As far as the man as opposed to the book I couldn't say, but his Oak Tree Fine Press is something to be applauded.
I thought the novel was brilliant. It's written so coldly, so brutally, and so well portrays this period in the lives of these people. As for hope, I pulled it from the defiance displayed by David's daughter in choosing to bear a child in light of all circumstances. And I found hope in David's ability to finally relinquish his controlling nature and lie down with the dogs. To me, this symbolizes a man who is acknowledging the fact that he raped the student in an effort to control a situation, despite his self delusions of being under some sort of erotic spell. He is what he is, and I think he sees this. It's a novel of change, not comfortable, predictable change, but violent, discomfiting change of the sort that can become lasting. It does seem to be a novel that's spat into the face of the reader, it almost felt flung there. And I don't know if that is technique or a result of authorial intent or personality. Does it really matter as long as the result is a memorable, thought-provoking experience?
Disgrace is by far Coetzee's best novel to date. It's so vastly superior to his other books that they often seem pale and timid in comparison; Slow Man, The Life and Times of Michael K., Waiting for the Barbarians.
Morten, could you please say more about what it is that makes Coetzee such a great author for you in "Disgrace'. Hitherto, I have seen quite a few people turn against this author and, more especially, that book.
Beth offers us quite a complex analysis about what she does and doesn't like, and her seeming ambiguity to it: use of language, control-freakery, etc., but still concludes that the novel is brilliant. The coldness that put me off, evidently interested Beth, as she suggests it was intended on the part of the author.
Could you, Morten, tell us a bit more too? I've only read ten pages, and I was put off. But as I have said before, it was an Afrikaner academic who recommended this book (written, of course, in English) to me. And she raved about it.
Why do some people love the book, others hate it? It's interesting when a book is so divisive.
And, funnily enough, he seems to be saying something similar in both 'Waiting for the Barbarians' and 'Disgrace': in both, the [prot]agonist is reduced to a wreck of his former self before finding some sort of redemption (of course 'Waiting for the Barbarians' says more than that but at a personal level this is the gist, the rest of the point is more political). Also, even the magistrate is apprehensive(to use a mild word) about both the original state of the place and the change.
All that aside, you have a point about 'Waiting for the Barbarians'. It was my favourite of his too, but for a different reason. I can't explain this very well, but 'Waiting for the Barbarians' seems to put a much more extremised(I don't use the word 'perfect' only because perfectness is subjective and the character is perfect in only one subjectivity) character of a certain thoughtful sort in a much more extremised situation and it is the voice of this extremisation that makes me love the book, as much as anything Coetzee says.
Basically, he repels by coldness and attracts by clinicality.
Also, why 'fish'?
Which one of his books would you suggest for a first time reader?
As for Disgrace: I was a little so-and-so in the beginning also. I half-cringed at the first instance of dialogue between Lurie and Melanie because it struck me as unconvincing, what with him inviting a student in for a drink so quickly.
But the pace of the novel draws you in, and so does Lurie's fall. When he leaves Capetown to go to his daughter's house the novel really sets off and becomes thematically complex and very dense (deceptively so). It becomes an odd an haunting mixture of meditations on South African issues of race and social politics (very refreshing for a writer who only really dealt with these issues through the use of allegory) and family relationships, history, hypocrisy, sexuality, etc.
Disgrace is also a stylistic success for Coetzee. It's very polished and seems to offer so much more than can be fathomed in a single reading. My favorite parts of the novel are Lurie's thoughts about the crime that is committed, for example: "War, atrocity: every word with which one tries to wrap up this day, the day swallows down its black throat." Startling prose, in my opinion.
It's a difficult novel, and much of it still eludes me I think. But it's made a lasting, very unsettling impression. In the weeks after I first read it, I couldn't get it off my mind.
James Wood has written a very interesting essay on Disgrace. And John Banville's review, availably on NYRB, is worth a read also.
Thanks, Morten and Igu Soni. I agree entirely that it is risky to judge a book only by the first ten pages. But I was so utterly put off (and have other things to read all the time) that I didn't pick up the book again.
But I've not thrown it away. It is with my books in Afrikaans, to which it in some way belongs. Because I don't have a part of my library for South African books originally written in English, Sotho, Zulu, etc.
I just finished the book and I agree entirely with the people here that found it brilliant.
To be honest, I wasn't thrilled with the first 10-20 pages either (the dialogue between Lurie and Melanie - or rather the words he used to entice her- had me rolling my eyes) but as the story went on, I found it impossible to put it down.
I think the way he dealt with so many different and complex issues was unexpectedly subtle and the writing was overall effortless and brilliant at times-
As far as the essence of the book goes,
I don't have anything to add to what Beth and Morten said.
I will definitely try to read more by him.
PS I find it interesting that Igu Soni mentioned Ian McEwan's Saturday, as in comparison to Coetzee's writing.
I haven't read Saturday, but I know I certainly do not like Ian McEwan
(I find it odd that very few people I know don't rave about Atonement and I didn't like Amsterdam at all either. Also, it seems impossible to me to read past 5 pages of On Chesil Beach, and I have tried that twice.)
I have to agree that they both have this "clinical" style. However, if I may judge solely from Disgrace, it just seems to me that they are two immensely different writers overall.
I wouldn't compare Coetzee to McEwan. Coetzee's voice is far more sparse and fast-paced, whereas McEwan is a controlled, slow writer. I can see the 'coldness' argument, but I don't consider it valid. First of all I dislike the word 'coldness' as opposed to simple narrative distance (McEwan is a known proponent of the 19th Century novel) which has a long tradition. McEwan and Coetzee are no more "cold" than Flaubert or Updike or Barnes.
I guess you are right Morten.
Regarding McEwan, I am not sure whether it's his "coldness" (or, narrative distance) that I don't like about him.
I will have to read Saturday, a lot of people I know think highly of it (but then again it goes the same with Atonement, which I am not crazy about, as I already said).
Now as to Disgrace, I don't know if it's just me, but there were parts of the book that didn't strike to me as cold at all.
Last edited by sara; 02-Dec-2008 at 21:40.
No, no, I think I see what you mean and I don't necessarily disagree.
It's just that I can't stand Ian McEwan, while I loved Disgrace and it kept me thinking about it for many days after I finished it.
Maybe this shared quality that people find lovable about them, as you say, doesn't work for me in McEwan's case.
And to be honest, if it's "clinicality" the word we're talking about here,
I know for sure that it's not a quality I usually appreciate in books.
So this is not what I liked about Disgrace.
I was rather impressed by the complexity of the story, there were about 5-6 huge themes involved in it and it was incredibly subtly written.
I would have never expected a book that deals with so many things, with such depth, to be so effortless.
To me it is the work of a genious,
but I feel that I have to read more books by Coetzee to really get him as a writer.
And as I said, I would also like to read Saturday as well.
It takes a lot of effort to get through his books, but I just don't feel right about dismissing him.
Or maybe, it's just only fair not to like him.
Count me in as one who loved this book. It's been a while, but I don't think I disliked the main character. He was a flawed human being, sure, but aren't we all? I found him to be a man who has made some big mistakes which cannot be undone. I felt some empathy for his predicament. That is not to say sympathy or to excuse him at all.
A brilliant book.
Sorry. Big mistake. I love books much more for stuff on a small-scale,like writing,clinicality and so on, than a larger-scale. I just didn't realise that you could like the book for any other reason. Saturday was just to illustrate this point of clinicality.
Not sure why you think you've made a mistake, Igu. I loved Saturday as well as Disgrace which is a point you made. I'm not sure that it's because of clinicality though.
The words that escaped Lucy's mouth that made me feel that my bond with her was severed - for she ceased to be real, she became lifeless to me at this point - was when she said that maybe she deserved it, why should she live on the land for free? This was her price to pay. However, white men live on that land and do not have to pay with their bodies, their beings, their lives - but she, for crimes she did not commit, feels that perhaps it is "just" that these brutes should be entitled to her body, to "murder" her (in her striking analogy) with their hatred, and dispose of her as a piece of utter crap, at their will. When she said this...it knocked the wind out of me, I was crushed - but not in any "good" way.
Also, when the discussion comes to Petrus, and the fact that it becomes clear that he was implicated in the attack, and that he wants to add her to his collection of wives, she is not offended, and he even suggests that the boy - one of the men who raped her - should marry her (although he is not old enough, so Petrus will do the honors) - she expresses no outrage - she thinks over the proposition. To say it is on her own terms is foolish, she is trapped, and has no options, she says so herself. Petrus smiles, they have taught her a lesson - the lesson is that women aren't worth anything, that their bodies - as David ironically "coos" to Melanie - are to be shared with the world...to be pillaged...that their autonomy is to be severed, that they are to be made powerless and at the service of those who take their power, their worth, their being away from them. What could be a more perfect picture of victimization and subjugation (as Lucy says it is, but accepts it all the same) than that?
The way she also helps the boy up...one of the people who has stolen from her...the way she runs and does not "start anything" when the boy is at the party. You can in no way say Lucy lives life on her own terms or spits in "the eye of fate" - she bows to its gaze and defends it.
I felt so connected to the characters, and to Lucy in the beginning. Even if she had chosen to keep the baby, it wasn't that, it wasn't that (I could understand that potentially being portrayed as a show of "strength" although I would express strong solidarity as well with women who would not have wanted to have the child created by a rape); it was as I said, her submitting to fate and then defending her maltreatment.
Coetzee could have still provided a meditation on the harsh realities and the fact that for women this exploitation and utter degradation may be their fate without having the women accept it so willingly and passively to the point of lifelessness. And it isn't even lifelessness in the harsh or unsettling way works can sometimes be that is ultimately productive, that actually means something. It goes that extra step (which was the key point of removal for me): Lucy does not just accept, she defends.
By the end of the novel, I felt betrayed by Coetzee. Up until page 162 or so I thought this was one of the greatest novels I had read in a long time. I breezed through all of that in one sitting. And then my heart sank. And to be honest I can't imagine anyone reading Lucy as strong by the end of the novel, she has been trampled on, her soul is fled, she is to live life as a "dog" as she says, and she does not fight it. There is no defiance, there is acceptance to the point of absurdity...to the point where she thinks that it is her role, her duty, that this is just. This is the reason why the unsettling nature of it goes beyond the point of literary productivity...if there was just a glint of defiance, of "this is not right" of "this is how it must be, this is not how it should be, but i will persevere" - I know I would not feel betrayed as I did. It is not the "coldness" or "brutality" of the novel - that is surely a strength - but Lucy's overly (overly) willing acquiescence to and strong defense of her "fate." Coetzee created a character full of life in Lucy and then turned her into a pitiful, self-loathing piece of nothingness, a sympathizer with those in the novel we are meant to hate. Nothingness.
P.S. I just finished the book a few hours ago, so apologies for the long post and any incoherence on my part. I still feel my reaction very strongly - the fact that a book that had moved me so deeply could turn so dead, so motionless...
Last edited by judge-penitent; 17-Dec-2008 at 05:51.