My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Disgrace (1999) by J.M. Coetzee is a quick and enjoyable read and introduces us to some true villains. Some characters in literature are remembered for their complete villainy while others are branded for their derangement while still others live in infamy for their absolute heroic qualities.
The stories of Beowulf and Achilles stand out as heroism entire, albeit somewhat flawed, but one who slays dragons or slays princes cannot be forgotten easily. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert certainly fit nicely into memorable characters who do not quite have a mental grasp on things (not in the way most do that is). And a villain such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula is famed world over.
In 1999, J.M. Coetzee, however, creates just such a character in his novel Disgrace. Professor David Lurie is “not a bad man but not good either” (195), and the reader embraces David (also the name of the Biblical king who committed adultery with Bathsheba) who begins sexual relations with the college student Melanie Isaacs (also referring to the Biblical story of Abraham’s almost sacrifice of his son Isaac) and commits adultery with a married woman, Bev Shaw, as if the reader were the professor, with understanding and mercy and pity, and the South African story captivates, despite being a bit depressing with events of scandal in Cape Town, rape, shame, and death out on a farm in Salem—also referring to witch trials and to David Lurie’s trial at the university; but as William Kennedy writes in his New York Times essay, “Deceit as a way of life is ubiquitous” (125).
Coetzee also interweaves the story of Madame Bovary into David’s sad, sad tale: “He thinks of Emma Bovary, coming home sated, glazen-eyed, from an afternoon of reckless fucking. So this is bliss!, says Emma, marveling at herself in the mirror” (5-6), and again, “In adultery, all the tedium of marriage rediscovered” (87)—with Flaubert’s version being: “Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage” (374)—and again:
His thoughts go to Emma Bovary strutting before the mirror after her first big afternoon. I have a lover! I have a lover! sings Emma to herself. Well, let poor Bev Shaw go home and do some singing too. And let him stop calling her poor Bev Shaw. If she is poor, he is bankrupt (150).
But as Coetzee’s first sentence reads, “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” (1), it is not theme that makes this book or David Lurie memorable, but the author’s skill in bringing characters to life, despite how flawed they are, and by allowing those same characters to make choices, for better or worse, for themselves.
Coetzee, firstly, is a true craftsman in his efforts of allowing characters to come to life, and life, if anything is change. In Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story the author offers a valuable suggestion to writers: “Remember that narrative tells your story and that your story, like the people and events upon which it is based, is a living thing—and life is constant change” (137). Franklin also instructs to the writer about character creation through narrative:
If you tell your story correctly the reader’s identity will for a short time actually fuse with that of the character and he will live for a while through that character. He will see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and think with his brain. The ability to cajole the reader into doing that is the hallmark of good narrative (138).
Coetzee is a master at doing both these things, as found in the following examples. David has already seduced Melanie, the dark one, once and now he is faced with a choice, and reader gets fused with the lascivious professor:
He stretches out on the bed beside her. The last thing in the world he needs is for Melanie Isaacs to take up residence with him. Yet at this moment the thought is intoxicating. Every night she will be here; every night he can slip into her bed like this, slip into her. People will find out, they always do; there will be whispering, there might even be scandal. But what will that matter? A last leap of the flame of sense before it goes out. He folds the bedclothes aside, reaches down, strokes her breasts, her buttocks. ‘Of course you can stay,’ he murmurs. ‘Of course’ (27).
David recognizes the choice before him, unraveling the future events as they are likely going to happen, and do in fact happen, but continues onward with only a light murmur. And later when his affair with his student begins to create problems:
She promises, but with a promise that is not enforceable. He is vexed, irritated. She is behaving badly, getting away with too much; she is learning to exploit him and will probably exploit him further. But if she has got away with much, he has got away with more; if she is behaving badly, he has behaved worse. To the extent that they are together, if they are together, he is the one who leads, she the one who follows. Let him not forget that (28).
Such choices are found in the oldest narratives, especially in the Bible where Adam and Eve are faced with the choice to take of the forbidden fruit. Coetzee, an expert on weaving themes flawlessly into his own story, offers David another choice when, after the professor is disgraced and ran out of town, he ventures to Melanie’s home to apologize. Instead, David finds Desiree, the desired one, all alone:
He nods. He does not say, I know your sister, know her well. But he thinks: fruit of the same tree, down probably to the most intimate detail. Yet with differences: different pulsings of the blood, different urgencies of passion. The two of them in the same bed: an experience fit for a king (164).
Coetzee not only is able to bring the character of David Lurie to life throughout Disgrace but the author is constant and invisible, allowing his creation to choose for himself, despite if the character is going to suffer for those choices.
Ford Madox Ford advised the writer in 1930: “If you no longer allow yourself to take sides with your characters you begin very soon to see that such a thing as a hero does not exist—a discovery that even Thackeray could make” (126).
Coetzee’s skill lies embedded in the ability as a writer as human being to step back, step away, and step inside the character being written about in such a way the character truly lives, but lives free to suffer consequences. After David’s daughter, Lucy, is raped by two men and she fails to report it to the police because she believes in doing things in relation to the land of South Africa, where she must pay a non-monetary price for being allowed to live, and the reader shares in David’s shame and disgrace:
She does not reply. She would rather hide her face, and he knows why. Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame. 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 was for (115).
Later, when David confronts Melanie Isaac’s father who is also a teacher, the reader gets pulled in deeper and awakes a deeper understanding and a sincere pity for Coetzee’s creation:
‘Normally I would say,’ [David] says, ‘that after a certain age one is too old to learn lessons. One can only be punished and punished. But perhaps that is not always true, not always. I wait to see. As for God, 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 (172).
Not only has Coetzee brought David’s character to life and allowed to live his own life the way the character desires, the reader is simultaneously not repulsed but compelled to keep reading, keep digging, keep hoping like David that punishment will not go on forever. Such is life, isn’t it?
By the very last sentence, David has finally decided to euthanize a dog that he befriended after Lucy’s rape and the murder of many of the dogs on her farm. Bev Shaw asks: “‘Are you giving him up?’”, and David replies, ending the novel, “‘Yes, I am giving him up’” (220). Thus, the reader is left with a sense that David, and their own life, will not continue forward in everlasting difficulties, but if David can change, other things will also not remain the same. The technique of weaving character with reader, and not theme to story, is what makes Disgrace a powerful and lasting book.
Coetzee’s masterly hand weaves themes, narratives, characters—most not quite good but not quite bad either—into a powerful tale of shame and disgrace. David Lurie’s character will likely be remembered along those classic names of Holden and Humbert, and it is all because Coetzee respects his characters and story enough to sit back and allow them to have free will of the page and his mind. Likewise, Coetzee respects his characters and his story by respecting the language, the medium of the narrative.
William Zinsser in On Writing Well certainly agrees when he advises writers on respect and reading: “Write with respect for the English language at its best—and for readers at their best” (233). Coetzee does so, and three years later his hard work would win him the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace (1999). New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary (1857). New York: Pocket Books, 2007. Print.
Ford, Ford Madox. The English Novel (1930). Manchester: Carcanet Press Ltd., 1997. Print.
Franklin, Jon. Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner. New York: Plume, 1994. Print.
Kennedy, William. “Hometown Boy Makes Waves.” Writers on Writing: Volume II. New York: Times Books, 2003. 125-131. Print.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well (1976). New York: Collins, 2006. Print.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers