Autobiography or Autrebiography? Master’s thesis: a study of autobiographical elements in J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood, Youth, Summertime and Elizabeth Costello
Bladel, J. van
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John M. Coetzee is not generally known for confessional self-revelation or being open about his personal life. Yet Coetzee’s first autobiographical work was published in 1997, under the title Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. Its sequel, entitled Youth, appeared 5 years later, followed by Summertime in 2009. In these works Coetzee plays with the generic boundaries of autobiography and by doing so Coetzee questions the notion of truth and the “convention of self-representation” in autobiography (Klopper 22). It is not surprising that Coetzee labels the periods of his life described in these works as “autrebiography”. This thesis investigates a number of theories on autobiography and self-representation in fictionalized and non-fictionalized autobiographies. Subsequently, Boyhood, Youth and Summertime are discussed in the light of these theories and of recent Coetzee scholarship. Moreover, the connection between the autobiographical characters in Boyhood, Youth and Summertime are explored; in order to investigate into what extent Coetzee discloses parts about himself in these works. Furthermore, this thesis looks into the relation between Coetzee and his character Elizabeth Costello in the novels Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. Costello is seen by many critics as Coetzee’s ‘alter ego’ and as such plays yet another role in the intricate interaction between Coetzee’s own life and his work. The findings of this thesis show that even though the autobiography has already been around for a long time, among critics the genre is still a much debated field. For instance regarding the themes truth and identity. This thesis shows that Boyhood, Youth and Summertime by J.M. Coetzee play with autobiographical identity and truth. By introducing the third person narrator instead of the first person that is more frequently used in autobiography. Boyhood, Youth and Summertime are perfect examples of how Coetzee understands the concept of truth, where he mixes factual accounts of his past with fiction. Furthermore, this thesis shows that the autobiographical boundaries are especially difficult with the character Elizabeth Costello Costello. By using Costello Coetzee can express certain opinions, while at the same time accomplishing to stay away from critique. However, it remains uncertain if Costello is voicing Coetzee’s views, since there are also a few characters that challenge her arguments. During the discussions between the characters it seems the reader is witnessing Coetzee’s own learning process.