Sunday, 27 July 2008

Disgrace is No Disgrace

I was introduced to J.M. Coetzee by my turf-digging pal, Stuart, who, unlike me, studied post-colonial literature while at Sussex University.

I don’t have to make any comment on Coetzee – he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003; enough said.

My other friend, (I have more than one), Sue, recently lent me a copy of his Booker Prize winning book, Disgrace. I read it in a day. No hiccups, no indigestion – pure bliss, despite the fact that that of which Coetzee has to write is highly complex, multi-layered, and seemingly irresolvable. (Though, I should qualify, the latter observation may only be from a particular perspective and, maybe, a traditionalist, Western view at that.)

The storyline of Disgrace is simple: a middle-aged professor of what was once literature but is now communication or media studies or some such, who is discounted by his younger colleagues, has a brief affair with a young student.

It is exposed. He is exposed.

An enquiry, conducted in camera, so, needless to say, immediately public, follows. He accepts his role in the affair and pleads guilty as charged. On a point of principle he refuses to bow to the Jerry Springer demands of contemporary society to make a public recantation. So he is forced to resign, or resigns voluntarily, dependent on your view, and seeks refuge with his daughter who makes her living from a smallholding in the countryside.

She is a lesbian whose partner has left her. Her farm is dangerously exposed in post-apartheid South Africa but she has the support and help of a black South African.


To reveal more would be to spoil.

It is not the story that is important, though, to contradict myself, it is – it bears the gift: it is Coetzee’s writing, his style, his wonderful economy of words, the implication of something other that lies behind every sentence; of more layers than the peeling of an onion that makes Disgrace a book you cannot put down; a book you cannot stop pondering upon for a long time.

It is about being of a certain age, sex, morality, the weight and responsibilities of history - personal and public - culture and difference, South Africa and change, South Africa as a model for all societies…

I could go on but far better that you read Disgrace for yourself and enjoy, absorb, brood over, and conclude.


Stuart and Gabrielle said...

Good to see you reviewing one of my favourite books, David. Not necessarily an author to cheer you up on a grey day but very rewarding, nonetheless.
What you refer to as his "wonderful economy of words" and I call a "lean style" is so impressive. Counting the pages, it's a novella, but each character is adequately fleshed out and the story is complex, multi-layered and keeps going all the way through the book. It's a lesson to the overly self-conscious, indulgent and lardy writing of so many modern writers who use a simile almost with each breath.
Coetzee = Hemingway with a university degree.

Girl On The Run said...

Well you stole my thunder David. I wanted to review this myself, it left me slightly breathless.

The writing is superb, it is tight and it hits home somewhere under the rib cage. I guessed you would enjoy it. It is a lesson in all the desired skills of word-smithing. It still hangs around my thinking which can only mean one thing, it works.