Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Disgrace (JM)

Books for me are often metaphorical "one-night stands", I take what I can from the book and move on to the next one (BTW this is not an implicit endorsement of "one-night stands", if you prefer a more savory and nerdy analogy feel free to think of the Borg instead; Leon Uris will be assimilated.) However, I am having a good deal of trouble letting Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, go. The unfortunate thing about books, unlike relationships, is that even when you find the right fit you don't really have a choice about continuing the relationship. Books are transient.

Disgrace chronicles Prof. David Lurie's fall from a position as an esteemed literary academic, in Capetown, South Africa, after he is caught sleeping with one of his students. He then retires to a farm owned by his daughter. It is the story of his relationship with his daughter, society and life. It is an once powerful and yet strangely distant and removed.

There is no one particular thing that struck me about Disgrace. It's writing is both rigorous and tense, Coetzee has a felicity of expression that is remarkable, especially given the moralistic undertones of his writing. When an author is writing a "message" often the writing itself begins to lack (see Ayn Rand, but then her message was also lacking). However, Coetzee is an excellent communicator and thus can write novels substantial shorter than many of his compatriots, yet create worlds far greater.

His characters are strong, actually his male characters are strong. His female characters seem awfully one dimensional, the best of them showing no more life than their role in reflecting David Lurie's life and personality. However, I am not sure this was unintentional. I am not sure this didn't roll in to the greater tragedy of the book. Ultimately we see Lurie interact with and try to understand many people around him, from his young student to his daughter to a local native farmer. Throughout we see how vibrant and thoughtful Lurie can be, while he fails to persuade any of these other characters of his correctness and he ultimately fails to either understand them or protect them as they need protecting.

It's a tricky thing to write a book about a living being amongst characters. It requires a careful balance between the writer and reader, letting them in on the little secret while not destroying the play. Coetzee does this admirably, all the time we see through Lurie's eyes and mind, but we are always aware that something greater is missing, some lack of perspective and empathy.

Its sharp effect lies in its ability to unmask a very painful part of reality. Life is, in many ways, just like this sort of novel. To each and everyone of us all other people are no more than a cast of characters. This is not to be simple or solipsistic, nor does it imply that others have no actual worth to people. Rather, it is simple true that the people we know, even the people most close to us, are in our minds a collections of the things we know and think about them. We are constantly creating and recreating the people we know and love. Coetzee, in showing us the relationship between Lurie and his daughter plays with this notion at its extremes.

I suppose that this does not have to be a truly sad realization. It makes our realities rather less static and allows for us grow with the people we know and change. But there is something deeply untethering about such an idea. If none of us are any one thing, but rather the many different perceptions of us and our roles in those peoples' lives, we are less apart of a community. If a community is a set of shared values and expectations, but our individual identities are nothing more than shifting and ethereal, we are rather more alone than we think.

So, anyway, read Disgrace or don't if you like certain things such as being happy.

1 comment:

RC said...

i agree, it was hard to let disgrace go when it was done.

it was an exceptional book.

david laurie is a remarkable character coetzee develops in so few pages.