I can’t choose between the two best books I’ve read all year, but they’re both by J.M. Coetzee — Disgrace and Summertime. They are equally riveting, uncompromising, heartbreaking, painfully intelligent, fully achieved portraits of human loneliness of a specific kind: that of the principled, bookish, socially awkward, essentially passive male. The books are also about South Africa, or rather, the book’s protagonists are inextricably bound up in, defined and limited and shaped by, that country’s climate — political, social, historical, meteorological. Any outrage Coetzee evokes with his various portrayals of the treatments of animals, of blacks, of women, is achieved without raising the decibel level of his voice above the mildly conversational. Therein lies much of his narrative power, his power to entertain and to shock: he isn’t cerebral or inaccessible, which seems to be a prevailing impression of him. He’s just unusually restrained, and his occasional swellings are generally in the direction of mordant humor, which is in its way as daring and risky as anything he says or writes about.
Disgrace is a novel, Summertime a fictionalized memoir, but both transcend genre labels — they feel sui generis, having emerged as wholly necessary, full-blown things. Coetzee has received death threats and a Nobel Prize — there is no question in my mind that he wholly deserved the latter, and as for the former, his work is so seemingly quiet, its surface as still as glass, in its essence without apparent controversy or intentional provocation, any official or unofficial desire to squelch this radiantly clear, steady, sane voice must be due to its ability to expose by example its opposite qualities wherever they exist and thereby to awaken a sense of virulent threat in those who possess them. But Coetzee’s only weapons seem to be laser-focused subtlety and fiercely intelligent clarity — he is a great writer, and these are great books.