Warning: Plot Spoilers ahead!
Personally, I don't read books for the plot . . . and tend to avoid genres which are entirely plot-driven. However, if you are desperate to read Disgrace for yourself -- and can't bear "review" type articles, do not read any further.
Friday night I was at a dinner party, and I happened to be sitting by a man who had spent many years working in South Africa. Of course I was pleased to be able to insert the author "J. M. Coetzee" into the conversation -- particularly as I had just finished Disgrace and was eager to discuss it. Unfortunately, my dinner partner couldn't recall much about the book . . . and our conversation soon moved on to South African politics. (You know how certain men are fonder of informing than being informed?) However, he did say one thing that caught my attention: "All South African novels and plays are about one thing: Apartheid."
While I can't speak to the veracity of this rather sweeping statement, I did consider it as it might apply to Disgrace. While not overtly about apartheid, Disgrace is definitely about the end of an era -- embodied by the protagonist, a 52 year old white English Professor named David Lurie. If you look for symbolism, which I found almost impossible to avoid in this instance, it is not much of a stretch to read this tale as a sort of death rattle of Afrikaner rule. Actually, "death rattle" is probably misleading; whilst Lurie's existence is presented as a death rattle, the Apartheid Era is clearly over -- so more of a death mask, really. There are clashes between Nature and Culture, Black and White; and in each case, white culture is the loser. The white daughter becomes pregnant with her black violator's child; her farm is given over to the care of the man who was once her hired hand. Strangely enough, these events are presented, not so much as"tragedies," but as the natural and inevitable consequences of everything that has come before. Lurie's daughter is seen as willing to compromise and adapt; Lurie is not, and so must face his own extinction.
It is always interesting to approach a novel that has already been judged to be a Very Important Work of Literature. (This book won the Booker Prize in 1999, and Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.) Instead of reading to discover if it is a good book, one automatically reads in a sort of defensive position -- not for the IF, but rather for the WHY. I found it impossible to read this novel without my graduate student glasses -- that particular sort of intellectual lens which looks for meta- and inter- textual meaning in everything. On more than one occasion I filed this novel under a personal category which goes something like this: Book which is Interesting to Discuss. (In my experience, some books -- particularly the sort described as "literary classics" -- can be more enjoyable and satisfying to discuss than they are to actually read. Kafka's and Faulkner's work are examples that come immediately to mind.) Although this book is never boring, there is something cool and dry about it -- something that keeps the reader at an emotional distance. It is a book that opens itself up to intellectual interpretation more than emotional involvement.
I wonder if this is the essence of the Coetzee style, or more a consequence of this book's narrative voice? It doesn't take long to realize that Lurie is going to be an unreliable narrator -- and that gap between what Lurie describes and observes, and what you sense as a reader that he gets wrong, inevitably contributes to one's emotional detachment. The novel begins -- not with the inappropriate affair with his student, from which his personal "disgrace" unfolds -- but rather with a description of his weekly assignation with a prostitute. He describes their relationship as one of "moderated bliss;" it is fairly obvious, from his comments, that he thinks he is entirely in control of something that does in fact threaten to control him. (The prostitute, Soraya, cuts him off entirely when he calls her at home.) We discover that he is twice-divorced; a serial philanderer. He is obviously terribly lonely, while also convinced of his self-sufficiency and temperamental disinclination for intimacy.
One aspect of Coetzee's work that I really admire is his attention to detail. You never get the sense of any waste or excess in his novel; every little thing seems like an important "sign," and a carrier of meaning vital to one's understanding of the whole. In the first chapter of the book we learn that Lurie, who was once a professor of modern languages at Cape Town University College, has now been reduced to "adjunct professor" of communications at the Cape Technical College. Thus, from the very beginning, it is established that every aspect of his existence is in "decline" in some way. His talents belong to a vanished world -- a world that has no relevance in this time and place. He keeps himself at an intellectual remove -- with his tendency to quote from French or Italian classical texts, and his absorption in writing an opera about Lord Byron's last significant love affair. He distances himself with irony, but never fully grasps to what extent that is true. For instance, he disdains the subject of "communications" -- but his reasons for doing so are pretentious and ridiculous. The true irony, of course, is that he has so few communication skills to employ -- much less to teach. The only real relationship he has is with his daughter, Lucy, and even this is fraught with misunderstanding. She constantly tells him: You're not listening to me; or, You don't understand. His ex-wife tells him, "you were always a great self-deceiver. A great deceiver and a great self-deceiver."
The relationship he has with the student Melanie is largely a figment of his imagination. They have a few encounters -- and while we are not privy to the young woman's thoughts or motivations -- it is clear that she is ambivalent, at best, about his attentions. On one occasion, he comes perilously close to raping her. Yet when offered a chance to apologize, and professionally rationalize his actions, he refuses to do on some quixotic "moral" grounds. He later tells his daughter Lucy, "My case rests on the rights of desire . . . On the god who makes even the small birds quiver." (In his "defense" against charges of sexual harrassment, if front of a university committee, Lurie claims to have been a "servant of Eros." It reminded me so much of Woody Allen's infamous "the heart wants what it wants" when he was caught having an affair with his 30-years-younger semi-step-daughter.) Lurie is a vain, oblivious conqueror -- still styling himself as a romantic hero.
Throughout the book, Lurie insists on his own irrelevance -- and marvels at each fresh incidence that threatens to bring him lower still. He loses his career and his reputation; his car is stolen; his house is broken into; and most importantly, his daughter is violated. In each case, he is powerless to intervene -- or he declines to intervene. At the beginning of the book, he is reminiscing about his "magnetism" toward women and his "flowing hair." By the end of the book, he is like a mad Lear who has lost everything. He sleeps with a woman who repulses him -- but congratulates himself on "doing his duty." Bandits set his head on fire, and he has to douse the flames in a toilet bowl. Despite all this, one gets the feeling that he doesn't really believe in these false protestations of humility. It doesn't quite occur to him to apologize for anything; rather, he is deluded and arrogant to the end. He spreads his hands in mock supplication -- mea culpa -- but you don't believe a minute of it.
Although Lurie may seem a despicable character, somehow he seems more so in my retelling than the actual telling. Perhaps this is because there is no authorial judgment between the lines. Coetzee treats his protagonist quite seriously, but he allows the "facts" to speak for themselves. It is one of those books that reads fairly simply, and then becomes more complicated the more that you think about it.
It was only after I finished the book, and began trying to piece it together in my mind, that I realized that it was entirely lacking in the comic element. Is this a Coetzee trademark? (When I asked Sigmund if he wanted to read some Coetzee with me, he replied, "God, no. He's way too miserable.") While it was a meticulously crafted story, I wonder if that lack of humor is a flaw in some way. Isn't life, no matter how tragic and pathetic, full of funny bits, too?
Final judgment: I think that I admire this book, rather than love it. Best of all Bookers? I don't think it would get my vote.
Interestingly enough, Jenine and I were having an off-blog conversation about Margaret Atwood last week. She finds Atwood a cold writer . . . perhaps in the same way that I find Coetzee cold? Anyway, she is going to give Atwood another try -- with The Blind Assassin, the Booker winner of 2000. Several of us mentioned reading this book; has anyone else gotten started?
Please write back with any helpful comments, commentaries, or book reviews. May -- when the Booker short list will be announced -- is swiftly approaching!