Friday, June 5, 2015

Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee (1999)

Oeuvre rule: the only other book I have read by J.M. Coetzee is Foe.  Foe is not generally referenced as one of Coetzee's major works--those would probably include The Life and Times of Michael K., Disgrace, and perhaps Waiting for the Barbarians--but I read it in 2003 for a class taken at the University of Paris - Nanterre, on pluralist readings of texts inspired by Freud, Marx and Derrida.  Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 2, 2003, but I do not recall our French professor (who taught in English) mentioning that fact.  Foe is basically the story of Robinson Crusoe, told from the perspective of a woman, whose name is Susan Barton.  Ironically, about three years after reading on this, I would work on a house that was owned by a woman named Susan Barton, but I never mentioned the coincidence to her (nor did I have the chance to tell another homeowner named Thomas Mann that I loved his work).  Essentially, Susan Barton is shipwrecked and marooned on an island with a native, Friday, who becomes her manservant.  But she survives and is rescued and returns to England, where she meets and copulates with Daniel DeFoe, inspiring the novel.  We read it and attached Freudian symbols to everything in the text.  It was a reasonably entertaining novel, but in hindsight it appears to me as extremely allegorical, like there is a second layer to it and the plot is ultimately secondary.  Disgrace is similar in this respect, but since I do not have the advantage of reading it in the classroom, the symbols and metaphors that may be present were not apparent to me.  Even without this potentially deeper significance, it was an enjoyable read and I recommend it to everyone, particularly those that enjoy The Stranger by Camus.

Basically, while the plot is not exactly the same as The Stranger, the whole style and tone of the novel renders it a spiritual sequel to that classic.  It seems like it's easy to spoil this book, but I think most will agree that the plot can be spoiled up to a point.

Professor David Lurie teaches at a university in Johannesburg, South Africa.  He is twice-divorced, and as the novel opens, he is detailing his trysts with a prostitute.  Soon thereafter, he becomes smitten with a student in one of his classes (Melani) and they enter into a sexual relationship, though he is more than 30 years her senior.  It falls apart after a short time, and almost immediately he is reported to the university.  He is given the chance to repent for his actions and take a leave of absence, but instead he chooses to resign permanently.  He then goes to visit his daughter (Lucy) in the countryside.  His daughter sells crops at a sort of farmer's market on Saturdays, and cares for dogs at a kennel on her property.  She sometimes volunteers at an animal welfare hospital, which is where her friend Bev Shaw works.  Bev Shaw is a sort of unlicensed veterinarian who euthanizes most of the sick or unwanted animals in the area.  Care and compassion for animals is one of the major themes of Disgrace, and it seems like this theme operates on a deeper metaphorical level, though in actuality it may just be a message unto itself.  Coetzee has recently spoken out on animal rights and it is not surprising given how heart-wrenching many of these scenes are.

Not long after he arrives to stay with his daughter, there is an incident.  I will not spoil what happens, but the incident itself is quite reminiscent of The Stranger.  What happens afterwards is not.  I believe this story is meant to symbolize the transitional period after apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990's, but I am not enough of a student of history to remark more specifically upon it.

Apart from the potential allegory, the novel itself is enjoyable and something of a page-turner.  It reads very quickly and is quite short at 220 pages.  The prose is very matter-of-fact, though because David Lurie is an academic that has studied the art of poetry, there are several "deeper" moments.  Lurie is obsessed with Lord Byron, and hopes to write an opera about a certain affair from the poet's life.  To a certain extent, I've never understood poetry, and the English courses I've taken have never properly instilled an appreciation for it.  I've written in the past about my problems with interpreting Donne, so some of Lurie's "mini-lectures" were illuminating:

"Look at line 599.  Wordsworth is writing about the limits of sense-perception.  It is a theme we have touched on before.  As the sense-organs reach the limit of their powers, their light begins to go out.  Yet at the moment of expiry that light leaps up one last time like a candle-flame, giving us a glimpse of the invisible.  The passage is difficult; perhaps it even contradicts the Mont Blanc moment.  Nevertheless, Wordsworth seems to be feeling his way toward a balance: not the pure idea, wreathed in clouds, nor the visual image burned on the retina, overwhelming and disappointing us with its matter-of-fact clarity, but the sense-image, kept as fleeting as possible, as a means toward stirring or activating the idea that lies buried more deeply in the soul of memory." (22)

Because this novel feels shorter than 220 pages, and restricts itself to such limited subject matter, there is not much else I can say.  I was going to excerpt a passage where David tells the story of a next door neighbor's dog (in the town of Kenilworth--presumably not the one outside of Chicago) who relentlessly humped every "bitch" he saw, and was beaten for it by his owners.  David says that a dog will accept the justice of a beating for having chewed on a slipper, but no animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.  The dog grows to hate itself, and David reflects that it would probably have preferred to be shot rather than "fixed."  Yet he feels the opposite--that desire is a burden we could well do without.

I've essentially paraphrased a page of the text in that paragraph, but this one particular anecdote feels meaningful.  There are a handful of moments in Disgrace that operate in a similar manner, and while David may appear at times to be a despicable figure, there is clearly "redemption" in this novel.  There was one moment near the end where I was struck by how beautifully his character had been developed.

Overall, this is a very fine novel that is subtle, yet occasionally overpowering in its raw imagery.  It is a pretty quick and easy read, and may nourish the reader through the method by which it analyzes humanity.

"It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country.  Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life.  Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head.  Count Lucy lucky, too.  Above all Lucy.
A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes.  Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes.  Too many people, too few things.  What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day.  That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory.  Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant.  That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect.  Otherwise one could go mad.  Car, shoes; women too.  There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them." (98)

In short, while this book should not be forgotten, it may be best appreciated by those who are familiar with recent South African history.  Apart from that, I am pretty sure that readers from any social milieu will find something worthwhile in it.

No comments: