Blessed with a great subject, afflicted with it too, J.M. Coetzee has remade its meanings in the light of metaphor often no further from us than our own bodies. Sometimes he has shaped his awakenings and journeys as if to invest the facts in his fiction with allegory or fable rather than to document South Africa literally. Who are the native invaders waiting to regain “the land we have raped,” in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), and where is the “Empire”? The aging magistrate who serves it in “shame” and “disgrace”–and rebels and is tortured–escapes to cultivate a nameless desert, to remember pain, dread, grief, tyranny, sexual love and courage, “if there is ever anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived.” Even an actual South Africa of civil war, prison camps and threatening roads in Life and Times of Michael K (1983) takes on an enclosed infrareality. This through its protagonist, who tries to move his dying mother to the country and at the end survives alone and hidden; marginal, mentally slow (we are told), a worker, significantly a gardener (a theme in Coetzee); persistent against affront like Beckett’s travelers in some core of being that is felt in the very sentences.
These sentences are compact, specific, dry for all their sensuousness and deeper desire. In his 1999 introduction to the World’s Classics Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee praises journeyman Defoe’s empirical prose, this “impersonator” forging a confessional “fake autobiography” that can’t quite bear its added cargo, an allegory of repentance. Coetzee, by far the greater cargo-handler, retold that colonialist story in Foe (1986) from the point of view of a castaway woman who has taken over responsibility for the real story. Also for getting Foe (Defoe’s patronymic) to write it. Responsibility also for the displaced black man Friday (his tongue cut out, apparently by his late master). Thus emerge themes of powerlessness, speechlessness, race framed by gender. And, in the strange new version, invented freedoms through which (as Coetzee has said elsewhere) stories with their “irresponsibility, or better, responsibility toward something that has not yet emerged,” can react to the pain of human life that would be overwhelming otherwise.
In Age of Iron (1990) a dying woman finds her Cape Town neighborhood disintegrating into street violence that brings apartheid literally home to her. And with it the need to speak in one’s own voice uncensored, not under duress; to know what one thinks and to place oneself among others. This is action of a kind. Almost a decade later, his main character again an academic, Coetzee takes action further. In his latest novel, Disgrace, he asks again the secular and always political question What is to be done? And answers it in such meager choices that the reader may mistake the ceremony emerging.
The politics this time are postapartheid, a new order of political correctness and at first a somewhat predictably sketched wasteland popular culture. But from the city the story moves to the situation in the countryside, anarchy largely unpoliced, land and power changing hands, the racial majority finding itself. Propelled like tragedy or melodrama at times, the narrative is also Professor David Lurie’s slow progress toward a different life. The meaning of this progress is everyday yet mysterious–ambiguous as the book’s title, whose irony may be signaled by its presence in tiny black print at the center of the dustjacket’s white expanse.
Two decisions focus the story, one early, one late. They seem passive. David loses (or leaves) his job, though he could have fought for it. Had up before a university committee on charges of sexual harassment (also faking the student’s grade when she didn’t show for an exam), David declines even to read the statement by the girl, Melanie. His frankness is not especially humble. “I plead guilty to both charges. Pass sentence and let us get on with our lives.”
But the committee, which has previously dismissed his philosophical “reservations” about the hearing and confined it to the legal issues, now requires a confession. The women on the committee want a mea culpa if not blood, a display of contrition that, one of the men urges, could save David’s job. (“Your case is not unique.”) David sticks to his guns. He acted on erotic impulse. He will not seek counseling. Coetzee gives you a sinking feeling, some new risk compounded by the mixed motives of the committee and the punitive show the undergraduate community is waiting for (during Rape Awareness Week, as it happens). To the student newspaper David replies that he has no regrets, he was “enriched” by the experience with Melanie. “your days are numbered, casanova,” reads a message under his door. A statement prepared for him to sign in a last-ditch spirit of “repentance” confuses what, to his mind, was a perfectly sufficient secular plea before a secular tribunal: “Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse.” That other “world” will shadow David clear to the end–past the trashing of his car and his house and the physical threats and much worse.
Beyond, too, the words in which he later describes to his daughter Lucy the deal he was offered–“Re-education. Reformation of the character…. It reminds me too much of Mao’s China. Recantation, self-criticism, public apology…. I would prefer simply to be put against a wall and shot.” By then David has left Cape Town without hearing the verdict. He has gone to stay temporarily with Lucy on her farm, a smallholding where she grows flowers and vegetables for the local market and boards dogs. Small may not be beautiful here, but the work is tangible. David finds things to do. The dogs like him, he falls asleep in one of the kennels; he asks if he might become Lucy’s “dog-man.” With Lucy the animal rights issue flares up. Her friend Bev gives David a nonpaying job at the animal shelter. At home David gives Lucy’s helper Petrus a hand–a “historical piquancy. Will he pay me a wage for my labour?” (David’s inveterate irony tells the reader Petrus is black.) Lucy lives apparently in a lesbian relationship with another young woman who happens to be away on a trip when the displaced parent turns up (Coetzee managing things in a narrative present tense now a little routine forty years after Updike’s fresh and compelling use of it in Rabbit, Run). David gets to know Lucy again; she is kind to him. He thinks about her, how she takes care of herself, what species of love lesbians share. Isn’t it dangerous out here on the Eastern Cape? Coetzee understands the distance between father and daughter, the friction, the concern, their everyday talk detailed, very serious, “English” (Coetzeean). What will happen? What is happening? But now comes an event so shocking that one may miss the subtlety with which Coetzee assimilates it into the life that just goes on.
One would think that a white woman raped by three (or at least two) black intruders while her father is torched and locked in the lav would be a pretty major event. Lucky to be alive, David recovers slowly, his hair burned off, his face disfigured. It is Bev, the vet, who tends his wounds, this grotesque, this Coetzee Everyman. What actually happened? What did he witness, shut up elsewhere in the house? He is a father. He worries about the trauma. Pregnancy. HIV. The future. Lucy enjoins him to tell only his own story. He finds her distant. He tries to trace “the gang of three.” One of them, hardly more than a boy, whose initiation, if it was that, included shooting the dogs, proves to be a relative of next-door neighbor Petrus, who was away the weekend of the attack.
The boy turns up at a party Petrus gives. Lucy wants to leave; Petrus deflects David’s outrage with doubts and trade-offs; Lucy won’t let David call the police. Is this the way “to make up for the wrongs of the past”? he asks. The second pivotal decision approaches with its answer.
When his life fell apart, David, a professor of Romantic poetry, had been preparing to write a chamber opera about Byron. It is one somewhat droll strain in the novel. Revised and revised in his mind, it is something he has no passion for now, this creative project. Is that it for the arts? The study of dead writers, as David sees it now. “His whole being is gripped by what happens in the theater,” but it is Bev’s operating theater, where much of the work is putting superfluous dogs down. Is it cruel, or kind, or nothing? If in their last moments they are not eased by David, it is because he gives off “the smell of shame.” The animals “feel the disgrace of dying.” Not their “saviour,” he is prepared to take care of them once Bev is done with them. “He does not understand what is happening to him.” He has become “a dog undertaker.” The reader may agree that “there must be other, more productive ways of giving oneself to the world,” even sit down with the Byron again. But that is not this character’s path, Coetzee’s character on a fairly short leash.
Lucy wanted to know why Melanie had denounced him. “I didn’t have a chance to ask.” But we know he did. Time David stopped preying on children, Lucy observes. A crime against a child. Women on the committee implied as much. David’s ex-wife and others insinuate it. Where’s it coming from, this stigmatic indictment? David has half bought into it, depressed, his womanizing fires banked at age 52. Once he made love to Melanie when she didn’t want to do it: “Not rape, not quite that.” Yet the third and final time, the sex was good. It was after she had crashed on him and asked to stay the weekend (having trouble with her boyfriend, whatever). Three decades younger, Melanie is 20. The power was not all on David’s side, her teacher smitten and foolish, lacking in integrity, but not insensitive (the conversation limited, I kept feeling, by the author). Does Coetzee set his character up?
Melanie has the hips of a 12-year-old, David had noticed. Reminded I must say by Coetzee himself, I thought of The Possessed and of Matryoshka, the 12-year-old who hangs herself after Stavrogin commits some abominable unspecified sexual crime against her. Unspecified, but confessed to in a pamphlet he’s printed up, which he shows the monk Tikhon in the chapter (now II, 9) famously suppressed by Dostoyevsky’s editor. In an essay of 1985 Coetzee examined that scene in the light of Augustine on Confession: What calls to be confessed is not really the transgression but “something that lies behind” it–“what I do not know about myself.” Tikhon suggests that Stavrogin (in Coetzee’s words) is a “rootless aristocrat with Byronic [sic] pretensions.” Stavrogin challenges Tikhon as a confessor, as David Lurie challenges the committee’s right to demand a confession beyond his own secular plea. A gamble he can afford to lose; he’s tired of his job. Yet a sign that he’s out of touch with his life. But not an abuser of children. Confronted with Stavrogin’s grandiose confession, Tikhon replies that he is calling “disgrace” down upon himself because of “the suffering of the creature you wronged.” By contrast, one remembers Melanie, with her 12-year-old hips but all of 20, with a thug on a motorcycle for a boyfriend and a part in a play (Sunset at the Globe Salon [!] with its “nakedly political intent”). Augustine’s truth beyond the initial transgression is an emptiness that David, unlike Stavrogin, grants in himself. It is the facts of the brief fling with Melanie, however, that Coetzee seems to slant in order to push David deeper into guilt. To Coetzee, Dostoyevsky is a “great Christian philosopher” who, having “lived through the debates of his day with the intensity of an intelligentsia held down under censorship,” had a capacity to push to its limits the analysis of “the self, the soul…greater than [that of] a purely secular thinker like Freud.” The scene at Tikhon’s from a novel huge in Coetzee’s thought brings to mind his own enthralling novel about Dostoyevsky, The Master of Petersburg (1994). For it is The Possessed that Coetzee’s utterly convincing Dostoyevsky will sit down to write when he returns to Dresden from this perilously illuminating 1869 trip back to Russia fabricated by Coetzee.
The mood of Disgrace is closer to that of Graham Greene’s Catholic novels The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair than to demonic Russian anarchists. Yet Coetzee does not flinch from the historical moment. We knew what Lucy was going to do. Late in the novel David, a Wordsworthian scholar of course, comes upon her working in the garden, absorbed, “a solid countrywoman,” “this sturdy young settler produced less by her cityfolk parents than ‘history.'” “Perhaps history has learned a lesson”: This thought greets those who would stress Coetzee’s grimness. Lucy is pregnant and will have the mixed-blood child, the ultimate threat in response to which the 1948 Afrikaner platform came into force: “apartheid thinking,” which, in a 1991 essay of that title, Coetzee called literally insane, the product of men “possessed by demons,” a corruption of the heart no secular reason could correct. Lucy will throw in her lot with Petrus and his extended family, as he extends his control of the land that has been at issue for so long.
Lucy, then, is one extreme model of how to live in South Africa. David’s effort to persuade her to leave for a while “until things have improved” marks another step in his understanding of her. He weeps in revulsion almost, her decision nonetheless an organic act indirectly political, not unconnected to her ideas and even to David’s new work. “This is the only life there is. Which we share with animals…. That’s the example I try to follow…. I don’t want to come back in another existence as a dog or a pig and have to live as dogs or pigs live under us.” In Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (1999), an elderly novelist, challenged on her views of animal suffering and understanding that have extended to an analogy with the Holocaust, stops arguing the case and identifies her need simply as salvation. Not a jump that Nadine Gordimer would take, for “the last things” in her fiction are always the next things, and the darkness she explores is not Augustinian but secular. Yet if it is faith Coetzee confesses, complete with annunciation and sacrifice, the form it takes is an art of stubborn, palpable inquiry. The apartness and pastoral retreat in some of the earlier work find in Disgrace even hints of a future for groups, for the polis.
Disgrace was always David’s story, his education and habit of mind the main ground on which Coetzee thinks his way through. He has loved his daughter. And with a number of women whom he remembers, sex has engendered a certain charity in him. Even a bond somewhere. David’s is an agnostic path, knowing only in part. An imagination that might even let one see the final room the way the animal sees it.