Quiet, Discreet: J. M. Coetzee's 'Youth'

'T. S. Eliot worked for a bank. Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka worked for insurance companies. In their own unique ways Eliot and Stevens and Kafka suffered no less than Poe or Rimbaud. There is no dishonour in electing to follow Eliot and Stevens and Kafka. His choice is to wear a black suit as they did, wear it like a burning shirt, exploiting no one, cheating no one, paying his way. In the Romantic era artists went mad on an extravagant scale. Madness poured out of them in reams of delirious verse of great gouts of paint. That era is over: his own madness, if it is to be his lot to suffer madness, will be otherwise - quiet, discreet. He will sit in a corner, tight and hunched, like the robed man in Dürer's etching, waiting patiently for his season in hell to pass.'

J. M. Coetzee, 'Youth'
I read Coetzee's Youth in three or four sittings. The narrative is straightforward enough: a rites of passage polemic about a South African protagonist, who moves to early 1960s London in search of culture, sophistication, and a sense of identity. Instead, he finds alienation and quiet despair, drifting from relationship to relationship while succumbing to the monotony of a computer programmer's existence. Early artistic aspirations are extinguished, and Youth finally culminates in a droning, numbing existential sense of ennui. Oh, to be young again!

Coetzee's short novel is bleak and somewhat pessimistic, but finds a sense of redemption and meaning in artistic expression - even if it ultimately lacks agency or possibility. Still, there were passages that held me rapt, and it's unusual for a book to have me pinned to the chair rather than glancing out of the window. Youth doesn't offer any easy solutions within its narrative; in fact, it doesn't really offer any solutions at all; but its strength lies in the way it describes a specific kind of problem. And it's one of the best descriptions of that kind of problem that I've ever read.