J.M. Coetzee, “Disgrace” (1999) – This is my first go at one of the living Anglo Nobel Prize winners in literature. Coetzee had moved to Australia by the time the Swedes bestowed the big medal on him, but lived most of his life in his native South Africa, and life in that country seems to be the subject of most of his literary work. A sensitive soul (you’d figure more writers would be, but they’re not), the contradictions and tensions of his homeland press themselves, along with other dilemmas that haunt writerly types, upon his consciousness and that’s how we get this novel.
The main character, David Lurie, is a mediocre man convinced that greatness, at least by association, is his due. A professor at a university in Cape Town, he lectures indifferent students, writes books about poetry which nobody reads, and carries on affairs. His inner space, as related by third person narration, is the endless self-justifying monologue of the overeducated, but not necessarily that bright, man with the usual banal urges for sex, power, and sexualized power. Most of this comes via bowdlerized applications of the ideas and life events of the romantic poets, especially Byron, to his own seedy situations. Eventually, he sleeps with one student too many, and gets the boot. Having no one else in his life, he heads to rural East Cape, where the adult daughter of one of his failed marriages lives on a small farm.
David loves his daughter, Lucy, but doesn’t understand her and is a little bored with her (not unlike how Byron grew bored of one of his own daughters, produced by one of his affairs, and packed her off to a nunnery to die of malaria). We only have David’s judgments to go on, but it seems she’s something of a hippie, a back to the land type, and I don’t know a lot about the course of the counterculture in South Africa. She grows flowers, goes to market, sells them. She partners with African farmers nearby and volunteers to raise and kennel dogs. Apparently roving stray dogs is, or was, a problem in East Cape?
It doesn’t seem too bad, but the air of dread Coetzee continuously conjures doesn’t allow for an idyll. A small gang attacks the farm, steals a bunch of stuff, and rapes Lucy. The attackers are black, and David is convinced that they had help from one of Lucy’s African neighbors. Lucy provides just enough assistance to authorities to make an insurance claim and then clams up, doesn’t make rape charges, doesn’t inform the police when one of the attackers shows up at her neighbor Petrus’s housewarming party. She has decided to blank the whole thing. She won’t change, she won’t move away to somewhere safer, and all of that means working hand in glove with neighbors who tacitly (perhaps actively) helped her rapists.
David decides this is her form of reparations, her way of adjusting to post-apartheid South Africa and expiating her guilt (this is before “privilege” talk became common). Lucy isn’t saying- she knows the old bastard won’t listen or get it anyway. David, with nothing else to do, winds up staying in the little town as well, strumming a toy banjo as he tries to summon up an aria for an opera about one of Byron’s lovers and helping an animal shelter dispose of dead dogs.
Bleak stuff! Some of the critical comments on the back talk about Coetzee “weaving light into the darkness” or words to that effect. I think they’re either wrong or just talking about the prose. Everything is pretty wretched. All the characters are tragic, not just in the debased sense of “quite sad” but in terms of existing in boxes of misery they helped create for themselves. This aspect is amplified by the ways in which David views things from a (self-serving version of) romantic ideology which, if it ever fit any time, does not fit nineteen-nineties South Africa. Even when he makes something like an understandable call it’s for dumb reasons that make you hate him again. When a commission at his university comes together to investigate his harassing a student (and maybe sweep it under the rug), he immediately admits to what he did and accepts the consequences… because of some nonsense about the priority of eros or whatever. Coetzee underscores the uselessness of everything that the academic/intellectual tradition brings to most situations.
Coetzee was vocally anti-apartheid, at least according to online sources, but not especially political- this scans, according to the bleak vision of life presented here. He’s gotten in some trouble with political figures in South Africa who like to paint him as an out-of-touch white man slandering post-apartheid black self-assertion as sexual violation. Well, white self-assertion in the person of David Lurie doesn’t look too great, either, and reaches well into sexual assault territory as well. I do think Coetzee chooses to twist knives sometimes (though, in keeping with highbrow literature, he doesn’t get especially graphic) to get his points across. It’s hard to say what would produce a better situation in his home country (Coetzee has said he moved to Australia in part because of the crime situation in South Africa) and it’s made harder by the way people, mostly on the right but in other political directions too, turn what happens there into a referendum on black-white racial politics more generally. One wants to rattle off the usual solutions, and they’d probably help more than most things. But “Disgrace” hits, at least in part, because of how unflinchingly it looks at the types of inhumanity that seem ineradicable, maybe inseparable from humanity itself. ****’