10 February 2009

Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee)

Much as I would love to join the almost universal, prodigious admiration that surrounds J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, I find my feet dragging somewhat.

This concerns me. Structurally, linguistically, the novel is beyond reproach. It tells the story of David Lurie, a professor of communications at a university in Cape Town. He is forced to resign when an affair with one of his (very) young students becomes public. He leaves Cape Town and finds refuge on his daughter's farm in Grahamstown. Set in a post-Apartheid South Africa, Coetzee uses this as a backdrop for Lurie's growing awareness of his own character as a terrible event befalls the family.

Here is where we start with the problems. We know he's really into women, that he's in his 40's yet still bedding 20 year olds. But when David starts to lust after a young teenager I lost all feelings of empathy for him. In fact, I felt I couldn't have any confidence in him anymore. Admittedly, he's a character in a book, not someone I'm walking down the aisle towards, but still. You know you have serious trust issues with a character when you wonder if he's hitting on Lucy.
Who is a lesbian.
Oh, and his daughter.

The characters lack definition, humanity. After tragedy strikes and they are attempting to deal with the aftermath, soft spots begin to show, hidden traumas appear not as easily dismissed. Yet nothing resonates, it still feels cold. The characters felt like they were all cemented in place, with no room for growth or change.

The idea of animals as the canvases on which a person's humanity becomes imprinted is continuous throughout the novel. I understood this, I got the connection. I certainly didn't need to be slapped around the head with the symbolism when David graphically imagines castrating himself. I did feel a swelling of emotion when Lurie describes how the men at the incinerator beat the bodies of dead dogs to break their bones so they fit properly in the furnace. Although, again, definitely something I could have lived without.

At the novel's denouement David is composing an opera, based on Lord Byron's life. Coetzee takes pains to draw the lines of parallel between Lord Byron, his Theresa and what has occured in David's own life, but this doesn't solve of the problem of where David, a communications professor, suddenly felt he had the gumption and talent to write an opera. This seems a ridiculous, overly-romantic end to what is a very bleak novel.

Boyd Tonkin of The Independent states that Disgrace is "...perhaps the best novel to carry off the Booker in a decade." I have feelings of self-doubt, anxiety. Clearly, I'm an ill-educated moron who doesn't understand the subtle nuances of Coetzee's writing. But then I remember The Remains of the Day, The English Patient and The God of Small Things.
Yeah, whatever, BOYD.

At just 220 pages in length, I doubt there are many novelists who could pack so much intensity and detail into what is a very short novel. I understand that I am speaking from the point of view of someone who has never lived in South Africa, never experienced Apartheid and its after-effects. I completely agree that Coetzee is a masterful creator of prose.

None of this means I had to like it.

Rating: 7/10.
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