By J. M. Coetzee
Viking. 220 pp. $23.95
Many readers the world over, including this one, find a great deal to admire in the work of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, but I doubt very many people read him for pleasure. His mastery of literary technique is peerless, his seriousness is unimpeachable, and he is one of the most intellectually sophisticated novelists writing today.
He is the only author to have won Britain's Booker Prize twice; indeed, he is the sort of writer regularly bruited as a Nobel Prize candidate, and for good reason. His books are invariably morally complex, rigorously composed and profoundly unsettling dissections of some of the knottiest problems in human experience. Two of his best-known works, Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K. (his first Booker Prize winner), are brilliant allegories, a form hardly anyone ventures anymore, and in which Coetzee is a master.
His latest novel, Disgrace, which also recently won the Booker, is perhaps Coetzee's least allegorical and most realistic novel to date, but there remains in it a strong undercurrent of didacticism. The book has an odd kink in its narrative structure that is baffling at first -- what does the first quarter of the story have to do with what follows? -- and that is explicable finally only thematically.
In the opening chapters, David Lurie, a second-rate, late middle-aged academic in Cape Town, seduces one of his students, a pretty but otherwise unremarkable young woman. He has done this sort of thing before, but, now nearing or even past the end of his attractiveness as a man, undertakes this unambitious erotic obsession with a self-pitying sense of entitlement, working out upon the body of a confused and reluctant girl his loneliness and professional frustration. In one uncomfortable scene, he may or may not rape her; her jealous, thuggish boyfriend turns him in to the school authorities. In a dazzling (and beautifully evoked) display of willfulness and arrogance, Lurie admits the affair but refuses to submit to the tepid punishment proposed -- counseling and what he considers a groveling mea culpa -- leaving the school with no choice but to end his career.
Here is where the novel makes its odd turn. Lurie leaves Cape Town to stay with his grown daughter Lucy, a hippieish lesbian living on a small farm in the country. Here Lurie tries to make the best of, for him, very uninteresting circumstances, helping Lucy with her farm and her kennel business, and volunteering at an animal shelter whose chief function is to put down unwanted animals. Lucy makes a point of sharing the farm with a deceptively stolid black farmer named Petrus, and one day when Petrus is perhaps too conveniently away, two black men and a boy attack the farm, raping Lucy and setting fire (harmlessly, as it turns out) to Lurie. This scene is a brilliantly orchestrated and morally wrenching evocation of the helplessness and terror of real violence, not the wicked fun sort of terror you get from a popular novel but something visceral that implicates the reader in the impotence of the characters.
Up to this point, Disgrace is riveting storytelling, even a bit of a page-turning read. In what comes after, though, as Lurie tries to deal with his own and his daughter's humiliation, and with her odd response to it, Coetzee succumbs to his trademark didacticism. In a too-clever stroke of psychological acuity, Lurie's daughter turns out to be as arrogant and willful, in her own passive-aggressive, bleeding-heart way, as her father. She virtually refuses to acknowledge the rape and the pregnancy that results from it, arguing when Lurie presses her that perhaps this is the price a white woman must pay in post-apartheid South Africa for living in the country. Indeed, in the aftermath of the rape, she decides to keep the child but to sell the farm to Petrus (who turns out to be related to one of her attackers) and become his tenant, as he was hers.
This is incendiary and, even to a liberal reader, infuriating stuff, and it's meant to be. The problem is that, from this point on, the book reads less like a novel and more like a very elegant, very complicated moral dilemma concocted for a graduate seminar in ethics. Coetzee is much too subtle a writer to make overt connections between what Lurie did to his student and what the attackers did to his daughter, but there is a parallelism here -- the twin disgraces of the book -- that works against the book as fiction. I don't know if Coetzee was actively raised as a Calvinist, but as an Afrikaner he comes from one of the most Calvinist cultures on earth; and in spite of his sterling credentials as a left-leaning, postmodernist intellectual, his work has a Calvinist sternness, the whiff of brimstone. There is something improving about his writing that refuses finally to accept all the possibilities of fiction.
Consider three writers to whom Coetzee is often compared -- Conrad, Beckett and Kafka -- and you will note that all three had, to varying degrees, something that Coetzee seems to lack, namely, a profound sense of comedy. I'm not talking about jokes or even biting satire, but rather about the fact that three of the greatest writers in the world found absurdity even in the direst situations. "Waiting for Godot" is about 50 percent vaudeville. Kafka was reputed to laugh until he cried when he tried to read aloud the brutal ending of The Trial. And Conrad's political novel The Secret Agent is a masterpiece of deadpan irony. I'm not asking for Coetzee to indulge in the sort of convenient redemption many literary novels rely on (and I'm certainly not asking for a happy ending -- see the endings of "Waiting for Godot," The Trial and The Secret Agent). But even in the most serious literature I am looking for a recognition that life, even in the moral and political morass of post-apartheid South Africa, is not solely a moral obstacle race.
Another writer occasionally mentioned in the same breath as Coetzee is Nabokov, who lived through a historical cataclysm as complicated as South Africa's; in an interview published in 1992, Coetzee allows that he has lost interest in Nabokov, because Nabokov "balked at facing the nature of his loss [of his paradisaical childhood in Russia] in its historical fullness." To which the humbled reader can only ask, will that be on the exam, professor? And perhaps suggest that Nabokov understood something that Coetzee is unwilling or unable to accept: that moral and artistic seriousness are not the same as joylessness.
James Hynes has recently completed a novel, "The Lecturer's Tale," to be published this year.