(Vintage --- 2009)
"...for most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success. One's best friend must also have failed."--- Somerset MaughamWhat is it about a downfall that is so uplifting? Shame never goes out of fashion. To watch another broken on the wheel of life, twisting in the wind, reviled by their community or perhaps the entire world for some personal indiscretion many of us would have readily indulged in if the opportunity presented itself, is, especially from the safely insulated vantage point of fiction, whether you will admit it or not, an exceptional pleasure. And in Disgrace Coetzee gives us a heaping helping of what only the Germans, as far as I'm aware, have managed to sum up in a single word: schadenfreude --- distilling delight from the misfortunes of another.
David Lurie, when we meet him on the book's first page, is making the weekly visit to his favorite hooker. "For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons," Coetzee writes, "he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. He presses the buzzer...Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya...[she] drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. 'Have you missed me?' she asks. 'I miss you all the time,' he replies...they make love." ("For a ninety minute session he pays her R400, of which half goes to Discreet Escorts.")
Ironically, during his vertical hours, Lurie teaches a course in the Romantic poets at the Cape Technical University, Cape Town, South Africa, and also "Communications 101, Communication Skills," and "Communications 201, Advanced Communication Skills."
Sadly, just as I'd gotten kind of hot for her myself, things go kablooey with Soraya. Lurie briefly tries out a substitute, a secretary at the university named Dawn, which turns out to be an intercourse calamity, a regular fuckbust. Plenty of thrusting, thrashing and groping, but way weak in the unbridled ecstasy department. So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut would say.
Meanwhile, Lurie tells us he's considering composing something on Lord Byron. "The truth is, he is tired of criticism, tired of prose measured by the yard. What he wants to write is music: Byron in Italy, a meditation on love between the sexes in the form of a chamber opera." Brilliant idea if you like mediocre ideas. Or as an alternate plan, if you really want to go operatic, how about crashing and burning --- totally destroying your career, trashing your life. Now you're talkin'! The choice is obvious for anyone who craves drama and the uplift of a downfall. And Lurie wastes no time setting the fire. Enter (in the carnal sense) Melanie Isaacs, an attractive student "...from his Romantics course. Not the best student but not the worst either. Clever enough, but unengaged." Something of an innocent, but also not.
Lurie, is a garden variety horndog in the guise of a lit'rary prof, who, thanks to his over-education, rationalizes his craving for doing the horizontal hula with young Ms. Isaacs with elaborate pronouncements about the joys of freedom and enrichment (He's really let the Lord Byron baloney go to his head). For her part, Isaacs does not exactly object to boning her professor (in return he flatters her lavishly, fictionalizes her classroom accomplishments and attendance record), but she's not entirely enthusiastic about it either. However, her boyfriend, who she blabs to about it, is considerably less enthusiastic. There proceeds to be some unpleasantness --- of both the official academic variety and of the boyfriend-throwing-spitballs at Lurie's head variety, during a theater performance. The affair becomes public. Lurie makes some boneheaded statements to the student newspaper. There's a tribunal or inquiry or some such, ham-handedly presided over by his faculty colleagues. Lurie manages it poorly, make that dismally. And sayonara --- he and the ghost of Lord Byron are on the first train to Gonesville, the location of his daughter Lucy's ranch in rural South Africa where she lives with a semi-sometimes-helpful tenant/hired hand, Petrus, a young rapist in training, Pollux, and a slew of dogs she boards. Valhalla it ain't. And most of that happens before we get to the bad part.
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But let me break stride here for a moment to discuss Coetzee and his writing style specifically. It ain't for nothin' that he's won The Booker Prize twice (Peter Carey is the only other author to have done so). He really is so good it makes me want to cry, especially after a couple goblets of cheap whiskey sipped slowly in the East African sunset. Remember when virtually every book review you read managed to work in the phrase "lapidary prose"? It's a cliché that typically described writing at a level of polish that was over-precious, too smooth, overworked. I'd like to bring that phrase back just this once, if I may --- but in a good way --- and use it to describe Coetzee's craft as admirably solid, thoughtful, insightful, polished, with the elegance and high-gloss of water smoothed rock, but not boulders of words and sentences that have been in the tumbler so long they no longer look or feel real. His stuff is not over-wrought; it is not concocted emotion; it is authentic emotion placed on the page with words. It's thoughtful, insightful, good and fine; it still has its edges and strategically placed rough spots. He is a writer who completely grasps the power of doing less, leaving key things unsaid, unexplained, of using velvet phrasing to bring down feelings with the force of a sledge hammer wielded by one of the larger specimens from the WWF.
Back at Lucy's farm, David Lurie's new refuge, and not much of one, as he and Lucy have an estranged, distant relationship. He expresses his love, care and concern for her frequently; she takes it in, ignores or dismisses much of what he has to say, suggests he make himself useful by volunteering at the local animal shelter run by her friend Bev Shaw. Then comes the night of horror. Magnificent horror that I'll just leave at that description-wise. But you'll get through it, just like Lucy and David do, and they go on. And David, who's not much of an animal person when he arrives, falls for the dogs, cares for them, even gets a little frisky with Bev when her husband's not around. That just how David is --- he's a bit of a dog himself, no wonder he becomes so fond of the pooches.
But as much as he and Bev care for the dogs, they are strays or abandoned and on their last legs and the ones that can't be found homes must be put down. Bev and David do this together as tenderly as one can do such a thing. In his off hours, David does get to work on his Byron opera, and on drilling deeply into the dismal mess he's made of his life and a few others. (And probably more to come if David continues being David. OK, OK, I know --- people can change, but they seldom do.)
Disgrace is disgracefully well done and worthwhile. Never have I so savored going from "He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts..." to a recently euthanized dog being slipped into a large plastic bag to be trucked off to the incinerator over a mere, exquisitely crafted 220 pages.--- Douglas Cruickshank