Sunday, December 28, 2014

In the Grip of Eros

by J.M. Coetzee

"She does not reply. She would rather hide her face, and he knows why. Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame. That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this confident , modern young woman. Like a stain the story is spreading across the district." (p 115)

At the heart of this fine novel set in contemporary South Africa is a man who is self-destructive; a professor of English who cannot communicate and who must face not only the results of his own mistakes but the troubles of others and a world that he is unable to understand. J. M. Coetzee's ability to make this dark story readable is what makes this a great story. As the outset the professor, David Lurie, is medicating himself with weekly visits from a prostitute named Soraya but an incident occurs that ends that relationship.  Then we meet the professor in his school room teaching "Communications 101" to bored students whom he cannot reach:
"Silence again. The very air into which he speaks hangs listless as a sheet. A man looking at a mountain: why does it have to be so complicated, they want to complain? What answer can he give them?" (p 21)

But by this time he has begun to meet one of his students, Melanie, on the side. While she does not respond to Shakespeare she seems to respond to David's erotic advances until. Well this is where the story begins to explore the world of personal self-destruction, dramatic changes in David's life and ultimately, disgrace. If it ended there it would be well-written but not interesting, not challenging. David is let go by the University and he leaves for the countryside. But that will not be the end as we see when he is confronted by Melanie's father:
“‘Professor,’ he begins, laying heavy stress on the word, ‘you may be very educated and all that, but what you have done is not right…We put our children in the hands of you people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust?…No, Professor Lurie, you may be big and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I’d be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don’t think so, I can see it from your face.’” And when Lurie finds the accusation beneath him and turns away, the girl’s father shouts, “‘You can’t just run away like that! You have not heard the last of it, I tell you!’” (p 38)

The challenges, for David, begin when he moves in with his daughter (from an earlier failed marriage) and finds out what fate really has in store for him. He tries to explain his mistake with the student to his daughter Lucy:
"I was a servant of Eros: that is what he wants to say, but does he have the effrontery? It was a god who acted through me. What vanity! Yet not a lie, not entirely."(p 89) He cannot take responsibility to himself or with others. His resulting actions seem out of sync with the world around him. His inability to understand himself fuels his inability to communicate with others.
It is with his daughter in the eastern Cape that we are introduced to Petrus, her black neighbor who is slowly taking advantage of the changed social order to lift himself from a “dog-man” to a substantial land holder. Lucy is nearly alone in her refusal to join the “white-flight” exodus out of such predominantly black areas; in the book’s most dramatic scene she is raped by three black men as her father is locked in a bathroom and set afire. How David and Lucy deal with this event defines the remainder of the story. You can see David's disgrace as a metaphor for the experience of whites in post-apartheid South Africa.

Disgrace is a gripping read, paced, shaped, and developed in a way that gives the narrative an immediacy. Through the embedding of recurring images, like that of fire, the novel slowly builds to an unbearable climax. This is one of the better novels of J. M. Coetzee that I have read; that is it is very good and worthy of the awards. In it he details a story of personal trials and integrates the culture of post-apartheid South Africa effectively into the story. I would have rated it slightly higher, but it is not a pleasant story to read. It is neither as affecting nor as imaginatively fashioned as Coetzee's other Booker winner, Life and Times of Michael K. The characters are so flatly presented that it is difficult to penetrate their mental worlds, yet the sparse prose is eminently readable. After rereading the novel and learning more about these characters I would include this in my list of favorite Coetzee novels.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

I am coming to appreciate character and family studies like this more and more as I get older.

On the other I am getting a little squeamish so I do not know how well I could take the violent passage that you describe.

James said...


This is a great novel about character and family; especially the psychological insights.
As for the violent moment, it is not nearly as difficult to take as violent moments in Cormac McCarthy, for example.