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Loathsome Male Character Doesn't Spoil Brilliant Novel: Disgrace by J M Coetzee

Disgrace by J M Coetzee

If ever proof was needed that it’s possible to have a thoroughly distasteful and objectionable protagonist and yet be totally engrossed in their story, look no further than Disgrace by J M Coetzee.

This novel, which earned J M Coetzee his second Booker prize win, features David Lurie, a university professor in Cape Town. He’s a white South African in his early fifties, intelligent and good looking but somewhat out of synch with his newly post apartheid country.

His field of expertise is modern languages but that specialism has been abolished as part of a nationwide rationalisation of educational resources. He is allowed to run just a single course (he choses the Romantic poets) and the rest of the time is spent lecturing in what he considers the preposterous world of ‘communications skills’.

Predatory Seductor

Coetzee shows a man who views his students with disdain, seeing them semi-illiterate products of a mediocre education system and lacking a basic grounding in the context and sources of the literature which they are studying.

If his academic life is stalling he considers he is rather more successful in his private life. As he describes it:

For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.

That ‘solution’ of which he is proud is a weekly visit to a prostitute with whom he believes he has more than just a financial relationship.  Such an arrangement doesn’t stop him embarking on an affair with Melanie, a girl half his age and one of his students.  

Lurie tries to elevate this to a grander plane by arguing it is the duty of attractive women like Melanie to share their beauty.  “She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself” is one of his mantras. But actually Lurie is a predator and this is a pretty unpleasant seduction. He plies the girl with drink until she is unable to withstand his advances and almost refers to himself as “Daddy” when he is with her.

Revenge for Apartheid?

Denounced and called to account by the university he admits guilt but steadfastly refuses to repent or to indulge in the public handwringing apology the university believes is necessary. He resigns, abandons his home and seeks refuge with his daughter Lucy on her smallholding somewhere in the Eastern Cape. There they are subjected to a savage attack and a fire which causes a deep rift between father and daughter.

Lurie cannot comprehend his daughter’s response to the attack. Why won’t she report it to the police? It’s clear one of the attackers is connected with a black farmer whose property lies along side her own but why doesn’t Lucy want the man confronted?

Even more puzzling is Lucy’s attitude that her rape is an equal exchange for the way white settlers treated the black indigenous population. She wonders if rape is the price she has to pay for staying on? 

Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.

Lurie’s previous feelings of complacency are shaken by his daughter’s willingness to accept her fate particularly because his own resources have been diminished.  His good looks were destroyed in the fire, robbing him of his sexual identity. His much cherished idea of finishing an opera about Byron now seems irrelevant.

In a move that seems to suggest he is seeking atonement he throws himself into work at a local animal clinic, helping to deal fatal injections to unwanted and homeless dogs before chucking them into the incinerator. He also begins a relationship the woman who runs the clinic. He doesn’t really desire her, in fact describing her as ‘remarkably unattractive’, but seems to view their love making sessions on the floor as some kind of benevolent act towards a single, lonely woman. The price he pays in a sense for his previous egotistical attitude towards the opposite sex.

Shift in Power in New South Africa

Disgrace is a novel which clearly has some big ideas; ideas about race, about colonial guilt and responsibility.

Running through it is also a theme about the balance of power. In the new South Africa, a different relationship exists between black and white, one in which the latter understand sacrifices of their old power may be required. For Lurie the chain of events which began in Cape Town brings him to an insight into the suffering of others and a shift in his relationship with Lucy. he can no more tell her how to live her life than the white population can dictate to the black South Africans.

‘How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’

‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing.’

Lurie is talking about his own situation here but his comments could also be a reflection on the new reality of life in South Africa.

Disgrace is a dark novel in which the political and the personal coalesce.  There are no resolutions here, the problems of the character’s lives are still open by the time we reach the final page. 

Coetzee’s sparse style brings an emotional distance even though he deals with hugely emotive issues. Particularly impressive for me was that Coetzee makes us understand Lurie’s  arrogance even if we don’t endorse his beliefs and shows us by the end of the novel that it’s possible to sympathise with a man who starts out as a thoroughly unsympathetic human being.

Disgrace by JM Coetzee: Endnotes

J M Coetzee was born in South Africa and lived there until 1962 when he relocated to the UK and subsequently to USA. He left the USA in 1971 having failed to be granted permanent residence status , in part due to his involvement in protests against the war in Vietnam.

He worked as an academic at the University of Cape Town until his retirement in 2002. That year he moved to Australia, becoming an Australian citizen in 2006.

J M Coetzee’s first novel was Dusklands  published in 1974. He has twice won the Booker Prize – for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999.

In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first author from South Africa to be selected by the Nobel Committee.

This review was posted originally in 2018. This is an updated version incorporating background info about the author and improving readability by shortening the paragraphs.

Offbeat Yet Poignant: The Bottle Factory Outing [Review]

Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge made it to the Man Booker prize shortlist a record five times but never succeeded in winning the award. The Bottle Factory Outing, her fourth novel was one of the shortlisted titles in 1974 but was beaten to the prize by Stanley Middleton’s Holiday. 

Bainbridge’s story is set somewhere in London in a small Italian-run factory which bottles wines and some spirits.  Freda and Brenda are two members of the workforce , working alongside some middle aged Italians who clean and label the  bottles for despatch. The pair share a workbench by day and a miserable bedsit room by night. They also share a bed though they build a wall of books to ensure there is a clear demarkation of space on the mattress. 

They are an unlikely pair of women to hitch up together. They have little in common either in their backgrounds or their attitudes to life.

Freda is one of those people who seem born with a bigger pair of lungs than the average human being. Loud and fearless, she has aspirations to be an actress or, failing that, to marry someone rich. Brenda is her complete opposite, dark haired and completely passive, the kind of girl that will never say no to anyone in case they are offended. Her one moment of bravery it seems was to leave her husband, a drunkard much prone to urinating  on the doorstep of their home in the north of England and to set up alone in London.

Freda is a girl with dreams. She comes up with a plan for the entire team to take off for a day out in country. It will, she hopes, give her the opportunity to capture the heart of the manager, Vittorio. Brenda has more pressing concerns – how to avoid the amorous intentions of her fellow worker, the lecherous Rossi.

Their day of freedom fails to live up to all their expectations. It’s starts with the non appearance of the van they’d booked as transport and gets steadily worse because instead of a wine-fuelled picnic in the grounds of a stately home, they have to enjoy their repast on a patch of grass near the road. It all ends in in tragedy.

The Bottle Factory Outing is a novel inspired by Bainbridge’s own experience of working in a bottling plant. At times offbeat, the humour is mingled with  moments of poignancy particularly in the final scenes as the workers gather at a bizarre party in the factory attic.

The front cover blurb says Grahame Greene considered The Bottle Factory Outing  to be ‘outrageously funny and horrifying.’  Funny yes with some scenes that are pure farce but I couldn’t find anything remotely ‘horrifying’ within these pages. It struck me rather as a story that ripples with pathos.  All the workers in this factory have dreams that sustain them through their mundane lives; they long for something  to relieve that monotony but ultimately those wishes and desires come to nothing. 

I enjoyed Bainbridge’s economic style of writing and warmed to these two women but the novel ultimately failed to live up to its promise.  The black humour and the poignancy ultimately became as unlikely a pairing as Freda and Brenda.

Reading Horizons: Episode 13

Reading Horizons,  12 December, 2018

What are you currently reading? 

I have multiple books on the go at the moment.

I’m meant to be reading A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James because it is one of only two unread titles in my Booker prize project. However, I’m finding it hard going because it has so many different characters (75 in total), several of whom pop up at different points to tell their part of the story. I keep forgetting who all these people are and have to refer to the character list to discover whether the current narrator is the local CIA head, a Colombian drug gang member, a hooker or a journalist. Adding to the difficulty is that parts of the narration are in Jamaican patois. So it’s not the ideal novel to read late at night…..

Which is why I’m also reading The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner. It’s another of her intense character portraits about loneliness and characters who long for something else in their lives. Hertz Fritz has led a very unremarkable life. Now 73 years old he ponders what he is going to do with the time he has remaining. He could leave London and move to Paris. He could become a regular guest on a chat show about art. He could remarry. He knows he needs to do something. But what???  He’s such a ditherer that I want to shake him out of his apathy and his constant worries about his health.

I’m also continuing to read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It’s packed so full of information that I’m not able to absorb more than a few pages at a time. It’s fascinating however. I’ve learned why caffeine is absolutely the last thing you want to ingest in the evening (it blocks the hormone that tells us we need to sleep), and what happens during the different phases of sleep.

What did you recently finish reading? 

I’d never heard of Elizabeth Jolley until I saw her mentioned by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog who held an Elizabeth Jolley reading week earlier this year. She sounded so good I immediately bought two of her books.

The first – Sugar Daddy was extremely funny at times but the humour was nicely balanced with some disquieting themes. I had high expectations that my other purchase Miss Peabody’s Inheritance would be just as enjoyable. And I have certainly not been disappointed.

This is a novel within a novel about Miss Peabody, a lonely middle-aged spinster who has a boring office job and lives with her overbearing, bedridden mother. The only excitement in her life is a correspondence she begins with a writer of romance novels in Australia. Through the letters Miss Peabody is drawn into the world of the author’s newest novel. My review of this book will follow soonish….

What do you think you’ll read next?

It’s going to take me a few weeks to finish the Marlon James I suspect but in the meantime I have the next book club choice to read by early in January. We’ve chosen The Librarian by Salley Vickers. The description tells me this is about a new children’s librarian in the small town of East Mole who is on a mission to improve the lives of local children by giving them just the right books. Then she begins a scandalous affair with a married doctor. Not sure about the romance aspect of this but if this book features books then it has to be worth reading doesn’t it? 


Reading Horizons is linked to WWWednesday, a meme  hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner [book review]

The Mars RoomShould I be so unfortunate to find myself  detained in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, I will at least, thanks to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, have several survival strategies at my fingertips.

I will know for example that it’s possible to smuggle pills by using peanut butter to attach them to the roof of your mouth.

I’ll know how to send and receive contraband through the air vents and toilet system (making sure of course to wrap everything tightly in plastic).

And, to make up for the absence of real alcohol, I will be able to brew hooch from ketchup sachets, fruit juice cartons and a sock stuffed with bread (necessary to create the yeast) even if the result does look and smell like vomit. The secret is that  “… you got to double decant it ….. It’s got to breathe.”

Kushner displays an impressive knowledge of life inside a women’s correctional facility in California; the strip-searches, shacklings and lock downs and the rules that govern every moment and every aspect of the women’s lives.

There are lists of rules scattered through the book

No orange clothing

No clothing in any shade of blue

No white clothing

No yellow clothing

No beige or khaki clothing

No green clothing

No red clothing

No purple clothing

Wouldn’t it just have been simpler to tell these inmates what they could wear??

There are even rules about rules.

The failure to report a rule violation … is also a rule violation. The failure to report a rule violation of a failure to report a rule violation is another rule violation.

The Mars Room is a powerful indictment of the penal system as seen through a 29-year-old single mother who has been convicted of murder. We first encounter Romy Hall as she is taken by bus to the Stanville correctional facility where she will serve two consecutive life sentences with an additional six years for endangering her young son.

She’s already learned not to cry. Two years earlier on her first night in jail after her arrest she had cried uncontrollably, believing her life was over though hoping desperately that it was all a dream. But now she knows there is no point in looking ahead.

 I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.

From this point, the novel moves backwards and forwards in time,  tracing her childhood and early years in the “fog-banked, treeless and bleak” streets of San Francisco. The city she inhabited is one tourists don’t get to see, a city of brothels, dive bars, casinos and strip joints, the seediest of all being The Mars Room where she worked as a lap dancer.  The man she killed was one of the regulars at the club. When he began turning up at her local supermarket and shadowing her home, she did a disappearing act only for him to track her down. The night she killed him her young son was asleep in her arms.

The Mars Room is predominantly Rachel’s story though there are narratives from two men associated with the penal system. One is a corrupt police officer now behind bars who takes pride in the crimes he committed and the other is a bit of an idealist brought in to teach literature in the prison. Neither of these interludes was anywhere as engrossing as Rachel’s own story and her interactions with fellow inmates.

What a fascinating bunch they are: the resident ultra bully Teardrop; Conan, a trans woman who uses woodwork classes to make dildos; the baby-killer Laura Lipp and, on death row, the former model Betty LaFrance,  chief brewer of the ketchup moonshine. When they’re on stage, the book comes alive.

Unfortunately, while there is much to admire in The Mars Room, it’s attraction began to fade for me in the final section. Up until this point we’d been exposed to the injustice at the heart of Romy’s situation. The court never heard how she was terrified by the man she killed because the lawyer appointed to take her case was incompetent. Once convicted she has no recourse for an appeal and no-one willing to help her when her son is taken into care.

Kushner’s narrative gives full exposure to the way the justice system has broken down. There is a wealth of information to explain how her fellow inmates are also victims; nudged into crime as a result of poverty, drugs and abuse. After a while it feels like we’re being beaten over the head until we understand the point. I found myself skipping paragraphs (never a good sign). And then it ends with a moment of epiphany that simply didn’t ring true. What started as a book that impressed me with its directness just seemed to dissolve without reaching any resolution.

I can see why the Booker Prize judges put it on the shortlist but for me it was a book that was good in parts but ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise.

 

 

 

 

Reading Horizons: Episode 8

Reading Horizons: 25 July 2018

What are you currently reading?

The Line of Beauty by Alun Hollinghurst

LineOfBeautyThis was the book that won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 and is one of the few books remaining for me to read in my Booker Prize project. Almost a year ago I asked you all which of the winners still outstanding you would would recommend. The Line of Beauty came in as joint first with The True History of the Kelly Gang. Some of you described Hollinghurst’s book as very readable.

I have to say that so far I am finding it rather dull. It’s meant to be about class, politics and sexuality in 1980s Britain but so far there is a noticeable absence of the political dimension. Class does make an appearance but overwhelmingly the first 100 pages or so have been about sex. Our protagonist Nick Fadden is a middle class Oxford graduand who is lodging with an MP and his family. Nick feels very much the outsider in their midst but the book’s main tension revolves around his homosexual desires and his relationships with two men. My reaction to the book isn’t connected to prudish sensitivities on my part but just that so far this is all the book is about and its highly repetitive. Can someone please assure me that the next 400 pages will be rather more interesting?

What did you recently finish reading? 

The Latecomers by Anita Brookner

the latecomersFew authors can get into the skin of the “outsider” as well as Brookner.  The Latecomers features two delightfully conceived men of this ilk: Thomas Hartmann and his friend Thomas Fibich. The men are both Jewish and sent to London as refugees in the war. They go into business together and, once married, have apartments in the same building.  We follow them from their youth, into marriage with women who seem to reflect their idiosyncratic traits and the puzzling world of fatherhood. It may not be Brookner’s strongest novel but still highly engaging.

What do you think you’ll read next?

Shall I continue on my Booker trail with How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman?

It may be however that by the time I’m finished with Hollinghurst one of the Booker 2018 longlisted titles will have come through from the library.

I’m not planning to read all the longlist since some of them hold no appeal for me but I would like to read two or three if possible before the shortlist is announced.


Reading Horizons is linked to WWWednesday, a meme  hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Man Booker Prize longlist 2018: reaction

There was a time not so many years ago that the announcement of the long list for the Man Booker Prize would have me heading straight to the library.

How things change. I’m still interested in the prize but not to the same extent.  It’s not the fact that the rules changed to allow American authors but that it meant there were fewer authors from other countries on the list. It became less international.

This year I forgot that today would see the long list for the 2018 prize released. It was only that I happened to be in a bookshop and overheard a customer asking the shop owner for his reactions to the list, that my memory was jogged.

There are a few positives about this year’s list:

  • Four debut novels
  • Good mixture of genres with the first ever graphic novel to be long listed. Plus a crime novel. This latter isn’t the first time we’ve had a crime novel on the list but it doesn’t happen often. I have to believe that it reflects the influence of Val McDermid who is a judge this year.
  • Continued presence of independent presses. These publishers deserve the help that inclusion on prize lists can bring because they so often take a punt where the larger companies play safe.
  • Two authors from Wales are included. We’ve had a Welsh author before who actually won the prize (Bernice Rubens in 1970 with The Elected Member) but never two on the same list. Ok the purists among you might say there is only one since unlike Sophie Mackintosh, Belinda Bauer was not born in Wales (in fact the Booker website describes her as English) but she worked in Wales and lives there.  Cause for further celebration is that Bauer who is long listed for Snap, lives in my neighbourhood and I see her in our local library. Now that should surely count for a few votes?

Despite that reflection of diversity I’m sad to see that the international flavour of the prize has diminished even further.  In a nutshell we have a list made up of:

• Two Canadian authors

• Six authors from the UK

• Two writers from Ireland

• Three writers representing the USA

So yet another year when there is not a single author from Oceania on the list. Strange that Peter Carey, a previous winner, didn’t make it this year.

No author from the Indian sub continent. Last year at least we had one Indian and two UK/Pakistan writers on the list.

But once again no author from any African country.

This is such a disappointing trend. One of the things I loved about the Booker lists in the past was the international flavour because it introduced me to new authors from parts of the world whose literature was generally an unknown quantity to me. The Man Booker International Prize doesn’t entirely fill the gap because that is only for fiction translated into English, so many Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans are not eligible.

Do I have any predictions for this year’s ultimate winner? Short answer is no, I haven’t a clue because I’ve not read any of these books. I do have Bauer’s novel on hold at the library because I’ve enjoyed her previous novels but there is a long waiting list. As good as it’s likely to be, I don’t see it winning purely because the Booker judges would be afraid of being labelled “popularist” if they dared to choose a crime novel. I’d be happy for Donal Ryan to win because I thoroughly enjoyed The Spinning Heart and Michael Ondaatje’s previous winner The English Patient is one of my top 3 Booker favourites across all the years. Is it likely they would choose him for their 50th anniversary. If they did it would be a remarkable feat since he was only recently announced as the winner of the Golden Booker prize. Stranger things have happened with the Booker prize however.

The Man Booker Longlist 2018

  • Belinda Bauer (UK) : Snap (Bantam Press): a thriller by an author from Wales
  • Anna Burns (UK) : Milkman (Faber & Faber): described as a ‘creepy’ novel set against the background of The Troubles in Ireland
  • Nick Drnaso (USA)Sabrina (Granta Books): the first graphic novel  to reach the
    Booker longlist
  • Esi Edugyan (Canada): Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail): Edugyan is a previous nominee having been shortlisted in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues
  • Guy Gunaratne (UK): In Our Mad And Furious City (Tinder Press): a debut                  novel
  • Daisy Johnson (UK): Everything Under (Jonathan Cape): debut novel
  • Rachel Kushner (USA): The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape):  a novel partly set in a women’s correctional facility from an author who says her inspiration is Don DeLillo
  • Sophie Mackintosh (UK): The Water Cure (Hamish Hamilton): debut dystopian novel from a young Welsh author
  • Michael Ondaatje (Canada): Warlight (Jonathan Cape): the only previous                  winner  of the prize to be selected this year
  • Richard Powers (USA): The Overstory (William Heinemann): Pulitzer- winning        novelist longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo.
  • Robin Robertson (UK):  The Long Take (Picador): debut novel from a Scottish poet, written partly in verse
  • Sally Rooney (Ireland): Normal People (Faber & Faber): the second novel from the winner of the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award
  • Donal Ryan (Ireland)From A Low And Quiet Sea (Doubleday Ireland):  Ryan is a previous nominee having been longlisted in 2013 for The Spinning Heart
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