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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The genre of memoir has been troublesome in publishing recently. The truthfulness of many bestsellers has been called into question. Well, now, the South African author and Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee, has offered up a book that plays with the idea of memoir.

He's written a novel called "Summertime," about himself. Actually, the novel is about a young biographer researching a book about the late writer John Coetzee. It's a little confusing, but Alan Cheuse explains in this review.

ALAN CHEUSE: The book begins with a lot of smoke and mirrors. The major premise of the plot: The much-lauded South African novelist has died, and there's a biographer going around interviewing people, mostly alert and sensitive women, about his life before his great literary success.

The results of these interviews make up most of this intriguingly designed novel. A learned but restrained fellow, Coetzee, many of the interviewees, old girlfriends, some family members, testify. He was also standoffish, with little social sense, but he spoke and wrote good English. Alas, a bad lover, one of them puts it. Though his Afrikaner cousin Margot points out in her emotional session, his concern for his ailing father shows through, as does his love of the South African outback.

Toward the end, the biographer pushes one of his former lovers, a French academic who was his colleague at university, to make an assessment of Coetzee's work. In general, she says, his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, too easy, too lacking in passion.

Well, not in this new book, with its candor and frank design and intricate passions on display.

SIEGEL: The latest novel by J.M. Coetzee is called "Summertime." Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University.

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