Author: J.M Coetzee
Date Of Version Reviewed: 2003
What the book is about…
‘Youth’s narrator, a student in 19950s South Africa, has long been plotting an escape from his native country. Studying mathematics, reading poetry, saving money, he tries to ensure that when he arrives in the real world he will be prepared to experience life to its full intensity and transform it into art. Arriving at last in London, however, he finds neither poetry nor romance. Instead he succumbs to the monotony of life as a computer programmer, from which random. loveless affairs offer no relief. Devoid of inspiration, he stops writing and begins a dark pilgrimage in which he is continually tested and continually found wanting.’ [credit: vintage]
Youth is the second in a series of semi-autobiographical novels by the Nobel Prize winning author of ‘Disgrace’ and ‘The Childhood of Jesus’. Coetzee brings images of 1950s London and South Africa in this tale of a young man seeking to find his way in the world – a world that seems intent on destroying his dreams of being an artist in an exotic new country. What does the central character – coincidentally named John – mean to Coetzee himself? The protagonist isn’t a likeable hero but rather a mildly narcissistic, incredibly naïve and self-indulgent young man. Is this tale Coetzee’s admission of a deep belief that everything is about art and nothing else matters in life but a place in history? It would be interesting to find out how much of the John character – including all the unpleasant internal dialogue and turmoil – is actually based on Coetzee’s own experience of youth.
John views women as objects that can be used and discarded in an attempt to add an artistic mystique to his own life. He views other artists in history as womanisers and people who relied on their own misery as inspiration for their masterpieces. If only he could get with the right woman he too could discover his muse and become the artist he yearns to be. Unfortunately he lacks the willingness to commit the hard work required to succeed as a true artist – opting to complain about the lack of opportunities life presents to him. This may be a harsh critique of the youth in the 1950s but there are many parallels between this picture and millennials of 2017. There is a strong sense of entitlement that typifies John’s plight to become an artist and his comparisons to others in his life and in history can be likened to a 1950s version of Facebook envy. He views the lives of others positively; moaning to himself that his life does not compare to those around him. He is unable to see that every other person has their own struggles through life, expecting something more than life can provide without the hard work and dedication needed.
John doesn’t see the beauty in life. In some ways this actually hinders his ability to produce poetry of a standard that rivals his idol Pound. What is good art and why does he seek it? Is it fame? Notoriety? As he lives in the future he is never truly in the present and it is no surprise from an outside perspective that he is on the road to failure. His cold and alienating demeanour shines through the writing perfectly – he is becoming more and more of an bitter man through his belief that misery is the key ingredient to success.
In order to avoid failure, John becomes colder and more callous with every day that passes though he lacks the self-awareness to realise this will always be his undoing. The whole novel presents as a weeping monologue of ‘if only’ scenarios. It is both incredibly frustrating as a reader but powerful in its impact. One just wants to shake John by his shoulders, tell him to get over himself and grow up. He is in a world that is unfair and hard work is the only thing that will get him where he wants to be. There is an element of narcissism in his personality that is powerfully bought forth by the talent which Coetzee possesses.
Final Thought: This is a weird novel not because of a convoluted plot, mythical imagery or a lack of clarity. It is weird because a novel should not have a protagonist who the reader deeply dislikes. The hero should be a good guy but John is – in fact – deeply unlikeable. We want to wake him up to the beauty of life going on around him; to shake him by the shoulders and kick him up the ass. It is a tale of wasted youth, of dismissing the wonder of the world in a doomed pursuit of historical notoriety.
The folks on Goodreads said…
‘I wouldn’t have much patience with this bloke in real life. What kind of issues is he complaining of, anyway? No muse, no love, no talent.’ Nathalie 3/5
‘I will have to reread my Coetzee collection again in order to make a proper evaluation of why I can’t make up my mind about this one.’ Lisa 4/5
‘You will both hate and love his characters, but more than that, you will never be able to forget them.’ Nurul Nadzirin 5/5
‘This short novel gave the experience of what it is like to be trapped by one’s own undoing but nothing more.’ Stephen P 2/5
‘Overall – amazing insights from the mind of this South African Nobel Laureate.’ Sean Del La Rosa 4/5
‘Youth is a novel which will either resonate with your adolescent desires or that will put you off instantly.’ Tom 3/5
‘This book reads like a dishwasher manual, that’s how flat and emotionless the sentences are. The struggles of the narrator are superfluous and self-inflicted due to the utterly strange world view permeating the whole book. Basically, I wanted to shake the narrator on every single page and shout “Get a life!” at him. So from that aspect it is an engaging book, I guess.’ Marcel Krueger 1/5
I NEVER critique a review but I had to weigh in on Mr Krueger’s view as above. ‘Flat and emotionless’ – the writing reflects the character. The fact that you wanted to shake the character and tell him to get a life is precisely what Coetzee WANTS you to think. It is exactly the reason why the book is so good is because it provokes that type of response.