Tuesday, November 25, 2008

J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace": Book Review

Lecturing in Cape Town university downsized to a technical college, once a professor of literature, now an adjunct in communications, one of the "clerks in a post-religious age," David Lurie seems older than 52. He begins to decline, long divorced, longing for solace and seeking it unwisely. "Because he has no respect for the material he teaches, he makes no impression on his students." (4) "The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those that come to learn learn nothing." (5)

Out of a job after he refuses to go along with the abjection that he believes, stubbornly and quixotically, is demanded by the administration after he is charged with sexual harassment, he retreats to the Eastern Cape, to join his daughter, Lucy, who runs a small kennel and grows flowers on a remote farm. The drift away from city habits to country attitudes adds poignancy to Lurie's slide into despair. You both cringe at his refusal to confess his wrongdoing, and sympathize with his pride.

The book, pivoting around the rape, off-scene, of Lucy, the assault on Lurie, and their gradual displacement by the neighbor who craves her land and knows more about the rapists than he lets on, Petrus, may be rather schematic in parts, but as with a drama, each character's defined according to his or her type. Coetzee's attention to details shows his commitment to each character in this serious, downbeat, and grim novel.

For instance, we view his accuser Melanie's signature on the document of her accusation, to Lurie through the limited omniscient gaze of the novel: "the arabesque of the M, the l with its bold upper loop, the downward gash of the I, the flourish of the final s." (40) In such mundane details, her attraction, and her vindication, swirl together to drag him down.

His rural retreat hastens his regression. "His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go." (72) He volunteers at an animal shelter. He tries to gain empathy, but he keeps his perspective: "So if we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty or fear retribution." (76) The novel's most telling moments, for me, came as Lurie begins to feel a connection-- but only to a point, eschewing sentimentality-- with the dogs he cares for, far from his former urban comforts.

As for his daughter, on her own, she faces the aftermath of the crime. The narrator muses how it's "a risk to own anything" in South Africa today. "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." (98) So the theory goes if not the brutal practice, the repayment of debts taken from the descendants of the settlers by those they subjugated.

Lucy's refusal to admit her rape galls him. She languishes, while he wants her to seek safety and earn justice. Lucy senses this is the cruel exchange, the test she must undergo to survive in the countryside of her transformed and restive nation. Lurie, meanwhile, finds the recuperation he came there for evades him. "Here he is losing himself day by day" as he cares for his daughter and does menial chores for covetous Petrus and at the animal shelter.

There, he has an uneasy, basic, affair with the shelter's supervisor, Bev. She's ungainly, with features like a troll, but Lurie rationalizes that now, this is the only kind of woman he will find for his shamed desires. "Half of literature is about it; young women struggling to escape from under the weight of old men, for the sake of the species." (190)

He explains to Bev how he's fallen. "Teaching was never a vocation for me. Certainly I never aspired to teach people how to live. I was what used to be called a scholar. I wrote books about dead people. That was where my heart was. I taught only to make a living." (162) He slowly regains his interest in a dramatic-operatic piece on Byron's abandoned mistress Teresa, and the conjunction of this failed romance with his own tangled lovelessness moves the final section of this story into a fitting meditation.

While Lucy, Petrus, and the hinterland's raw terrain prove ultimately uninviting, neither does the Cape, when Lurie returns from his extended stay, prove any more hospitable. The last sections show Lurie suspended between his urbanity and his pared-down life now, and show how his journey into the African interior has taken him into his own dark heart. As the title warns, this Booker Prize winner for 1999 unsparingly tears off the masks Lurie dons, until he and we must face his uncomfortable self.

(Posted to Amazon US today. Typically, the blank American edition's cover's again bettered by the British Penguin.)

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