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:
He has long since ceased to be surprised at the range of ignorance of his students. Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate, they might as well have been hatched from eggs yesterday. So he does not expect them to know about fallen angels or where Byron might have read of them. What he does expect is a round of goodnatured guesses which, with luck, he can guide toward the mark. But today he is met with silence….
It is hard not to hear in this passage the voice not only of David Lurie but of John Coetzee himself, who has taught literature in South Africa and the United States, and who has produced some superb critical essays, especially in the collection White Writing.
This new novel is a kind of updated Book of Job, though without comforters. David Lurie is a burned-out case, in his personal and his professional life. Formerly a professor of modern languages, he is now, “since Classics and Modern Languages were closed down as part of the great rationalization, adjunct professor of communications.” This is ironic, since he is deeply skeptical about the possibility of any true communication between human beings. He finds preposterous the first premise of his new discipline, as set down in the college handbook—“Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other”—believing 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.” The problem of language in general, and specifically the English language as used in South Africa, is one of the deep themes of the book.
More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa. Stretches of English code whole sentences long have thickened, lost their articulations, their articulateness, their articulatedness. Like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud, the language has stiffened.
It is interesting to speculate whether this passage, in places uncharacteristically clumsy—“Stretches of English code whole sentences long have thickened”—is a deliberate illustration of the predicament it seeks to describe. Elsewhere, Lurie thinks of the English that black South Africa “draws on with such aplomb” as “tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites. Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them.” Against the poverty of language is set the richness of music and song. Lurie has in the past written a scholarly work on opera, and tinkers with a projected opera of his own, to be called Byron in Italy, but which as the book progresses turns into a kind of threnody for lost love to be sung by Byron’s last mistress, the Countess Teresa Guiccioli. The operatic theme fits oddly into the scheme of the book, and is perhaps intended as a counterpoint to the general minimalist bleakness of the story.
The narrative opens calmly, and even with what might be a sly wink: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” Lurie’s solution is a prostitute called Soraya, whom he visits regularly on Thursday afternoons. Soraya is “rather quiet, quiet and docile,” and the arrangement suits both of them. After his second divorce Lurie had for a time been a successful womanizer, then one day, presumably because of his increasing years, his powers of attraction deserted him. “Glances that would once have responded to his slid over, past, through him. Overnight he became a ghost. If he wanted a woman he had to learn to pursue her; often, in one way or another, to buy her.” Hence Soraya. Then one afternoon he meets her by chance in the street accompanied by two young boys, obviously her sons. The encounter disturbs their formerly almost uxorious relationship—“he feels a growing coolness as she transforms herself into just another woman and him into just another client”—and after a few weeks Soraya terminates it.
Adrift now, sexually and emotionally, Lurie embarks on what begins as a casual affair with a girl from the course he conducts on the Romantic poets, the one special-field course per year the university allows him, because it is considered good for morale. The girl, Melanie Isaacs, is not his best student “but not the worst either:clever enough, but unengaged.” In their first sexual encounter Melanie remains unengaged, indeed passive, throughout. “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck.” Lurie realizes he is making a terrible mistake by becoming involved with this girl, but seems powerless to stop the drift toward disaster.
At first he is no more than “mildly smitten with her,” but then something unexpected happens: as he later explains to Melanie’s father, “I think of it as a fire. She struck up a fire in me.” However, Melanie betrays the secret of the affair, first to a resentful boyfriend, then to her parents, and the hapless Lurie quickly finds himself before a university disciplinary committee. Required to abase himself at the feet of the monitors of political correctness, he refuses, and is sacked from his job and deprived of all rights and benefits, even losing his pension.
This first section, some sixty pages long, is hardly more than an overture to the main events of the novel. Inevitably this produces a dislocation in the artistic organization of the book. Soraya, who might have been a character of some interest—we are told in passing that she is a Muslim, making it even more remarkable that this conservative and in many ways prudish woman should be working as a part-time prostitute—is dispensed with after a few pages, while Melanie, who admittedly is young and unformed, is hardly more than a device to drive the plot, and lacks the substance that would have been necessary for us really to believe in Lurie’s passion for her. Even the encounters between Lurie and Melanie’s father are curiously muted. Nor are the scenes in which Lurie is hauled before the academic star chamber as telling as one suspects the author imagines them to be. True, they do draw the reader into the moral ambiguity of the situation—Lurie was wrong to sleep with a student, but should he be destroyed because he insists the “repentance” that is demanded of him “belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse”?—but surely the advocates of political correctness are by now too tattered a target for a writer of Coetzee’s stature to bother taking aim at them.
Abandoning the old life, Lurie travels to the town of Salem in the Eastern Cape province, where his daughter, Lucy, a lesbian and latter-day flower child, keeps a small farm. She lodges him in the room of her departed lover, Helen—who is not even a plot device, being little more than a name—and he settles down as best he can to repair his shattered spirit, helping Lucy about the farm, reading a little in the Romantic poets, and tinkering with his opera project. This long, central part of the book is powerful and moving—so good is it, indeed, that one finds oneself wishing Coetzee had fashioned a better overture for it. Lucy, when she is allowed to be, is an interesting and sympathetic character, though in places she fades into a haziness in which she is more symbol than solid human being.
Lucy is trying to live the new life of a white woman in South Africa, in humility, forbearance, and tolerance of her black neighbors. The nearest of these neighbors is Petrus, a smallholder who, it is clear, has an acquisitive eye fixed on Lucy’s five hectares of land. She grows produce which, with Petrus’s help, she sells at a local market, and runs a kennel for dogs; she also has a friend, Bev, a sort of amateur vet, whose duties consist mainly in putting down as painlessly as she can the ailing farm animals and unwanted pets brought to her from the nearby black township, in which grim labor Lurie ends up aiding her.
One afternoon, when Petrus has conveniently absented himself, two black men and a black teenager turn up at Lucy’s house. They lock Lurie in the lavatory while they gang-rape Lucy, and then open the lavatory door, throw methylated spirits over Lurie and set him alight, and lock him inside again. In an act of gratuitous cruelty before they depart they shoot in their cages all the dogs lodged in Lucy’s care. Lurie is not badly burned, and Lucy’s life is spared, though the emotional damage that she suffers is, not unexpectedly, severe. Afterward she is unwilling to communicate with her father, telling him that he does not understand her, or her life, or her attitude to what has happened to her—she will discover presently that she is pregnant by one of the rapists—and to those who so violently abused her. Is she right, is he incapable of understanding her and her plight? When she breaks down and weeps he searches inside himself for an appropriate response:
Again the feeling washes over him: listlessness, indifference, but also weightlessness, as if he has been eaten away from inside and only the eroded shell of his heart remains.
He can offer her only the usual clichés—at least, one assumes Coetzee regards them as clichés: “It was history speaking through [the rapists],” he tells her. “A history of wrong…. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors.” He puts the blame, if blame it is, on the country itself and its new, post-apartheid apportionings:
A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. 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. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country:in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them.
Presently Lurie discovers, to his astonishment and outrage, that the boy who took part in the rape of his daughter and the attack on him has returned to the vicinity, and seems to be a relative of Petrus’s. Lurie tackles Petrus on the matter, but the black man refuses even to acknowledge the challenge. Lurie is helpless in the face of this silent resistance, this indifference to his complaints. “In the old days one could have had it out with Petrus. In the old days one could have had it out to the extent of losing one’s temper and sending him packing and hiring someone in his place.” However, the old dispensations no longer apply—“It is a new world they live in, he and Lucy and Petrus.” For all his taciturnity, Petrus is perhaps the most convincing character in the book. In his strength, his tenacity, his peasant slyness, and his ruthlessness, he represents something as ancient and elemental as the land itself, yet never does he become a mere symbol; craggy and dangerous, he is, as his name implies, the rock on which, for better or worse, a new South Africa will be built; that he is also the rock on which the frail vessel of Lucy’s life becomes impaled is one of the subtler ironies of the novel.
The question of animal rights dominated Coetzee’s previous book, The Lives of Animals,* an odd but oddly powerful pair of lectures cast in the form of a novella—it is listed here along with his nonfiction works—and the issue comes up again in Disgrace. Lucy, speaking of the dogs she looks after, puts it succinctly: “They do us the honour of treating us like gods, and we respond by treating them like things.” When he asks Lucy’s friend Bev if she does not mind putting down the animals that are brought to her, she replies indignantly: “I do mind. I mind deeply. I wouldn’t want someone doing it for me who didn’t mind. Would you?” Lurie, inevitably, it seems, has a brief, melancholy affair with the unlovely Bev—“This is what I will have to get used to, this and even less than this”—from which he derives hardly more satisfaction than he does from the job he takes on, that of stuffing into plastic bags the corpses of the dogs Bev has put down and taking them to be incinerated.
Lurie returns to Cape Town, and on the way makes a detour to call onMelanie Isaacs’s father, who invites him home to dinner with his wife and their younger daughter. The occasion is less than convivial, though Mr. Isaacs insists that their guest be treated with at least the trappings of hospitality. After dinner, Lurie and Isaacs are left together. Earlier in the book, when Lucy had asked him to tell her his side of the affair with Melanie, Lurie had answered: “My case rests on the rights of desire. On the god who makes even the small birds quiver.” Now he apologizes to Isaacs for failing to offer his daughter the thing that might have made their relationship authentic and lasting, that thing the only word for which he can find is “the lyrical.” As he says: “I manage love too well. Even when I burn I don’t sing, if you understand me.” Isaacs, however, is a deeply religious man, and it is not Eros he is interested in, but Christ. “The question is,”he tells Lurie, “what does God want from you, besides being very sorry?” Lurie replies:
I am not a believer, so I will have to translate what you call God and God’s wishes into my own terms. In my own terms, I am being punished for what happened between myself and your daughter. I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day to day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being. Is it enough for God, do you think, that Ilive in disgrace without term?
When Lurie reaches his house in Cape Town, he finds that it has been ransacked, every movable item stolen. This has been no ordinary burglary. “A raiding party moving in, cleaning out the site, retreating laden with bags, boxes, suitcases. Booty; war reparations; another incident in the great campaign of redistribution.” That campaign has worse things in store for him than the loss of his material possessions. Returning to Salem and Lucy’s farm, he discovers not only that she is pregnant, but that Petrus is proposing that, in return for his protection from the kind of assault she has already suffered, Lucy should marry him, even though he already has two “wives.” Lurie is appalled by what seems to him the black man’s grotesque proposal, but even more by Lucy’s announcement that she will accept the deal: she will “marry” Petrus—but not sleep with him—and sign over her land to him, on condition that he will take her child as part of his family, and allow her to keep her house, with no one entering except at her invitation. “Yes, I agree, it is humiliating,” she tells him.
“But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.”
“Like a dog.”
“Yes, like a dog.”
Coetzee has never been one to provide consolation. In The Lives of Animals, the academic John Costello, faced with his mother’s anguish before her conviction that our treatmentof animals is tantamount to a never-ending Holocaust, can offer her as release only the prospect of her not-far-off death; similarly in Disgrace, contemplating his daughter’s pregnancy, David Lurie takes her hand and tells her: “At least it won’t be for ever, my dearest. At least you will be spared that.” Is he speaking of her pregnancy coming to term, or of something far more final? When his ex-wife Rosalind tells him he will “end up as one of those sad old men who poke around in rubbish bins,” he can easily trump her pessimism: “I’m going to end up in a hole in the ground,”he tells her. “And so are you. So are we all.” Not for nothing did John Coetzee when he was a young academic study Samuel Beckett’s bleaker fictions. Yet even Beckett allows himself now and then a Dantesque wan smile, and so too does the author of Disgrace. Toward the end of the book, sitting among the audience watching the would-be actress Melanie Isaacs playing in a third-rate comedy, he remembers a word that in the first days of his downfall he inadvertently spoke to reporters:
Enriched: that was the word the newspapers picked on to jeer at. A stupid word to let slip, under the circumstances, yet now, at this moment, he would stand by it. By Melanie, by the girl in Touws River; by Rosalind, Bev Shaw, Soraya:by each of them he was enriched, and by the others too, even the least of them, even the failures. Like a flower blooming in his breast, his heart floods with thankfulness.
Where do moments like this come from? Hypnagogic, no doubt; but what does that explain? If he is being led, then what god is doing the leading?
What god indeed.
January 20, 2000