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The Book Club

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace

1. Gets off to a slow start, but… J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” is a very interesting read, even though the plot does get off to a slow start (after all, Coetzee’s protagonist David Lurie is a middle-aged, divorced professor who deals with Romantic poetry). I cannot fairly judge this work in comparison to Coetzee’s other works, or with South African writing in general (though “Disgrace” has been considered to be atypical of this genre despite its setting), but the violence of developments, as well as the realities of David’s and his daughter Lucy’s struggles, powerfully strikes a chord with the reader. The relative short length of the novel does mean that the plot moves along rather quickly, but the increased tempo does not compromise the character development (particularly because the character web is small), or the exposition of the assorted themes.

2. The limited third-person narration. The third-person narrative perspective affords Coetzee with tremendous literary flexibility: it allows David to justify his actions and expound upon his varied, unpredictable emotions, encourages the reader to form conclusions or judgements independent of David’s influence, highlights the growing rift between David and Lucy as the story moves along, puts into equal focus the involvement of the other major characters, as well as the complexities of the new South Africa et cetera. The narration is limited in the sense that often the reader cannot perceive or look beyond the protagonist’s – David’s – views, but progressively he or she gets a better comprehension of the other character’s concerns, and what Coetzee wants to bring across.

3. Great summary of the book from GoodReports.net, on how the violence and suffering in “Disgrace” has been masterfully woven in. “Once the action gets out of Cape Town the story comes into a richer focus, gaining in both depth and outline … it presents itself as a kind of moral fable … Disgrace may not be typical of South African writing, but a moral vision so frankly accepting of violence, seeing suffering as a greater virtue than justice, would seem odd in a novel set almost anywhere else”.

4. Contemplating David Lurie. Throughout the novel, David is trying to make sense of the changing South African landscape: new people, new expectations, new pressures, new circumstances and new individuals. The reader – myself included – may not be aware of the various nuances and historical sensitivities (Lord Byron’s contributions to the Romantic Movement, his corresponding scandals, the influence of William Wordsworth’s works in Africa, Nelson Mandela’s rationalisation), but he or she gets a good sense that the times and people are moving on without David. His courses have been packaged from literature classes into pragmatic “communication” lectures, and it seems that he has lost the power and clout that he used to possess. The scandal he has with Melanie Isaacs only sinks him further into oblivion, which forces him to quit his job and seek refuge with Lucy in the Eastern Cape. Change has become the new constant, even though David feels that the challenge of complying is too overwhelming for him.

5. “Disgrace. Throughout his journey the reader rethinks the definition of “disgrace”, as its application and contradictions – in the social sense – come under increased scrutiny. David acknowledges that he has fallen into disgrace following the revelation of his relationship with Melanie; however, not only has the three man who has raped his daughter gotten away scot-free, it is her – the victim – who falls into self-imposed and social (given that she is impregnated after the incident) disgrace. David is utterly condemned by the fling – leaving him ridiculed by his ex-spouse, shunned by friends and subjected lifetime shame – but is ironically working on Byron at the time of his disgrace.

6. David and communication. “Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: ‘Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings, and intentions to each other’. His own opinion, which he does not air, is 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”.

7. Communication (within David). The irony is that even though David is a lecturer and professor (though not technically) in communications, he constantly struggles to express himself adequately, or to explain himself appropriately in front of others. Such an initial struggle is seen when he does absolutely nothing to shield himself from the ramifications of his actions, and his subsequent inability to socially justify (claiming himself to be the servant of Eros is hardly convincing) why he chose to do what he did. David also has these perpetual imagined conversations; personal dialogues where he imagines himself saying completely different things to the person across him, but lacks the ability or courage to actually express what is genuinely on his mind. This is evidenced clearly during his defence against sexual arrangement at the college’s academic tribunal, and in his many awkward exchanges with Petrus, towards the end of the novel.

8. Communication (between people). The enigma that is David also struggles with his interpersonal relationships, and the reader is left wondering worrying for David during his exchanges and interactions. Language often fails him. Perhaps this explains why he has turned to song and opera instead of a book to document the life of Byron through his mistress Teresa’s perspective; and how he grows increasingly closer to the animals around him (even working in a clinic that euthanises them). David struggles in his communication with the women she has sexual relationships with, and most importantly, cannot seem to get through to Lucy about his suggestions and recommendations.

9. Lucy comprehending the environment that surrounds her, and animalistic references. “Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept … to start at ground level. With nothing … No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity … Like a dog”.

10. Animalistic references in the text. As David attempts to make sense of a changing country, the horrible subjugation of his daughter and dealing with his personal shame, Coetzee enriches the narrative with multiple animalistic references or symbolism. For a start, confronted by Petrus’s barefaced lies and having no feasible way or person to turn to (Lucy has rationalised her precarious environment), acceptance and compliance to the status quo seems to be the only way forward; like a dog. Nearing the end, David’s reflections are full of animalistic symbols (describing as being eaten from the inside by termites, like a fly-casing in a spider-web et cetera); and though the end is not written in its entirety, it feels like David too, has given up so much (his relationships and attachments, finding no plausible way to finish his dream on opera, and even his dying animal that seemed intrigued by his work) to start from ground zero as well; like a dog.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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