by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 220 pp., $23.95
Woe betide the novelist who lives in interesting times, or, more woeful still, in an interesting place. After the great flourishing of fiction in the relatively stable, not to say stagnant, nineteenth century, the successive cataclysms of the first half of our own century left most novelists, along with the rest of their fellow men, stranded in confusion and spiritual doubt. One political running sore of the postwar era which would have been expected to challenge, if only to defeat, the fiction writer’s imagination was South Africa, though the issues at stake may have seemed, from the point of view of literature, dispiritingly black and white. Nadine Gordimer was, of course, as the award to her of the Nobel Prize acknowledged, the leading literary chronicler of the struggle for justice and equality in South Africa, one phase of which ended with the election of Nelson Mandela as president of a new, multiracial state. Gordimer’s oeuvre is a grand and valiant achievement, of interest not least in that, like the work of George Eliot, it pointedly illustrates the problems the artist encounters when she elects to address head-on in her art the political and social questions of the day.
Gordimer’s fellow countryman J.M. Coetzee is a very different writer, even though his novels are set firmly in the same moral landscape that Gordimer inhabits in her fiction. Despite the inevitable political underpinning in books such as his suggestively titled first novel, Dusklands, the superb fable Waiting for the Barbarians, and Age of Iron, perhaps his finest book, Coetzee has been careful to hold himself aloof from direct engagement with the issues of his time and, specifically, with the politics of his country. His aloofness is not that of the aesthete perched in his ivory tower. Like any serious artist, he is conscious that it is precisely by virtue of its timelessness that art contributes to its time, and to times to come.
It is a surprise, then, even a mild shock, to find his latest novel, Disgrace, which this year won him his second Booker Prize—Coetzee is the only novelist to have been awarded the prize twice—crowded with the burning, or at least smoldering, and in some cases barely sputtering, issues of the day, including, unavoidably, racial antagonism, but also political correctness, animal rights, rape, gender conflict, the decline in academic standards, and more. The book is written with Coetzee’s accustomed steely restraint, and is, like all his work, a masterpiece of understatement. However, there is here what seems a new note of authorial irritation, not only, as might be expected, with the perennial intractability of language and the constraints of the novel form, but with the social changes that are occurring in his country, and in the world at large. Early on in the narrative the protagonist, David Lurie, a lecturer in English at “Cape Technical University, formerly Cape Town University College,” is found sourly confronting one of his apathetic English classes: