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Thursday, May 10th, 2001



by J. M. Coetzee

Parables and Prizes

A review by James Wood

J.M. Coetzee's distinguished novels feed on exclusion; they are intelligently starved. One always feels with this writer a zeal of omission. What his novels keep out may well be as important as what they keep in. And Coetzee's vision is impressively consistent: his books eschew loosened abundance for impacted allegory. Waiting For The Barbarians, his finest allegory, set in a nameless Empire with resemblances to turn-ofthe-century South Africa, has an Orwellian power. Even when his novels are set in a recognizable and local South African world, as is the case with Coetzee's new novel, the dry seed of parable can always be felt underfoot, beneath the familiar surfaces of contemporary life.

But this is a harsh exchange. Coetzee's novels eschew society, and the examination of domestic filaments, for the study of political societies; they eschew the scrutiny of moral life for a more desperate search for ethical survival; they eschew metaphysics for politics; they eschew the description of human consciousness in its fullness and waywardness for the description of the consciousness of pain in its monotonous density. They avoid the warm flavors of the comic-ironic for the bitter concentrates of the allegorical-ironic. There is fantastic compulsion to Coetzee's lean, thrilling tales - they are always difficult to put down - but his novels are strangers to the patience of accumulation. His prose is precise, but not rare.

There are few writers in English who equal this South African writer's hard intelligence. Few are as philosophical, or as familiar with the languages and the modes of post-structural and post-colonial theory: Coetzee has taught literature for many years at the University of Cape Town, and is a formidable theorist of the novel and of the novel's destiny in his native country. And few writers are as bleak, as painfully, repetitively honest. Coetzee returns to the same pain as if a joint were being broken again and again in the same place.

Still, what his books exclude almost constitutes life itself, and certainly constitutes much of the novel's traditionally victorious tourism of life. This seems a hard confinement, and it is something that Coetzee seemed to acknowledge, with characteristic probity, in his Jerusalem Prize speech in 1987. He claimed, perhaps too fatalistically, that South African literature was "a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power, unable to move from elementary relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation ... it is exactly the kind of literature one would expect people to write from a prison."

But there is a puzzle. For this bleak writer has won a prize with every novel he has published. Waiting For The Barbarians has been reprinted twenty-two times since its publication in 1980. Coetzee is undoubtedly one of the best novelists at work in English, yet prize juries are known, more often than not, for their invincible wrong-headedness. Is it unexamined snobbery that provokes one to think that if Coetzee were a truly great, truly difficult writer - such as Beckett, whom he thinly resembles at times - he would not be so garlanded? It cannot be that Coetzee is merely giving people what they want; he is too good for that. Besides, as John Sutherland, one of the judges for this year's Booker Prize, wrote in The Guardian, none of the judges passionately loved his new novel, but all admired it very much, and disagreed least about its merits. (Coetzee is the only novelist to have won the Booker twice.)

But people like novels that, however intelligently, tell them what to think, that table ideas and issues - novels that are discussable. Above all, and most depressingly, people like allegory, and Coetzee's books always incline toward this mode. Coetzee is very subtle and refined, so that much of the time he does not really seem to be telling us what to think; better still, his novels self-consciously display an involvement in their own modes of presentation, so that Coetzee will often seem to be telling us what to think about being told what to think (which is still a species of telling people what to think, of course). Disgrace, which is a kind of South African version of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons - an issue novel about the generation wars - is a novel with which it is almost impossible to find fault. Precisely because he is a very good writer and not a great writer, Coetzee emits prize-pheromones.

These somewhat unfair thoughts are stirred by Disgrace, which is a very good novel, almost too good a novel. It knows its limits, and lives within a wary self-governance. It sometimes reads as if it were the winner of an exam whose challenge was to create the perfect specimen of a very good contemporary novel. It is truthful, spare, compelling, often moving, and thematically legible: that is to say, it does not overflow interpretation. It does not rise to greatness, in part because of a certain formal, cognitive, and linguistic neatness - almost a somber tidiness, if such a thing can be imagined - that is obscured, and almost successfully subjugated, by what is most powerful about the book, its loose wail of pain, its vigorous honesty.

David Lurie, through whom all of the novel's action is seen, is a professor at Cape Town Technical University. He feels himself to be something of an irrelevance, a traditional humanist with a love of the Romantic poets in a world of student illiteracy and snarling theory. He has been bumped from teaching literature to teaching "communications," which he despises. He is old-fashioned in another way, too: he likes to sleep with his female students. He begins a brief affair with one of them, a young woman named Melanie, and is more deeply drawn to her than he expected to be. The relationship is consensual, except that Lurie never really feels that Melanie's heart is in it.

Lurie is honest enough to sense an atmosphere of exploitation. In one of their sexual encounters, he has the uncomfortable sensation that he has forced himself upon his student: "she does not resist. All she does is avert herself; avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her: she even helps him, raising her arms and then her hips. Little shivers of cold run through her; as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him." Lurie feels that this experience has been "not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core."

A complaint is made (probably not by Melanie but by her thuggish older boyfriend) and Lurie is told by an academic committee that he must apologize, and undergo counseling or some form of "sensitivity training." He admits his formal guilt, but he refuses counseling for something that seems natural to him, and even fine. Wearily stubborn, he loses his job rather than mimic a penitence that he does not feel, leaves the university in disgrace, and travels to the Eastern Cape to stay with his daughter Lucy, who lives alone on a smallholding.

Disgrace is written in a language that, even by Coetzee's standards, is savagely reduced. It never spills a drop, and is almost bloodless in its pale perfection. The reticent lyricism that sometimes overcame his earlier novels, like Life & Times of Michael K, is here abandoned. Scenes and characters are flicked with a word or two, and then dropped. The narrative is always restlessly propulsive. This, for instance, is how Lurie appraises Melanie's threatening boyfriend, and is the fullest visual description we are offered: "He is tall and wiry; he has a thin goatee and an ear-ring; he wears a black leather jacket and black leather trousers. He looks older than most students; he looks like trouble." And this is how Petrus, a black neighbor of Lucy's, is seen: "Petrus wipes his boots. They shake hands. A lined, weathered face; shrewd eyes. Forty? Forty-five?"

Coetzee is always praised for his dignified bleakness, for the "tautness" or carefulness or grim efficiency of his prose, which is certainly good enough to embarrass the superfluous acreage of supposedly richer stylists. But there is a point beyond which pressurized shorthand is no longer an enrichment but an impoverishment, and an unnatural containment. It is the point at which ellipsis becomes a formalism, a kind of aestheticism, in which fiction is no longer presenting complexity but is in fact converting complexity into its own too-certain language. Hemingway at his worst represents one extreme, as when the narrator of A Farewell To Arms sees his dead friend, and tells the reader, bathetically: "He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew."

The effect of such writing, when passed through the jaded or cynical eyes of the protagonist, is a nullification of what is described. The language simply refuses to extend the consequences of its findings. Among contemporary writers, Robert Stone and Joan Didion straiten themselves in this way; and Coetzee does so, I think, in his new novel. Thus at the simplest level, no one is ever adequately described as simply "tall and wiry ... a thin goatee and an ear-ring ... black leather jacket." This is only the beginning of description, and a prose that treats it as finale is merely servicing its own requirements, rather as, when we find ourselves in a country whose language we barely know, we limit ourselves to what we know we can say, for self-protection.

At such moments, fiction is not open to reality. Instead it is efficiently reproducing its own fictive conventions. One of those conventions is precisely that characters, and characters' bodies, are swiftly describable. Another is that a character can quickly range over the memory of many years, and produce an instant summation. David Lurie is very much this kind of character; all his reflections and memories and thoughts are tightly marshalled in a spare line or two. When Lurie meets his ex-wife Rosalind, and they talk about his dismissal from the university, he recalls the early moments of their relationship:

His best memories are still of their first months together: steamy summer nights in Durban, sheets damp with perspiration, Rosalind's long, pale body thrashing this way and that in the throes of a pleasure that was hard to tell from pain. Two sensualists: that was what held them together, while it lasted.

This passage would not be out of place in a mass-market thriller. It is the sheerest conventionality ("steamy summer nights ... body thrashing ... pleasure ... from pain"). No one thinks of an entire marriage in such neatly summary terms, except in novels, where men are strangely fond of this kind of thought, which exists in such novels as a code whose sole task is to announce, circularly enough: a man is now thinking about his failed marriage. (Particularly frustrating is that phrase "two sensualists," with its fraudulent confidence, and its calm speaking on behalf of both parties.) If such writing seems "efficient," the compliment should only be back-handed, since its efficiency is to save the novelist time, and the reader effort. It is cheap writing, literally cost-saving. It is like the moment at the beginning of Waiting for the Barbarians, when soldiers are seen slumbering, "dreaming of mothers and sweethearts." The point is to tell us: soldiers asleep. In the conventions of fiction, soldiers always dream about mothers and sweethearts.

It must be admitted, in fairness, that Coetzee is so agile and so intelligent that for every sentence that seems formulaic in his work, another springs out with life. And Disgrace is involved, as a theme, with its own verbal flatness. When Lurie and his daughter discover that they cannot communicate with each other, Lurie reflects that in South Africa language has become "tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites. Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them. What is to be done? Nothing that he, the one-time teacher of communications, can see. Nothing short of starting all over again with the ABC." So some of the novel's linguistic scantiness can be laid at the door of David Lurie, who is disillusioned and cynical about language.

Yet a disillusioned and cynical consciousness is still a busy consciousness; it is one that is merely thriving on disillusionment and cynicism. The novelist's task is then to present in its fullness this sour mental prosperity. Coetzee fails, or refuses to do so, and he lets David Lurie's reduced language define David Lurie's inner life, which is to say that Lurie does not quite exist as an examined consciousness in this novel. He is an efficient flatness. Lurie - as the novel shows us - becomes an active conscience; but as a consciousness he is little more than a conduit for Coetzee's taut language, which makes Lurie too often merely the voyeur of his own weary clarities.

The effect is limiting, in ways that Coetzee did not perhaps intend, in ways that go beyond Lurie's own limitations. The novel always feels tightly poised, but never quite alive. Mental reflection is shunted into swift sidings; and characters speak in those one-line fouettes that are only ever used by people in movies or in Oscar Wilde:

He makes love to her one more time ... It is good, as good as the first time; he is beginning to learn the way her boy moves. She is quick, and greedy for experience . . . Who knows, he thinks: there might, despite all, be a future. `Do you do this kind of thing often?' she ask afterwards. `Do what?' `Sleep with your students. Have you slept with Amanda?. . . Why did you get divorced?' she asks. `I've been divorced twice. Married twice, divorced twice.' `What happened to your first wife?' `It's a long story. I'll tell you some other time.' `Do you have pictures?' `I don't collect pictures. I don't collect women.' `Aren't you collecting me?' `No, of course not.'

Lurie and his daughter have never had a very easy relationship, despite his fierce love for her. He is conservative, solitary, she is lesbian, lefty, and also solitary, living alone on a small farm in a dangerous area among blacks and armed Afrikaners. Her best friend, Bev Shaw, runs an animal clinic, about which Lurie is initially dismissive. Father and daughter are brought together and further separated by a horrendous event: three men burgle Lucy's home, set fire to Lurie and lock him in a lavatory, and gang-rape Lucy. Coetzee describes this moment superbly. In particular, one admires the boldness with which he presents David Lurie's racist fear and sense of powerlessness (the assailants are black): "He speaks Italian, he speaks French, but French and Italian will not save him here in darkest Africa. He is helpless, an Aunt Sally, a figure from a cartoon, a missionary in cassock and topi waiting with clasped hands and upcast eyes while the savages jaw away in their own lingo preparatory to plunging him into their boiling cauldron. Mission work: what is left behind, that huge enterprise of upliftment? Nothing that he can see."

Thus begins the novel's second half, a gripping examination of the two different responses that two different generations fashion to this dreadful eruption. As in Fathers and Sons, the younger representative is more politically radical than the older; but the power of the novel is the way in which Lucy begins to change her father's vision, for Lurie ends the novel very much more thoughtful and penitent than he began it, shaken by his solitude, and shaken by Lucy's arguments. Though Lucy and her father do not quite agree by the novel's close, and in some sense they are as separated as they have ever been, both have been changed by the effort of reconciliation.

Lucy's response to the rape, which her father finds bewildering, is to seek refuge in a damaged silence, and then in fatalism. She does not want to press charges, and refuses to move away from the area, in part because that will seem like a defeat, and in part because she begins to see the rape as the necessary price for her continued occupation of the land. The attack is a kind of historical reparation. "What if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they are telling themselves." To which Lucy's father responds: "I am sure they tell themselves many things. It is in their interest to make up stories that justify them." Yet only a few minutes earlier in the conversation, David himself had raised the notion that the attack was not personal but historical: "It was history speaking through them... A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn't. It came down from the ancestors."

But Lucy seems to share the self-justifications of her attackers, and when she discovers that she has been made pregnant by the attack she refuses to have an abortion. On the contrary, she expects to have the child, to raise it, and even to love it in time. Her father finds this grotesque, and accuses her of trying to "humble herself before history." He complains to Lucy's friend that "I don't know what the question is any more. Between Lucy's generation and mine a curtain seems to have fallen. I didn't even notice when it fell."

The novel is interestingly divided on this rather shocking idea of rape as historical reparation, which, on the surface, is insulting both to its victims, who are seen to deserve it historically, and to its agents, who are no more than historically determined, and perhaps even racially determined ("It came down from the ancestors") to keep on exacting it. The possibility that the novel discusses and then finally proposes this vision has earned Coetzee a certain amount of covert condemnation.

But the book is more complicated than that. First of all, a society such as South Africa is riven by just this kind of liberal white fatalism, in which black violence is seen as a baleful inevitability, as nothing more than just deserts. It is honest of Coetzee to let his characters give expression to it, and the novel is alert both to the imprisonment that this thought represents, and to its subtle white racism, in which blacks are credited with no possible response other than the vengeful. In this sense, the novel discovers and dramatizes what unites David's and Lucy's different politics: both of them have depressingly low expectations for the future of South Africa, and both of them flatter themselves that whites will somehow have to act more "nobly" than blacks. Both espouse a kind of cynical "realism" that is in fact a variety of racist guilt. David thinks the historically determined criminals should be locked up with their own kind, and Lucy thinks that she should live penitentially among the historically determined criminals.

If both of them, at various moments, make black crime and white punishment seem inevitable, Coetzee seems to say, this only shows the unseemly imbrication of so-called conservative and liberal positions in South Africa. We should not be surprised that Coetzee's book develops this idea: in his novels and in his essays, from a staunchly liberal position himself, Coetzee has hammered on the way in which racism and conservatism have contaminated all political positions in South Africa, even their liberal inversions.

Still, David and Lucy do not simply "agree." Though David sometimes shares the idea of inevitability with his daughter, he does so to comfort her, having discovered what extremity of thought Lucy now finds consoling ("Think of it that way, if it helps"). David's occasional agreement is perhaps part his own fumbling, part his own inarticulacy in the face of the indescribable. Clearly, David is fundamentally opposed to his daughter's masochistic politics, and is only occasionally dragged towards his daughter's position by the awful victorious logic of her interpretation. It is Lucy who refuses to move, and David, who anyway has fewer "convictions" than his daughter, must mold himself around her, however awkwardly. Equally clearly, David's narrative function is dialogical: Coetzee has him in place to oppose and to qualify Lucy's dark temptations of thought, so that the novel is finally incapable of doing anything as monologic as "propose" a politics.

It is the form of Disgrace, not its content, that makes the reader uneasy. For the novel's shape does seem to insist on the necessity of Lucy's "punishment." It is a matter of symmetry. David has erred, committing a virtual rape against Melanie, and the novel's function is to wear down his complacent cynicism so that, in a late scene, he visits Melanie's parents and atones for his earlier involvement with their daughter. "In my own terms," he tells Melanie's father, "I am being punished for what happened between myself and your daughter . . . trying to accept disgrace as my state of being." This is David's "disgrace" and penitence. Lucy's "disgrace," of course, is not one that she earned or deserved; but in pairing the two forms of penitence, the novel comes unpleasantly close to suggesting a formal parallel of disgrace, in which both characters enact "necessary" falls.

This is a significant weakness, and it returns us to Coetzee's limitations, which are the limitations of allegory. Disgrace is so firmly plotted and shaped, so clearly blocked out, that it seems to request a kind of clarity of reading which is ultimately simplifying and harmful to the novel, in which "issues" are shared out between the generations, and split into willing binarisms: young and old, liberal and conservative, man and woman, straight and gay. Around this, the novel's architecture attempts to fuse these binarisms, by arguing for a kind of parallelism. It as if the form of the book tells us that despite the oppositions of Lucy and her father, both characters share more than they divide, for here are two people undergoing their different-but-similar forms of disgrace. And then, as a capstone, the novel's title powerfully extracts the essence of these two experiences, and unites them in one clipped word, and one strong theme: disgrace.

That these suspicions should arise has to do with Coetzee's fondness for intellectual and formal tidiness. Some will find this tension between the neatly allegorical and the complicatedly novelistic fruitful, and masterfully governed by Coetzee; but it is also possible to see it as a barely managed contradiction, in which the allegorical, alas, has pride of place in Coetzee's large quiver of talents. If the novel is finally more complicated than this, and more beneficially self-confounding, this is a tribute not only to Coetzee's difficult powers, but also to the very nature of novelistic narrative, which inherently tends towards the dramatic corrugation, rather than the thematic flattening, of ideas.

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