by J. M. Coetzee

Hardcover, 2002





New York, N.Y. : Viking, 2002.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member dczapka
J. M. Coetzee is a strange author to me. Not unlike Cormac McCarthy, he has written books that I've loved (Disgrace) and books that I've despised (Life & Times of Michael K), and though I know he is a supremely talented writer, he's a bit up in the air in my book. So I approached Youth with caution, and while it was not a disappointment, I can't say I was overwhelmed by it either.

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.
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LibraryThing member John
Not, in my view, one of Coetzee's better works. This is a bildungsroman set in the 1960s in London. The narrator, John, is from South Africa and he wants to become an artist and writer. He does, however, suffer from an "impasse of spirit". He basically let's life wash over himself.
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.
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LibraryThing member CharlesSwann
A portrait of a young man who feels anything doesn't fit for him in the real world and yearns for arts, that is, writing. If anyone is to be saved, who cannot live in the real world, there is just only one way; writing(or more broadly, representing) one's figure who is suffering.
LibraryThing member sinaloa237
Coetzee still has the same subtelty which makes this book a real delight - and a torture as well, wandering about how the young author is going to escape the trap he has fallen into.
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.
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LibraryThing member charisse_louw
Not much of a leap from Coetzee as protagonist to the embittered, unlikeable, though highly compelling protagonist of his award winning 'Disgrace.'
LibraryThing member autumnesf
A strangely interesting book about a very uninteresting youth. No backbone or brains, the boy was so in love with the thought of being a poet that he never realizes that he isn't one. Love the way it was written.
LibraryThing member stillatim
You'd think that there'd be more action in the second part of a kind-of-auto biography, and in one sense there is more action here than in Boyhood. He has various jobs, he moves overseas, he has depressing sex with a great number of women while convincing himself that he's a complete failure with women. But for all that it's less affecting, as if the need to tell the 'story' over-rides what made Boyhood great. There's still lots going on... perhaps it's just harder to have anything but contempt for the Coetzee of these pages, who holds onto a pathetic residual romanticism despite having pretty good taste in books; who is disturbingly fixated on his penis/his fixation on his penis; and manages to make even a nice period of his life end up with an image of him losing at a game of chess. Anyone who's ever lost at a well played game of chess will know the frustration, and appreciate the analogy. But it's hard to see how having a good job, with some decent friends, albeit without being a Major Author, gives rise to that level of frustration.… (more)
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
I read this book before I should have done, I suppose - it's the second volume in a trilogy called 'Scenes from Provincial Life', and I haven't read the first one. That fact notwithstanding, I enjoyed 'Youth' tremendously. The story charts the narrator's early academic career in South Africa, followed by relocation to the UK, where he struggles to manage the demands of working for a living against his writing aspirations.

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.
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LibraryThing member siafl
An intimate account of Coetzee before he established his place in the literary world, I presume, for the many things in the book that are parallel with the author himself: the protagonist called John, from South Africa, alienated in a foreign place... It reminds me of Shakespeare's take on proper acting in Hamlet. This is about how to properly become a writer/poet by a writer. Writer to writer, for anyone aspiring, the author pours out his soul. For others, I can understand why they think it's boring, or why they would go as far as asking, "how could this be written by Coetzee?"

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.
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