Tuesday 6 December 2011

'Not a bad man but not good either'

by J. M. Coetzee

I mentioned my trepidation when approaching Sebald in my review of Austerlitz last week but that was nothing compared to the downright anxiety I felt about making a start on Coetzee. I knew I had to read him but with each successive publication my sense of where to start with him got more and more confused. Step in the Folio Society with another lovely edition that gives the Booker Prize winning Disgrace a well deserved re-appraisal more than 10 years after its original publication. I still feel a certain anxiety about Coetzee but it is now that I will find his later work as intimidating as ever whilst secretly wanting to read more of his earlier work, so brilliant was this intelligent, brave, angry and confused novel. As someone who began to find their reading maturity on a diet of Philip Roth's more passionate novels I felt as though I had found a replacement source of that fervour now that Roth has begun to focus so much on mortality and death. Disgrace is every bit as risky and controversial as I expected but also richly symbolic, brutal and exhilarating. What an introduction.

The man at the centre of the novel is David Lurie, a professor in a Cape Town university where modernisation has seen him move from teaching Literature to 'Communications' a title that doesn't sit well with this lover of the Romantic poets. His life has achieved a kind of stasis; he has been married and divorced, remaining on good terms with his ex-wife; sex has become a transaction as easily managed as any utility bill with his weekly visits to a woman named 'Soraya'; and a personal project to write an opera about Byron is always simmering away on the back burner.

Is he happy? By most measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead.

This routine is ruptured when Lurie spots Soraya in the street with two children who can only be hers and the two of them catch each other's eye. This intrusion of her personal life into their private arrangement is never mentioned by either of them at their next appointment but they both know something has changed and their arrangement comes to an end. Lurie's solution to this problem is to fall back on the tried and tested formula of sleeping with one of his students. The girl he selects, Melanie Isaacs, is 20 years old 'small and thin, with close cropped hair, wide, almost Chinese cheekbones, large, dark eyes', and whilst he finds himself falling rather harder for her than he intended she never seems to be fully committed. One sexual episode in particular highlights what we might call acquiescence rather than real participation.

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. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.

A complaint is made, probably by or at least at the encouragement of Melanie's boyfriend; a tribunal is held at which Lurie refuses to kowtow to the demands of some of the board to show penitence or do more than simply admit guilt and he is dismissed from his position, eventually leaving in disgrace to stay with his daughter on the smallholding she owns on the Eastern Cape.

This retreat doesn't offer the solace that he might have hoped for. Not only is there the slightly fractious relationship between father and daughter but in a moment of shocking violence the two of them are subjected to an ordeal that further polarises their positions as well as forcing the reader to confront an uncomfortable image of the new South Africa. As a reviewer I might chose to skirt around the details of the incident in order to avoid spoilers but Coetzee keeps things unclear by placing Lurie in a different room to his daughter as she endures what he presumes to be rape by one or all of the three (black) men who attack them in their home. Lucy's refusal to discuss what actually happened or seek any recourse to the law leaves Lurie baffled and frustrated but she is quite clear about her stance.

'...what happened to me is a purely private matter. In another time, in another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone.'
'This place being what?'
'This place being South Africa.'

Coetzee's genius is that an event that would be shocking and painful enough on its own is given a far deeper resonance by the circumstances that surround it. What kind of guilt or pressure is it that forces Lucy to endure her shame rather than challenge it? Is David right to question whether Petrus, the (black) neighbour who has gone from worker to co-owner of the smallholding, has any connection to the attack? How can David hope to talk to his daughter fully about her ordeal when we consider the charges that brought him to her home in the first place? It's no surprise that this book caused controversy in South Africa. In its bluntest interpretation we might see a brutal justice being administered to the white population after the end of apartheid, a vicious illustration that 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' This metaphor becomes even more concentrated if we think that Melanie, whose ethnicity is never specified beyond the enigmatic description I gave above, might herself be black. If, within this tight narrative framework, we have seen father bear down on a black student and then his daughter assaulted by three black men we have a pressure of almost unbearable degree, a potent symbol of racial division as well as one of ownership, control and power. It is that kind of pent-up energy that had me thinking of (and rejoicing) Roth's angriest novels when reading this one. Lucy's personal disgrace is to endure the attack and then to hear the story version of it of it spread across the district unchallenged.

That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this confident, modern young woman. Like a stain the story is spreading across the district. Not her story to spread but theirs: they are its owners. How they put her in her place, how they showed her what a woman is for.

And the question she is left asking herself comes when considering the personal animosity she witnessed - 'Why did they hate me so?' Surely only as a symbol of something wider.

And what are we to make of the novel's protagonist? Christopher Hope in his introduction gives us a little guidance in trying to seek out his motivations and wondering what kind of sympathy we might have for him as a character (it is also worth noting that Hope, who hasn't always given Coetzee the easiest of rides, is in no doubt about the virtues of this novel). We might consider the way Lurie speaks to his students about one of his life's passions, Byron, and the way in which Byron describes Lucifer in particular.

'He doesn't act on principle but on impulse, and the source of his impulses is dark to him. Read a few lines further: "His madness was not of the head, but heart." A mad heart. What is a mad heart?'

That is the question both we and Lurie must ask of him and nearer the end of the novel, when he begins to reckon himself it doesn't seem as if even that has been enough.

Not a bad man but not good either. Not cold but not hot, even at its hottest. Not by the measure of Theresa, not even by the measure of Byron. Lacking in fire. Will that be the verdict on him, the verdict of the universe and its all-seeing eye?

A novel then filled with potent images, difficult questions, complicated motivations and a good dose of anger (just my cup of tea); as challenging to read now as it was when published and a pleasure as ever to do so in this quality edition from Folio. Right, what Coetzee next...?


Anonymous,  6 December 2011 at 00:34  

I always feel this is something Coetzee excels in the broken man, men on the edge for me this always he main forte and disgrace had echos with its main character to Michael K main character as he is also a broken man , so if you ve not read that maybe that be your next stop William .I do love the folio copy of this much better than the battered paperback I had ,all the best stu

harriet 6 December 2011 at 10:02  

What an excellent review. I have never read Coetzee, never even been tempted to, but you have made this novel sound fascinating, so you never know...

William Rycroft 6 December 2011 at 10:22  

Thanks for the recommendation Stu. The Folio edition is indeed lovely. When reading their books I find myself enjoying the feel of a 'proper' hardback.

Harriet - I'm glad to have piqued your interest. Let me know if you ever decide to take the plunge...

Danny Byrne 6 December 2011 at 12:34  

Coetzee is all manner of excellent. I'd recommend making Age of Iron and Waiting for the Barbarians your next ones. Age of Iron is kind of a companion piece to Disgrace in a way - they're the only two novels he ever wrote set in contemporary South Africa. Waiting for the Barbarians approaches the apartheid situation at an allegorical remove, but like Kafka it's relation to reality is indirect and unreliable - it's as existential as it is political. That's the great thing about Coetzee - however much a novel might be 'about' some big general theme like post-apartheid SA, or post-colonial politics, or sexual dynamics, it is equally 'about' the potentials and limitations of its own form, the impossibility of language and writing, and the long lineage of 20thC thinkers and artists in which Coetzee is immersed.

William Rycroft 6 December 2011 at 13:01  

Danny, I think we're going to get on famously as Age of Iron and Barbarians are the very titles I had placed at the top of my list. Both were mentioned by authors; Barbarians recommended by Alex Preston and Age of Iron by Jacques Strauss, and there is a huge amount of admiration out there in the writing community for an author who seems to be one whose work really should be taken seriously and which may stand the test of time. I look forward to both for the different reasons you outline above. Thank you for the comment.

Danny Byrne 6 December 2011 at 18:18  

You're in for a treat. A lot of people prefer Coetzee's pre-Disgrace stuff to the later ones, but you should also check out Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year, both of which were pretty much ignored (read: totally misunderstood) by the mainstream press. His autobiographical trilogy is also really interesting (though I know Alex Preston disagrees!) - I wrote a piece about it at 3am recently http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/autobiography-as-defacement/. Anyway, nice to discover your blog, looks like you've written some interesting stuff and I'll certainly check back.

Packers and movers Ludhiana 15 December 2011 at 08:47  

wonderful review,, want to read it nowww.

Max Cairnduff 22 December 2011 at 14:26  

Oh Will, and I was hoping to skip Coetzee too. How very awkward of you to make such a good case.

When 17 I was attacked by a group of black teenagers near my home. There had, I learnt later, been an attack on a black kid by a group of white teenagers which may have prompted the attack on me. No other reason ever suggested itself. I was badly beaten, and one lost control of himself repeatedly kicking me long after I was down. He was eventually pulled off by his friends.

What was traumatic afterwards wasn't the injury (that was bad, but a few weeks later the bruises had faded and while my nose was broken it set in such a way that it wasn't visible - I was lucky). It was the fury. Someone I'd never met wanted to stomp me out of existence, hated me so much that if his friends hadn't pulled him back I do think he might have killed me. How do you respond to hatred so personal, yet so random?

I still of course have no answer to that. Anyway, my point isn't a rather unpleasant anecdote from my adolescence. It's that it sounds like Coetzee has captured something here. By making Lurie himself arguably a rapist, and at best someone who abused his position to take sexual advantage of a student, he prevents us making this a story of when bad things happen to good people. Lurie isn't good people, and anyway it's not him it happens to.

From the sound of it that leaves us in the same place that beating left me. We may want answers, but that doesn't mean they exist. Were those kids targetting a white kid in retaliation for the attack on a black one? I don't know. I don't even know for certain that a black kid was beaten up by a white group, or if one was that it was a racist attack and not just a random mugging. Coetzee takes similar questions and as you describe it makes them wider in their significance, yet still personal. No wonder the book was controversial.

William Rycroft 23 December 2011 at 00:45  

First of all Max, thank you for sharing what happened to you. A few friends have been mugged or attacked but I'm not sure any of them ever suffered an attack that genuinely left them in fear of their life. It seems as though the fury you described is very like the incomprehension in that extract I quoted. What could possibly motivate someone to attack a stranger with such individual and personal hatred?

There is no easy answer and I suspect that any answer we found would be so uncomfortable in how wide ranging it was we would probably shy away from it anyway. That's what makes the novel so brave and difficult. Lurie isn't just not a a good person but his very weak spot puts him in a position where he cannot hope to communicate properly with his daughter when she most needs him to. That adds a dynamism to a relationship in a dynamic scenario. I'm already lining up my next books by Coetzee as I think he's one of those writers that demands to be read. I will be very interested to read your thoughts on him if you do to. Thanks again for such an insightful and interesting comment Max.

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