Monday, October 29, 2007

Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee)

Penguin :: 2000 :: 224 pp. :: $14.00 :: paperback

Read for the Complete Booker Challenge -- winner in 1999.

"For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well," opens Coetzee's slim, coolly-narrated novel of a middle-aged, divorced professor at a South Africa university named David Lurie who has, in fact, not solved the problem of sex very well at all. Regular appointments with a prostitute eventually don't suffice to quell his fears of aging, and so he seduces a young student in his class named Melanie, not even realizing how close he comes to destroying the girl. When the affair comes out and David refuses to apologize, he's fired.

From there what has been a claustrophobic, evenly-paced story of academic sterility expands messily outwards, sending David out to the country where his lesbian daughter Lucy is eking out a living from the land. There, what at first seems to be an entirely different story begins. Living with Lucy, David helps a plain woman named Bev put down sick dogs, and begins to write a libretto on Byron, whom he takes as a romantic idol. Only when a horrific act of violence is committed on himself and Lucy by do things really fall apart, however. Then the romantic, complacent, masculine solipsism with which David has always been able to view his life really undergoes a challenge. The problem of sex and the problem of power, so terrifically manifest in the novel's setting of post-apartheid South Africa, come to seem similar, even as one.

"Because a woman's beauty does not belong to her alone," David says to Melanie when he cajoles her to stay the night, in the beginning of the book. "It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it." He quotes Shakespeare to support his point, but the point is no longer appropriate, no longer acceptable, in our time. In fact it is merely a prelude to the violence of rape, and the novel takes us through the spectrum of violence and violation with a dooming sure-footedness.

I found this book subjectively difficult to get into, because its sexist, oblivious protagonist was naturally, immediately antagonistic to my sensibilities. But the book seems to draw back from David further and further as more characters from lower in the hierarchy of social power are allowed to view him, and to speak. The terror that enters the book when David and Lucy are attacked, the sheer physical horror of it, is like a release of tension from all the subtler attacks that David carries out earlier on in the novel, not only on Melanie but on the prostitute he believes he's treating well, the daughter he believes he's a good father to. They say there's no surer way to create sympathy for a character than to punish him far more than he deserves for a small sin, but the irony of it is that David's crimes against others are inextricably linked to the crimes committed against him.

Eventually, David begins to change his libretto and give Byron's women a voice. As he does so, he makes an attempt, which I see as doomed, to understand his daughter. Befitting the large and unsolvable problems with which it grapples, Disgrace doesn't wrap things up tidily at the end, not even, really, with a complete redemption for its protagonist. The David Lurie we see at the end of the novel is still a product of his environment, still essentially rooted in the power structure to which he belongs, and still easily recognizable as the same crudely, deeply flawed man he was when he was visiting the prostitute every week -- but the story and the subtle change in his perspective are all the more moving for that.

In Summary: Complex and beautiful and quietly moving despite its theme of violence. I highly recommend this book and definitely expect to pick it up many more times throughout my life.


Daniel Lopes said...

i love this book, girl. read it twice, and don't see the hour of do it again. superp! i love Coetzee, the best one in the current english-writen literature.

i'm brazilian. if you read portuguese, please take a look on my blog. thanks.

my msn:

Kristen said...

I unfortunately don't read Portuguese, but thank you for reading this. Coetzee is wonderful and I'm definitely going to read more of his work -- it's nice to encounter another fan. :)

Wendy said...

Fabulously written review! I just finished this one and posted my review on The Complete Booker as well as here on my blog. It was interesting - I really disliked David, didn't even really feel much sympathy for the character, but it didn't stop me from liking the book. I guess that says something about Coetzee's skill as a writer.

Antinormative Geek said...

great book. apparently a lot of people find Coetzee difficult to read - I like that it is 'raw'. I suggest reading Slow Man, with Elizabeth Costello in preliminary reading. Or Youth.

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