Dan Sandman

#26 Boyhood

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 23/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#26 BoyhoodAs its title suggests, Boyhood (1997) is about a South African boy’s childhood and schooldays. Each chapter is an essay on one particular aspect of boyhood: summers spent on his uncle’s farm in the Karroo desert; days spent avoiding the cane in a provincial school in Worcester; intimate moments with his mother in the kitchen. By writing about his younger self, Coetzee offers a critique of his own family and on post-WWII South Africa in general. This is successfully achieved through the use of several artistic tools.

Firstly, there is the choice of the present tense, which focuses attention away from the past and onto the moment of imaginative creativity itself. Secondly, Coetzee refers to himself as he, in the same detached way that he refers to characters in books not about himself. Thirdly, he wastes no time on description and spends much time on action. These three factor, when combined, produce a voice which is imaginative, detached and active. Events flash past at the speed of creation, as fast as pen being put to paper.

My main criticism is that Coetzee uses this voice to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Obviously, every memoir ever written has a problematic relationship to the truth of actual lived experience. As intelligent readers, we are aware that the writer has selected and discarded certain material in order to create an artwork. History does the same; but a history written in the present tense, as if it did not actually happen, would be pretty pointless. On the one hand, this memoir can be read as an arrogant attempt to discredit those critics who cling to historical truth; on the other hand, it can be seen as a triumphant cry to break up the novel form and make it new again. Either way, it can be quite annoying to read a memoir which refuses to include the word I.

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