J.M. Coetzee – Youth (Secker & Warburg, 2002)

In London, bustling and cosmopolitan London, a city of writers, painters and artists, in his bare, decrepit room is the lonely youth. It’s too harsh to call him South African, because he’s left that place behind. He has no more need for his old land, his old language, his old family, because he is in London.

In Youth Coetzee retells his exodus from South Africa and his years studying and working as a computer programmer in something not quite autobiography. We watch his younger self’s desperate attempts to throw away the heritage he was born with and forge a new identity in the pattern of a great European writer. But his pursuit of manhood and artistic fulfilment seems unavoidably compromised by a disinterested crowd, financial demands and his own mediocrity.

Coetzee captures well the disappointment of accepting the world as it is, including one’s own limitations. For the young Coetzee it was seen in the choice between uninspiring computer programming and the life of an artist:
The more he has to do with computing the more it seems to him like chess: a tight little world defined by made-up rules, one that sucks in boys of a certain susceptible temperament and turn them half-crazy, as he is half-crazy, so that all the time they deludedly think they are playing the game, the game is in fact playing them.
It is a world he can escape – it is not too late for that. Alternatively he can make his peace with it, as he sees the young men around him do, one by one: settle for marriage and a house and car, settle for what life realistically has to offer, sink their energies in their work. He is chagrined to see how the reality principle operates… (p. 149-150)

Of course, there is irony in the fact that while most people do have to settle for reality, Coetzee did in fact go on to become a renowned writer and Nobel laureate. But Youth gives few indications of this future success.

Rather, the Coetzee we are shown is almost entirely unimpressive and the author seems determined to undermine our sympathy for him. Although we recognise many of the experiences of the youth, the reader is made to feel distant from him, with a bare, third-person narration. We have little inclination to forgive his maltreatment of women, his insensitivity towards his mother and his egocentrism. I don’t know whether this was Coetzee intention, but in each of these aspects the youth seems reminiscent of Mersault from The Stranger. As in Camus’ novel, it is precisely those feelings of repulsion and detachment from the protagonist that enables the reader to experience their sense of being out of place.