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Poetics of Self in J. M. Coetzee’s Fictionalized Memoirs

Angela Müller

This study explores the poetics and politics of self in J. M. Coetzee’s «autre»-biographical works «Scenes from Provincial Life». The author provides a detailed analysis of Coetzee’s conception of self in his fictionalized memoirs, as well as of philosophical, aesthetic and political implications of «autre»-biography. She reads these works as literary figurations of an estranged self, maintaining that they engage with deeply historical but also universal questions of the relation between self and power. Coetzee’s fictionalized memoirs, she argues, are thus not merely dramatizations of the inherent elusiveness of the self but a critique of systems and discourses of normativization and oppression.

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2. Autre-Biography and Self: Theoretical Considerations


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2.  Autre-Biography and Self: Theoretical Considerations

In 1987, J. M. Coetzee took the first notes for a book he intended to call Scenes from Provincial Life and which would later be entitled Boyhood. According to the manuscript of Boyhood, he first planned to write the novel in the first person but early on switched to the third person (cf. Kannemeyer 2012: 504–5). Presumably, this change was part of the author’s process of (re-)conceptualizing the text as a novel rather than as a memoir. Boyhood was published in 1997, ten years after the first notes were taken, with the subtitle Scenes from Provincial Life. One edition bears the additional subtitle A Memoir.28 Other editions are classified as fiction.29 Regarding the title, Coetzee wrote the following to the publishers of Secker & Warburg in 2001:

I have not been unhappy that Boyhood has floated in a rather indeterminate way between the classification Fiction and the classification Biography & Memoirs. It was only when, reading the contract for Youth, I noticed that a work of biography seemed to carry legal onus to tell no lies, that I became a little alarmed, and asked that, at least contractually, it be absolved of all pretentions to historical truth. (Kannemeyer 2012: 509–10)

That Boyhood, and later also Youth, are autobiographical works, or “books of the memoir genre” as Coetzee reveals in an email (668), has become consensus. Even Summertime must be considered as...

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