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Julian Meynell's Books

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Coetzee's Youth

Youth - J.M. Coetzee

This is a slim novel, almost a novella.  It is a semi-autobiographical account of the authors University years and the next few years in London in the 60s working as a computer programmer.  It touches on a number of unfulfilling sexual relationships over this time.  The emphasis in the book is on the internal life of the protagonist.  In particular, his seeking literary fame or at least a sense of purpose, his rejection of his South African background and his relationship with authors.  It is almost entirely about dissatisfaction, malaise and a sense of futility and meaninglessness.  It is a proper young intellectual suffers from a lot of angst book, and could easily have been called Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

I like Coetzee a lot and I think that he is a plausible candidate for greatest living writer, but this is not Coetzee at his best.  These kinds of books, in which nothing happens, and we focus on a meaningless life of dissatisfaction are very hard to do.  This one is not very bad, but it does not pull it off properly.  Such diverse books as Notes from the Underground, The Stranger, or the Sorrows of Young Werther are all trying to do something similar and in my mind do it better, because the exploration of these kind of themes, needs to be come at sideways and not straight on as this book does.

Still Coetzee is very good, and while this book does not in the end work, he is just so good that it is well worth reading.