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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.

The View from Here: Books from South Africa

viewfromhereWelcome to the next country in  The View from Here series on literature from around the world. Today we get to visit South Africa for a peek into the literature of that country with the help of Mariechen who blogs at Whispers of a Barefoot Medical StudentIn case you are wondering, the “barefoot” part refers to the fact that she loves  the simple things in life and is happiest when she can walk barefoot. Mariechen spends most of the year in Cape Town although she originates  from the Eastern Province.  She says she started blogging “as a kind of a debriefing tool for my medical studies, but when I started reading again and discovered the book blogging community I widened my niche. So these days I blog about medical things, books, current affairs,traveling and anything I want to, really.”

mariechenQ. What is the first book you can remember reading and enjoying?

I learned to read with the Afrikaans edition of Spots, Feathers and Curly Tails by Nancy Tafuri when I was four years old; but the first “proper” book I remember reading was by Roald Dahl – either Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or George’s Marvelous Medicine, I can’t remember because I devoured them back-to-back.

Q. What books and author are very popular right now in South Africa?

I don’t think South Africa buzzes quite the way some countries do, but this year everyone was quite proud of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names has been quite popular this year too. We do buzz quite a bit about Western authors as well.

Q. What do you like to read – books written by local authors or books from other parts of the world?

I like a combination. When I started reading as a kid I had good combination of Afrikaans Middle Grade books and English/Foreign books. I think during my teens I read almost exclusively American or English books, but thankfully I have diversified again. I actually go out of my way to read from countries I’ve never read before, likeI just recently picked up The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim, about Korea. Imake it a point to read South African authors regularly, though. I think more and more that it is incredibly important to keep our authors flourishing too.

Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from South Africa?

Being the “rainbow nation”, with so many cultures and languages and backgrounds,it is hard to pinpoint a type of literature. Some iconic South African books for me include A Dry White Season by A.P. Brink, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda. I would also suggest The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard (a play) and reading some South African poets, like Antjie Krog.

We recently had a surge of YA-type South African novels. Deadlands is a dystopian zombie novel set in Cape Town by Lily Herne. The Spud novels by John van de Ruit are the hugely successful journal-type stories of a kid at a boarding school in South Africa during the early 90s – John Cleese plays in the screen adaptation of the books. For contemporaries, definitely read Zoo City or Moxyland by Lauren Beukes, set in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively; and Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok. Deon Meyer writes some excellent and very scary thrillers set in South Africa. A good option is to start with a short story anthology. Touch: Stories of Contact compiled by Karina Magdalena Szczurek offers a great diversity of South African authors, as does Yes, I am! Writing by South African Gay Men compiled by Robin Malan and Ashraf Johaardien.

Q. What effect has the end of apartheid had on the literature of South Africa?

I think perhaps the bigger distinction is the kind of books that are allowed these days – during Apartheid many South African authors faced censorship and published in other countries. I think the end of Apartheid really diversified what South Africans read and write – it is a little difficult to say though because I was born when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. There are a lot of guilt/suffering narratives, which I think is a normal part of our country’s healing process, but there is also a lot of forward-looking and new creations, like Zoo City which has been dubbed a “Muti Noir” and Rosamund Kendal’s The Angina Monologues which looks at the South African public health system through a fictional eye. The Apartheid Government was a censoring government, so in literature the revolution was what was suddenly allowed – criticism and satire and interracial love,all these things that were not allowed in books before. As for books read in schools, To Kill a Mockingbird and Othello are widely taught because of their applicability to our past, but books like Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom, Marguerite Poland’s Shades and Fugard’s The Road to Mecca are also taught.

Q. Earlier this year when the Caine Prize for African writing was announced, one author complained that the award promotes an “African aesthetic of suffering.” Is that criticism fair or unfair? 

I’ll start with addressing this aspect of African writing in general: When I think of Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, I think of a book set in Nigeria that has absolutely nothing to do with poverty, but with magic! If there is suffering, it has more to do with the main character’s albinism. (Okorafor is a Nigerian author currently living in the USA.) Deadlands addresses suffering in a dystopian fashion. Spud has some tender moments relating to a dysfunctional but hilarious family. There are many African books out there that do have some reference to suffering in them, although often that is no longer then central theme, but a background issue.

I think it is important to remember that we write what we know and what we see. Our continent is a continent with a painful past, with guilt and with suffering. It would be foolish to expect authors not to write about that. But our continent is also a continent of intense beauty, of magic, and of some of the most interesting people you will ever meet, and it is important to portray that through literature too, which I think many authors are doing.

I can’t really comment on the Caine Prize or any other prize for that matter but I have noticed that the media around the world tends to emphasise books that conform to their impression of a place: suffering Africa, oppressive China, repressed England, and so on. And authors, marketers and READERS should be aware of those stereotypes and combat them. I know that ours is not a narrative of suffering, but I am not surprised that the perception out there is different.

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