By Coetzee, JM


Kerry Fried, Amazon.com

Coetzee is the most cerebral and, with the exception of Breyten Breytenbach, the least given to sentimentality of the talented novelists to have come out of South Africa. He writes with a dark, impacted intelligence-the kind that has led critics to describe his books as "obscure" and "difficult" even as they admire the seriousness of his intentions. Indeed, many of his novels, including "Waiting for the Barbarians" and "Life & Times of Michael K.", which won the Booker Prize in 1983, have a weighty, allegorical tone. "Disgrace" has just made literary history by winning Coetzee an unprecedented second Booker, and what seems striking about it, right from the start, is its almost unnatural sense of poise, the way it takes you by the hand and leads you through unrecognizable terrain only to pull the ground out from under you with such accumulated force that by the time you come to the last sentence you feel as if you'd lost your bearings, and you aren't sure how useful they'd be now, anyway. "Disgrace" is not a hard or obscure book-it is, among other things, compulsively readable-but what it may well be is an authentically spiritual document, a lament for the soul of a disgraced century. Coetzee, whose style has often been called "thrifty," writes with a scalpel-like economy of effect; his sentences are coiled springs, and the energy they release would take other writers pages to summon. He rarely pauses for comic relief or for making nice to a character, and the waking nightmare of his novels offers little to those who long for heartening assurances. But, whereas some of his earlier work bordered on the overtly sermonic, "Disgrace" has the schematic power of a fable without the "Listen, children" preachiness. Coetzee has condensed the metafictional and moral concerns of his other novels-the nature of literary realism amd the solitary confinement of the self, the cathartic potential of art as set against brute actuality, the interaction of parent and child as a microcosm of domination-and found an innovative means of imbuing narrative itself with metaphysical purpose. We can certainly sense the import of his themes-they spring up like bitter stalks between the narrow spaces in his prose, leaving you in a state of chastened reflection.

The New Yorker, November 15, 1999

David Lurie is hardly the hero of his own life, or anyone else's. At 52, the protagonist of Disgrace is at the end of his professional and romantic game, and seems to be deliberately courting disaster. Long a professor of modern languages at Cape Town University College, he has recently been relegated to adjunct professor of communications at the same institution, now pointedly renamed Cape Technical University:

Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: "Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other." His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.

Twice married and twice divorced, his magnetic looks on the wane, David rather cruelly seduces one of his students, and his conduct unbecoming is soon uncovered. In his eighth novel, J.M. Coetzee might have been content to write a searching academic satire. But in Disgrace he is intent on much more, and his art is as uncompromising as his main character, though infinitely more complex. Refusing to play the public-repentance game, David gets himself fired--a final gesture of contempt. Now, he thinks, he will write something on Byron's last years. Not empty, unread criticism, "prose measured by the yard," but a libretto. To do so, he heads for the Eastern Cape and his daughter's farm. In her mid-20s, Lucy has turned her back on city sophistications: with five hectares, she makes her living by growing flowers and produce and boarding dogs. "Nothing," David thinks, "could be more simple." But nothing, in fact, is more complicated--or, in the new South Africa, more dangerous. Far from being the refuge he has sought, little is safe in Salem. Just as David has settled into his temporary role as farmworker and unenthusiastic animal-shelter volunteer, he and Lucy are attacked by three black men. Unable to protect his daughter, David's disgrace is complete. Hers, however, is far worse.

There is much more to be explored in Coetzee's painful novel, and few consolations. It would be easy to pick up on his title and view Disgrace as a complicated working-out of personal and political shame and responsibility. But the author is concerned with his country's history, brutalities, and betrayals. Coetzee is also intent on what measure of soul and rights we allow animals. After the attack, David takes his role at the shelter more seriously, at last achieving an unlikely home and some measure of love. In Coetzee's recent Princeton lectures, The Lives of Animals, an aging novelist tells her audience that the question that occupies all lab and zoo creatures is, "Where is home, and how do I get there?" David, though still all-powerful compared to those he helps dispose of, is equally trapped, equally lost.

Disgrace is almost willfully plain. Yet it possesses its own lean, heartbreaking lyricism, most of all in its descriptions of unwanted animals. At the start of the novel, David tells his student that poetry either speaks instantly to the reader--"a flash of revelation and a flash of response"--or not at all. Coetzee's book speaks differently, its layers and sadnesses endlessly unfolding.

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