Youth's narrator, a student in 1950s 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. Set against the background of the 1960s, Youth is a remarkable portrait of a consciousness turning in on itself. J. M. Coetzee explores a young man's struggle to find his way in the world with tenderness and a fierce clarity.
The story is a strange mix of fiction and nonfiction, a book that reads like a novel but seems inspired (right down to the protagonist's name, John) by the author's life. It essentially comprises the details of John's coming of age, from his early work in South Africa to his escape to and disenchantment in London, working jobs to try and support his true dream of being a poet. Along the way he has failed love affairs and laments the difficulty of the life he has chosen, meditating on literature and beauty while trying to make ends meet in a hectic, difficult city.
The problem with a narrative constructed in such a way is that it constantly feels imbalanced, as if it's trying to negotiate a middle ground between the intense personal reflection and the day-by-day grind of the plot points. It's far more interesting to hear what Coetzee's hero is thinking, but it gets bogged down in endless description of computers and offices. It never feels like the plot has any trajectory--which may be the point, since the relatively apathetic John doesn't have much of one either--but that doesn't a great story make, as it turns out.
Thematically, the novel is greater than the sum of its parts. It feels natural to take love, sex, and poetry and constantly meld them throughout the work, and for the most part the effect of these images are clear and not forced. It seems a bit of stretch late in the work when John blames his failings in life on his insufficiencies in the bedroom, but it's also consistent with the mentality of a man his age. And despite being a reflection on life in the 1960s, the vaguely emo-ish tone of the text (which was written in 2002) feels contemporary enough to work.
All told, Youth is a bleak and fairly depressing look at Coetzee's early life, but it has its share of satisfying moments. Those looking for a clear arc from start to finish will likely be irritated--and while I don't know if reading Boyhood (Scenes from Provincial Life) first makes this any more coherent, it's still an engaging and honest look at one's own trials and tribulations.
He is too concentrated on what he thinks is the atmosphere (struggle, misery) required to be a great artist, but spends precious little time on the actual production of anything artistic.
Similarly, he believes that the right woman will see inside his exterior, appreciate his genius and serve to open it even further...but in the meantime he is an indifferent lover who realizes that his sex life is dull and unimaginative at best: "He is well aware that his failure as a writer and his failure as a lover are so closely parallel that they might as well be the same thing....What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again?"
Basically, I found John's approach to life and his continual introspection rather boring.
This is maybe the only question mark about this book: how is it possible for the author, being what he is now, to really have this look upon himself?
Very enjoyable and instructive reading anyway.
Coetzee's style makes reading the book an easy matter, although what most writers would simply declare, he instead opts to show through a question, and by the time you reach the end of the book the number of rhetorical questions asked of the narrator must surely be approaching a thousand. If you're happy to accept this - as I was - you will find here a book with a clear and cogent voice; others might find the approach a touch grating.
I love the book, even though I must say towards the end I find myself a bit confused with what and where the main point is. I image that the story could have ended a bit brighter, but I also suppose that that's what happened in real life. The truth. Hence the author ends the book this way. We are left with connecting the ending to today's Coetzee. So on one hand this is the author's reflection on the past, denouncing it as being what youth is (supposed to be), immature and even childish. On other, if one finds themselves stuck in that state, one has some growing up to do.