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Doom and gloom in 1960s London

Youth by J.M.Coetzee

Where to begin with J.M. Coetzee’s Youth. Rarely have I felt such conflicting feelings about a book. Gloomy would be one way to describe it; cerebral another. Intelligent, insightful and virtuosic? Definitely. Pretentious?

I only found out after finishing that Youthis the second instalment of the South African author’s fictionalised memoir, making it Scenes from a Provincial Life II. Ostensibly, it tells of an aspiring writer’s struggle to live a life worthy of artistic preservation while also trying to navigate his fragile reality. He deals with huge disappointments, stifling relationships and a crushing fear of failure which becomes more and more threatening as his imagined life crumbles around him.

But he cannot see a connection between the end of yearning and the end of poetry. Is that what growing up amounts to: growing out of yearning, of passion, of all intensities of the soul?”

I paid a visit to the ‘C’ shelf in my local bookshop after discovering that Coetzee had been in regular contact with Paul Auster, whose writing I love for its thick layers of intellect and personality. Every Auster character is an open book with more dimensions than I am ever likely to discover in most of my friends. Their ruminations might cross over into exaggerated territory for some readers, but not for me. I became hungry for more and have craved similar since exhausting Auster’s repertoire. If I was to find this depth of character anywhere else, a pen-pal of the man himself ought to be a good place to start, right?

Unfortunately, my immediate response to Youth was of dark and heavy gloom. Coetzee’s protagonist – based upon himself, I believe – is incorrigibly bitter about the world around him, the people in it and, over time, his prospects for the future. 

Therapy is to make one happy. What is the point of that? Happy people are not interesting. Better to accept the burden of unhappiness and try to turn it into something worthwhile, poetry or music or painting: that is what he believes.”

However, in the days since finishing, I’ve come to realise that the character has indeed stuck with me. Maybe not in the often more positive and certainly more uplifting way that Auster’s have, but no matter how unpleasant and bitter the character seemed, he is nothing if not three-dimensional. And the book is stuffed full of relatable rumination*.

In short, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Youthto someone looking to add a little optimism to their lives, but for damn-fine writing, an expertly sculpted central character and a first-hand snapshot of 1960s London, Youthshould definitely go on the list.

*Don’t read too much into this; I promise I am not as bitter and twisted as Youth’s John.


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