by JM Coetzee
Secker £14.99, pp220
novel may not inherently be a dialectical form, but readers
are so used to a synthesising process that they may detect
one without help from the author. JM Coetzee's quietly deceptive
new novel exploits this reflex, with a narrative that belongs
to two opposite types simultaneously, revealing its true
allegiance only on the last page - in fact the last sentence.
Lurie, a divorced university professor in his fifties, leaves
Cape Town in disgrace to stay with his daughter Lucy on
her smallholding in the Eastern Cape. What follows is a
story of redemption and of collapse, just as a famous optical
illusion is simultaneously a duck and a rabbit, but can
only be seen at any one moment as one or the other. The
reading mind responds to the possibilities in disconcerting
disgrace is of a classic kind - an affair with a student
- and he does nothing to protect himself from its consequences.
It's as if he's promised himself a mid-life crisis and won't
be denied one. He tries to see himself in wryly elevated
terms, telling the investigating committee that he 'became
a servant of Eros' rather than an abuser or even a harasser
(his advances to a 20-year-old girl were in no way resisted).
But it seems mere cussedness for him to refuse a compromise
that would at least leave the possibility of a return to
was working on Byron at the time of his disgrace, and the
irony is not particularly subtle that he comes to grief
from an escapade that Byron would have thought distinctly
timid. But there is a more disorientating irony than that.
In the first chapter, it is explained that Lurie had his
sex life satisfactorily worked out in his maturity, visiting
a compatible prostitute every Thursday afternoon: '
needs turn out to be quite light after all--light and fleeting,
like those of a butterfly. No emotion, or none but the deepest,
the most unguessed-at, like the hum of traffic that lulls
the city-dweller to sleep, or like the silence of the night
to countryfolk. No emotion, or the deepest.
only after he sees this woman out with her children, a chance
encounter that somehow estranges her, that his love life
is directed again towards women at large. At one, point
desire is even described as a venom to be drawn. So how
can Lurie be both a servant of Eros and a slave of libido?
There isn't a lot of middle ground available.
he leaves Cape Town, his daughter is referred to only as
'sole issue of his first marriage' - a legalistic formulation
- but when he goes to stays with her in his disgrace, the
feel ing-tone is different: 'From the day his daughter was
born he has felt for her nothing but the most spontaneous,
most unstinting love.' Love may be unstinting, but compatibility
would have to be rated as low, she being, among other things,
plump, lesbian and vegetarian. He speculates on a link between
at least two of these terms - 'Sapphic love: an excuse for
putting on weight.'
who require narratives of healing will find plenty of material
from which to construct one: Lurie does some physical work
for a change and comes to feel a connection with animals.
He helps at a clinic of the Animal Welfare League and supervises
the disposal of dogs which have been put down, briefly taking
charge of a hospital incinerator each week. Since, otherwise,
the attendants beat the black plastic bags of remains with
their shovels, breaking the rigid limbs to make sure the
dead dogs don't catch in the feeder trolley and ride back
singed and grinning, the plastic burnt off. Now that Lurie
has lost all dignity, he can try to watch over the dignity
of those who never had it. In what could be construed as
another breakthrough, since he dislikes women who make no
attempt to attract, he sleeps with the notably plain woman
who runs the clinic.
there is also an opposite story, not running parallel to
the other but built from the same set of materials. In this
narrative, country life is not therapy but ordeal, not a
pastoral but a war of attrition. In the new South Africa,
the man who was once the kaffir calls the shots. His help
must be asked for and his protection sought, particularly
by a woman living alone, and it may be that his ambition
is to take over the land rather than share it. All this
is regarded as just, or at least historically inevitable,
but there are patterns that seem to magnify and distort
the minor disgrace that did for Lurie in the city; oppression
from someone whose role is to protect, sexual predation
without even his excuses.
novel set in post-apartheid South Africa is fated to be
read as a political portrait, but the fascination of Disgrace
- a somewhat perverse fascination, as some will feel - is
the way it both encourages and contests such a reading by
holding extreme alternatives in tension. Salvation, ruin.
Even a single paragraph can accommodate the transformation
of hope into its opposite, as when Lurie thinks of Lucy,
luck, she will last a long time, long beyond him. When he
is dead, she will, with luck, still be here doing her ordinary
tasks among the flowerbeds. And from within her will have
issued another existence, that with luck will be just as
solid, just as long-lasting. So it will go on, a line of
existences in which his share, his gift, will grow inexorably
less and less, till it may as well be forgotten.
This review was first published in the guardian.