Thursday, May 2, 2013

Disgrace by JM Coetzee

In order to truly discuss a book, one has to presume prior knowledge on the part of the reader. Disgrace is such a book. I could not begin to give you the infinite twists and turns in the plot of a Satanic Verses or a Master and Margarita, but Disgrace has a straightforward narrative. To discuss the book may mean letting the story out of the bag.

JM Coetzee
Disgrace won JM Coetzee his second Booker. His Nobel thereafter, catapulted him to iconic status. The power packed economy of his writing is valuable in this busy world of low attention spans, where people want to get a million things done and contemplate the life, the universe and everything. Disgrace allows you to do just that – read a thought provoking, deep and complex novel, in the course of a short haul flight. To the plot then, and for people avoiding spoilers, they are in italics. I mean the spoilers are in italics. Mostly.

The opening:

“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”

‘He’ is David Lurie, a white man in post apartheid South Africa, a scholar and Professor, paid to teach communication when he would rather be discussing poetry. His ‘solution’ is Soraya from an escort agency. His Sorayan trysts end one day, owing to circumstances of his own making. He then starts a relationship with a young student, who nearly comes undone by the affair. An inquiry follows - Lurie refuses to apologize and is forced to resign. Footloose and fancy free, he serves up at his daughter’s small-holding where horror awaits. They are attacked in their house, his daughter Lucy is gang-raped. They do not expect justice, but it appears Lucy must make peace with her attackers, actually submit to them in a manner of speaking, if she wishes to keep her land and be safe in the new South Africa. Lurie is unable to help an increasingly remote Lucy. At the same time he begins to be drawn to the voiceless and the helpless. He helps out at an animal shelter, working hard to dispose of slaughtered stray dogs in a manner that dignifies them, he shifts the focus of his work from Byron, to Byron’s long forgotten, perhaps ridiculed mistress. He persists thus, despite a suspicion that his efforts are almost ludicrous in the context of the injustices of this world. The book comes to an end.

You would not want to read such a depressing book, but it is a real page-turner. The settings are perfectly etched, the characters credible even if their actions are at odds with one’s reasoning. We are swiftly sucked into the story and from there we ponder the themes and characters of the book-

The Problem of Sex: As a married woman maybe I have little right to judge the plight of a single man, but I come from a land where child widows had to go about with shaven heads lest they tempted someone to tempt them, if that makes sense. The western analogue-  the spinster stereotype, old, virginal, unattractive, was no less pathetic. I have felt a residue of sadness for Jane Austen and my late physically handicapped uncle who never married, but I can’t bring myself to sympathise with Lurie’s predicament. Why is he unable to take himself in hand, why does lack of ‘action’ make him go to pieces, spur him to act increasingly audaciously? Lurie’s excuse is that it is his nature, that one cannot fight one’s nature. Is that the fault of the South African experiment, to ascribe immutable natures to different people? Apartheid society failed to civilise a man like David Lurie, post-apartheid society is failing in the same way. Is that Coetzee’s point?

The book makes me think of the legitimacy of 'nature' as an argument. Are men's needs more legitimate? I wonder at the ad clip for the ethical porn site A defiant voice-over, a rush of erotic images, mostly women, the camera finally zooming to the speaker, a wheelchair bound MAN. The site claims to support a pluralistic sexuality and is against subjugating our sexuality to marketing standards. I doubt the ad clip can reel in the women gritting their teeth on abstinence. Not, I think, with the male-centric ad, the too hip project team. If they could, they would be laughing their way to the bank – ask E.L.James.

Is David Lurie reprehensible? I did not mind David Lurie so much. First off I have the protagonist syndrome, thanks to Coetzee’s third person Lurie POV narrative. Lurie is a reliable narrator, and I am susceptible to a sensible and sensitive perspective, however flawed. That probably makes me a loser in the power stakes (it’s all about establishing one’s perspective over others, and presumption is a pre-requisite, is it not?)

No, but I get the code David Lurie lives by - the exercise of free will. If he gets carried away, it is owing to his passions, and please bear with my definition of passion: His passion makes him follow Soraya, unwanted, unasked, into her home-ground, it is his passion that makes him lose his head over Melanie. But then, his high strung nature acts as a check. I do not see him enjoying the exercise of brute force, or profiting by manipulating others. Just as his attractiveness (up until now), and the predominance of his race (up until now, which no doubt, added to his attraction-up until now), did not teach him to deal with sexual rejection, so is he incapable of going against the societal framework that has served him so well all these years. As I see it, his main fault is his ignorance of powerlessness.

My mother wonders at Soraya, a family woman leading a double life. What if she were frightened, or neurotic or otherwise stressed when Lurie calls her? He was coming close to unravelling someone’s life, playing with the life of her children. My rejoinder is that he does leave her alone in the end. More importantly he is sensitive to every subtle shift in his relationship with Soraya; and that is less aggressive and more lover-like.

David Lurie reminds me of Tony Webster, the protagonist of Julian Barnes’s Sense of an Ending – both men have the same smug air of self-sufficiency. There is a further parallel in their having to face up to their past deeds, although Coetzee is harsher with Lurie than Barnes is with Webster. Lurie gets everything back a thousand fold. If he is predatory in his relationships, his daughter gets raped, if he blames his nature, his daughter is raped by Pollux who can’t help his mental deficiency! But Lurie shows character in adversity. His apology to Melanie’s family is a counterpoint to his refusal to abase himself before the inquiry committee. By the way, I admire his attitude with the committee. I prefer arrogance to hypocrisy.

And yes he finds Melanie’s sister attractive and he disapproves of unattractive women, but come on, I will not find fault with what people think inside their heads. We can allow their nature that much! He is not a Humbert Humbert either, Melanie is much older than Lolita. And remember Lurie’s ex-wife is a friend. In fact, my heart goes out to Lurie, singing for Byron’s forgotten mistress, to a three-legged dog. I wish I could tell him it is not comic, the tinny banjo strain. There is a key line in the book, a part of Lurie’s inner monologue – he (Lurie) can, if he concentrates, if he loses himself, be there, be the men, inhabit them, fill the men with the ghost of himself. The question is does he have it in him to be the woman? My verdict is that Coetzee can be the aggressor through Lurie, only up to a point. To the women then.  

Melanie’s inexplicable behaviour: Melanie comes from a provincial family, she is inexperienced and possibly in awe of her professor, maybe she even crushed on Lurie- he first finds her dawdling in his path, she has spoken of him to her family. While her father speaks in stock phrases (we put our children in your hands, nest of vipers, so help me God, how the mighty have fallen, break bread with us), Lurie’s terse apology, contains one exquisite line, the confession that ‘he lacked the lyrical. (Of course he continues to lack the lyrical, to intrude, disturb, explain, demand indulgence. The lyrical would require him to be silent.) But Lurie's  sophistication and sensitivity must be attractive to Melanie. His lifestyle, his books, his erudition, his experience of the world must be glamorous, even heady. The rub is that she finds him physically unattractive. 

But does she like his company? Does she end up accepting that the cost of his company, this introduction to a rarefied life, or let us take a different scenario, the cost of obtaining refuge from her own complicated or banal life, is to agree to have sex with him? And does that capitulation undo her? And him too? For lacking the lyrical?

I left IIT after two months because I lacked the vocabulary to tell my father I was really happy at the Institute, that I thought that if I worked hard I could get into the coveted engineering program. I felt no legitimacy in my arguments, it seemed spoilt of me to refuse a seat in the medical college. Moreover I was worried about the Electrical Circuits Test. Why was that? Because when my father arrived at my hostel to take me back to Chennai where the medical college awaited me, I wasted five minutes bursting into tears. Then I remembered that my professor had threatened to mark us as absent if we were more than five minutes late, so I missed the entire class, which I decided would surely set me back in the coming test, which meant I had even less of a leg to stand on if my plan was to get a branch change. So I advanced no sensible arguments, only threw a super tantrum, hoping my father would say Amrish-Puri-like , “Ja Simran ja, yeh KGP jaise koi tere ko khush nai rakh saktha, ja, apni zindagi jee”. (Go Simran, go. No one can keep you happy like KGP does. Go live your life) My nod to that silly movie DDLJ. In the movie it is  Raj not KGP. Check out the link below.

My father did nothing of that sort, instead he kept asking me what I wanted!

Sorry for that autobiographical dose, but the point is that those five minutes became a missed test, which made me believe that my career in IIT was finished and that I had to go elsewhere. We make decisions for the vaguest of reasons in our youth and our folly. Maybe Melanie wanted to get away from her boyfriend, maybe she felt let down by Lurie, maybe the missed test became a big deal, to the point where she became confused within and buffeted by all without. Melanie Isaacs is out of her depth from the beginning, but it is Lurie’s fault in not grasping that her problems could become his problem. 

Melanie is probably 'Coloured'. I don’t know much of South African society but if Lurie, a poor professor, represents a certain world, then the hard working petit bourgeois Isaacs household with their pickles and cumin flavoured chicken stew must come from somewhere else. And not just that, the overt religiosity, the bombast that reflects a limited vocabulary, Desiree’s  now-now, the Chinese features of both the sisters, Isaacs’s hairless skin, the dark hair, the dark eyes, Ryan the boyfriend’s warning to Lurie – stay with your own kind - I am sure of it. I will not even go into the play on Melanie’s name.

Disgrace was made into a movie starring John Malkovich as David Lurie. Good Casting!

Lucy’s inexplicable behaviour: It is clear that both Lucy and Melanie are unhappy with the sexual advantage that has been taken of them, yet they acquiesce to it in a most troubling way. I think Coetzee has inhabited Melanie very well- how about Lucy? Why is she willing to abase herself? Why is Bev complicit in Lucy’s harebrained decisions? Has Lucy’s sexual orientation made her differently attuned to life? Is it PSTD? I cannot answer these questions. But clearly Holland is not her idea of a safe haven like Lurie and the reader think it is. On the other hand she had found happiness working the land in South Africa and thinks she can give it a go, with the help of Petrus. Her father cannot help, he is increasingly irrelevant, jobless himself, his house in town burgled. Yet…how is she so placid when Pollux is found peeping into her bathroom, so irritated with her father for interfering? How does she end up pregnant? Is it a bid to tie the land to herself, produce a child of the soil? Will she be successful? Is she bending to the wind or has she been broken? Will she rise again?

Lastly, the character of Petrus: – I did not like him. It is all right to say my people, your people and propose all kinds of arrangements, but Petrus knows what he is about, and if he cannot  see it, he is no better than Pollux, the jackal boy. I am not a white or black man, I am a brown woman and Coetzee can show me all the parallels between Lurie and Petrus, I will not be lured by that kind of sophistry. Maybe Petrus and Isaacs are projections of Lurie, but if so, Lurie has done a good job of convincing me.

But where is the story going? Where is the disgrace in the transfer of power? I have to agree with TS from the book group that perhaps it is the story of South Africa. It is an indictment of South Africa, of the apartheid system that allowed men like Lurie advantages, of the current law and order situation that has reduced Lucy, a good woman to such abject straits. Like all of Coetzee’s works, it is a protest and a cry on behalf of the voiceless- Lucy and the dogs, Byron’s Teresa and men like Lurie who are unable to age gracefully.  Advocacy at its finest.

And I like that semi colons have been dispensed with, that commas are the way to go. Oh, and I love the creative process as Coetzee describes it, apropos ‘Byron’s Italy,’ the opera that consumes Lurie as the book draws to a close.  I could go on. I could transcribe the book.

Read the book every five years. 

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