J.M. Coetzee: Youth

A young South African escapes his mother country and flees to London, where he is miserable and then becomes slightly less so: this would seem to be a fairly accurate plot outline for Youth.

This is the second of Coetzee’s novels I have read. The first was Foe, which I studied but didn’t enjoy entirely. Some books are made for studying, some for enjoyment – Foe was one of the former, and I think Youth may be mid-way between the two.

The main problem with this novel – or the genius of it – is the vastly unsympathetic nature of it’s protagonist. The un-named male voice and central character of this novel is so unlikeable that one is forced to acknowledge the flawed nature of the narrative voice in fiction; it’s role as a persuasive tool, and the reader’s responsibility to read outside it; to see it for what it is. This is undoubtedly the point. However, this doesn’t make him any easier/more enjoyable to read about. It reminded me -unfavourably – of Catcher In The Rye. It’s the same problem, I think; unflinchingly and unapologetically homocentric, self-absorbed voice which is both a literary strength and weakness. In theory it’s interesting. In practice it is boring and borderline unreadable.

His relationships with women are so cold and impersonal as to almost not register as part of his story; his self-delusion in the face of all evidence, that he is a poet trapped in the body of someone very boring, is funny and tragic at the same time. Sex and poetry – two Romantic obessions that mark this poor boy’s life, and in the end get him nowhere and achieve nothing except years of fruitless angst and malcontent. Again, one feels one is being led down the garden path a bit – Coetzee is pressing our noses in the cliches of art and artistry, creating self-reflexive art in the process. The final feeling is one of deflation – of many circles having been run around; tails chased to no avail. The boy is become young man and has been defeated, or at least feels that this is the case, but he has gained a modicum of self-awareness along the way. Hurrah for small victories!

Having said all this, it is a well-written and thoughtful novel. There can be no doubting Coetzee’s skill or critical engagement. The characterization is perfect and painful; the London he depicts is brutal enough to convince, lonely enough to incite compassion; an unlikeable boy becomes an unlikeable man and the reader winces and cringes along the way. It’s a tough read because of all these things, but a worthwhile one for the same reason.

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