famous poets he admires, no great lover of women; he prefers to be alone. He doesn’t particularly enjoy sex. He ponders whether sexuality must be an irrepressible aspect of every artist. Sadly, as the story progresses, the youth finds he is not up to snuff, not even up to his own standards, and still he lacks the je ne sais quoi to change.

The youth has gutless interactions with women that bring his every flaw to light. He doesn’t know how to love. He just doesn’t feel it. He only goes through motions of caring. It isn’t so much that he takes advantage of women as it is that he simply cannot deliver the goods: warmth, affection, laughter. He feels oppressed by the love of his mother, ashamed of South Africa (his mother country) and unable to form significant bonds with the women he dates. As the years pass, he finds himself sinking deeper into isolation. And as he fails to reach out for human contact, he becomes less deserving of it.

“If no woman has yet detected,” Coetzee writes, “behind his woodenness, his clenched grimness, any flicker of the sacred fire; if no woman seems to give herself to him without the severest qualms; if the lovemaking he is familiar with, the woman’s as well as his own, is either anxious or bored or both anxious and bored—does it mean that he is not a real artist, or does it mean that he has not suffered enough yet, not spent enough time in a purgatory that includes by prescription bouts of passionless sex?”

Through it all, he is learning about who he is in the world—often a painful process. Coetzee takes us through that process with no apologies. The youth could be every man. He understands everything and nothing. He is utterly self-loathing and utterly critical. He is anyone who has fallen short in their dreams of themselves. At the close of the story, he is 24 and bearing the weight of his failures. Wanting to be a poet, he is weakly hoping, waiting for the right moment, for some cosmic shift to spur him on:

“Of course in his heart he knows destiny will not visit him unless he makes her do so. He has to sit down and write, that is the only way.”

Whether he will ever do it, that is another matter. Through the passionless struggles of his youth, Coetzee helps us to see that mustering the courage to truly pursue the dream is the first step, and perhaps the most important thing.

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