Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life
by J.M. Coetzee
Penguin, 1998, $14.00
The hero of J.M. Coetzee’s childhood memoir is not the boy who grows up to become the 2003 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nor is the hero, as some might suspect, a literary one who fostered through verse a young boy’s passion for writing. The hero of Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life is his mother, the driving force behind his devotion to academia and the shadow behind the man who is known, according to fellow writer Rian Malan, for his “monkish self-discipline and dedication.”1 Though the memoir is replete with fascinating tidbits that reveal the seeds of genius which took root early in Coetzee’s childhood, the most poignant moments of the work revolve around the boy’s larger-than-life mother, a woman of many dimensions and layers.
Boyhood’s publication served as a turning point for Coetzee’s writing career. Though he had already received acclaim for previous works, like Dusklands (1974), In the Heart of the Country (1976), and Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), he chose to remain decisively private about his life, even declining to accept either of his two Booker Prizes at the award ceremonies. Unlike the traditional memoir, Boyhood is written entirely in third-person, narrated by a character who may only closely resemble the actual author. In addition, the memoir addresses larger issues, such as sexual awakening and apartheid in South Africa. These themes are largely overshadowed, however, by the mundane. What makes Boyhood such a fascinating work is not the breathtaking landscapes of Cape Town or the interesting characters that pass fleetingly through Coetzee’s life: it is the boy’s relationship with his mother that transforms the chronicle into something much more than an account of one’s childhood. Nearly every chapter of Boyhood conveys the sheer terror of a child who is deathly afraid of losing his mother, who chooses to scorn her while taking advantage of her unconditional love. This love, though heartbreaking and tragic, continues to haunt Coetzee, even on the verge of adolescence.
The son’s relationship with his mother is an ambiguous one. There is no definitive endpoint, as there is with the father. In one telling moment, a young Coetzee seeks to embrace his father at night before going to bed, only to be rebuked and told that he is too old for such compassionate gestures. Thus, an emotional ceiling is reached. His mother, on the other hand, continues to lavish both he and his brother with near-religious adoration. Whereas Coetzee could have depicted the mother in a one-dimensional light—that of a doting and selfless maternal figure—he chose instead to empower the character as a tragic hero unwilling to accept her fate as a domestic housewife. In the very first chapter of the novel, Coetzee’s mother learns to ride a bicycle on her own; doing so earns her a newfound freedom, since she is able to travel long distances without having to tire herself out. Soon enough, her husband begins to mock her for riding the bicycle wherever she goes, a contraption which is described in the memoir as “a woman’s model, second hand, painted black.” When the son, too, begins to ridicule his mother, she gives up riding the bicycle altogether, and Coetzee feels relieved that she will not leave him. This first instance of childhood selfishness pervades the rest of the work until the very end. Coetzee, the brilliant academic in school who is accustomed to receiving praise, shifts between feeling pity for his mother and resenting her existence. He cannot understand, even at the conclusion of Boyhood, why his mother is so devoted to him and to family members who are undeserving of her strength and self-restraint.
When Coetzee writes about his mother, he is also revealing parts of himself which are most private and tender. In the passage below, for example, Coetzee is angered by his mother’s love for reasons which, though unexpected, are assuredly genuine. Even though the memoir characterizes his childhood self as that of a boy tyrant, his sensitivity ultimately shines through. The passage is worth quoting at length:
They plan to go on the Saturday afternoon, when his father is playing cricket. His mother makes it into an outing for the three of them. But at the ticket booth she hears with a shock the high Saturday afternoon prices: 2/6 for children, 5/- for adults. She does not have enough money with her. She buys tickets for him and his brother. ‘Go in, I’ll wait here,’ she says. He is unwilling but she insists. Inside, he is miserable, enjoys nothing; he suspects his brother feels the same way. When they emerge at the end of the show, she is still there. For days afterwards he cannot banish the thought: his mother waiting patiently in the blazing heat of December while he sits in the circus tent being entertained like a king. Her blinding, overwhelming, self-sacrificial love, for both him and his brother but for him in particular, disturbs him. He wishes she did not love him so much. She loves him absolutely, therefore he most love her absolutely: that is the logic she commands upon him. Never will he be able to pay back all the love she pours out upon him. The thought of a lifetime bowed under a debt of love baffles and infuriates him to the point where he will not kiss her, refuses to be touched by her. When she turns away in silent hurt, he deliberately hardens his heart against her, refusing to give in.
Coetzee’s triumph in Boyhood is in creating a maternal character who is comprised of so many incongruous characteristics: strength, vulnerability, powerlessness, discipline, remorse, hypocrisy, and much more. On a few occasions, she appears to lament her decisions in life. Other times, she assumes sovereignty over her family without complaint, even when her own unemployed husband is taking advantage of her ability to work and support her two sons. In many ways, Boyhood can be read as an apology and a celebration of the mother who both stunted and facilitated the growth and development of her eldest son. In Coetzee’s own words, “He alone is left to do the thinking. How will he keep them all in his head, all the books, all the people, all the stories? And if he does not remember them, who will?”
1. Jason Cowley. “The New Statesmen Profile – J.M. Coetzee,” The New Statesmen (October 25, 1999).
JM Coetzee, Memoir, South Africa