I’m currently struggling to remember how many J M Coetzee novels I’ve read – I know I’ve read Disgrace and think I’ve read Elizabeth Costello and Foe – but a quick Wikipedia of a few of his other titles on the list makes me question if it isn’t more (Waiting for the Barbarians too, maybe…). I remember noticing that there are a large number of J M Coetzee novels on the list a couple of years ago – 10 in total – but, unlike Charles Dickens, who I think also has 10 novels on there, I hadn’t (at that time) previously heard of this author.
When I started reading Youth I thought it was in line with what I then subsequently found out about J M Coetzee – as the narrator and main character is born in South Africa and is a student of Mathematics and Literature – and googling after revealed that it is autobiographical (“fictionalised autobiography”, as Wikipedia puts it). Fiercely autonomous, the narrator leaves Cape Town for London to avoid conscription and gets a job at (then new, I think) IBM. Despite excelling at Math, the narrator struggles with programming, compared to his peers, and turns his studies towards literature (completing a remote postgrad diploma on the words of Ford Maddox Ford with the University of Cape Town – which I think is another thing the author actually did). Despite a string of romantic entanglements with various women and an impersonal friendship with his IBM co-worker, the narrator seems predominantly lonely – occupied by his job in the day and spending weekend days in the reading room, the evenings are his own to while away. Although I couldn’t really identify personally with him, I do feel like this is an extremely accurate portrayal of a lot of people’s experience of living in London – feeling alone despite the surrounding masses.
This is definitely my favourite of the J M Coetzee novels I’ve read so far – I think there’s something about the narrator – constantly dreaming of a literary-like romance while leading an incredibly banal existence – potentially interesting on paper but in the reality of the novel actually pretty boring – that is incredibly real. I’m not sure how much of it actually is autobiography and how much is fiction but a big part of me hopes it’s more the latter because the narrator really doesn’t seem to be having a good time.