Sunday, July 15, 2012

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Do you only see clearly once all is lost?

This beautiful novel profoundly moved me.  Disgrace had much in common with the classic novels I have been recently been reading: a powerful, elegant style, complexity of theme, and a social/anthropological glimpse into an interesting country. Finally, this novel grappled with moral questions, though the answers were ambiguous, if not pessimistic.

The setting of South Africa and its social and racial pressures are key. Disgrace is about David Lurie, a onetime professor of classical literature currently right sized into a professor of  Communications.  Outwardly respectable, but sexually creepy, he presses himself onto a beautiful young student, is denounced and fired. David retreats to his daughter’s far off farm, quietly sneering at her slow paced unattractive lifestyle. One afternoon he and his daughter have visitors who use violence make him understand his helplessness, his daughter’s helplessness, and how Western Civilization, his fancy words, his Byron or Wordsworth, can’t protect him or his family any more. If they ever did. At the end of the story, he finds some solace in taking care of diseased and dying animals at the animal shelter.

The novel is about many things, but one of the things is lust. It reminded me a little of Lolita and Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which are both about a man looking back with unwilling regret at the woman he crushed with his lust. Because women are two things at once – they are persons, of course, and they are also blank canvases that men project their values and desires.  Women can be possessed.

It’s a disgrace to rape, but it’s also a disgrace to be raped. And both father and daughter have to hide out, accept their disgrace, accept the path society offers as the way out, though it may be a humiliating path. The daughter, to continue the way she’s been living, agrees to an arrangement I thought no woman on earth would agree to. No person would. But then, on further reflection, haven’t humiliating arrangements been the way all subjugated women and people have had to live? Most recently perhaps in South Africa? But still, it doesn’t make it right.

There’s a lot going on here with the dogs. People behaving like dogs, people being cruel to dogs, people sacrificing all their time to be compassionate to abandoned dogs. Why does David Lurie only feel a sense of love (for the dogs only) after losing everything? Though the ultimate image here is bleak. Is Coetzee saying there’s no point?

All I know is that I must immediately read more JM Coetzee.

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