The novels of J.M. Coetzee often take the form of a one-way correspondence. In Foe (1986), for example, a young widow writes over and over to Daniel Defoe, trying to tell the story of her shipwreck. Likewise, Age of Iron (1990) consists of one long anguished letter from an old South African woman to her daughter in the United States, a letter that will be sent only after her death. His early books are made up exclusively of letters or journals: all of them lonely cries into a vast silence. His narrators wish to be heard, but no voice answers. Even when Coetzee writes in the third-person, as in his latest novel, Disgrace, the same characteristics are present: a solitary consciousness, urgent and intense, and a world of other people, barely visible in the distance.
 All his novels follow the same basic pattern: an outcast, often diseased or deformed, undergoes trials of punishment and alienation. You cannot imagine his characters drinking tea, or flirting, or having any other commonplace interaction; they are always suffering, always enmeshed in their inward struggles. The ruthlessness of his exclusions gives his work its distinction. His style is austere and lush at the same time. One of his heroines yearns for a vision “passionate enough to carry me from the mundane of being into the doubleness of signification.” This pressure to signify can be felt in all his books, sometimes to their detriment. Impatience with the banal can be a flaw in a novelist. Yet if Coetzee has a tendency to be overly cerebral, he also has a genius for the concrete. Occasional clunky moments are more than redeemed by the astonishing texture of his prose.
    To be born in South Africa is a complex fate for a man of such pure literary gifts. Coetzee, while strenuously refusing to become involved in politics, has always preoccupied himself with moral and historical questions, even in his most allegorical and interior work. Apartheid and civil war have burdened him with a sense of responsibility which he can neither shirk nor satisfy. In accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1987, Coetzee called South African literature “a literature in bondage… a less than fully human literature… unable to move from elementary relations of contestation, subjugation and domination, to the vast and complex human world that lies beyond them.” At the same time the novel is “too slow, too old-fashioned, too indirect to have any but the slightest and most belated effect on the life of the community or the course of history.” Torn between the irresponsibility of art and the distortions of history, there are no easy solutions for Coetzee --- or his heroes.
    Shame and helplessness are the emotions at the heart of his work. History ruthlessly strips his protagonists of their illusions and their comforts. The narrator of Age of Iron, for example, dying of cancer, experiences injustices which she has before known only from a safe distance. In one hallucinatory scene, Mrs. Curren is set upon by a gang of children who poke a stick in her mouth to steal the gold from her teeth. “What did I want to say?… Don’t you have any mercy? What nonsense. Why should there be any mercy in the world?” Her appeal to mercy, like her fondness for Bach and Marcus Aurelius, has become out of date. In an age that worships power, the rhetoric of ethics has no currency.
     Coetzee himself seems torn between a fealty to old values and a fascination with destruction. He has spoken of his longing, as a writer, to “quit a world of pathological attachments and abstract forces, of anger and violence, and take up residence in a world where a living play of feelings and ideas is possible…” On the other hand, he acknowledges that South Africa has provided him with what every writer covets most --- rich material.  “The crudity of life in South Africa,” he has said, “make it as irresistible as it is unlovable.” The extremity of South African life has been his opportunity.
    For Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awaken. In the case of Coetzee, the opposite is true: the painful immersion in history is exactly what allows his characters to realize themselves. Through the instrument of their suffering, they are vouchsafed a vision. In Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), the magistrate of a frontier town serves his empire without understanding its true nature. The book recounts his gradual awakening, his defiance, and his punishment. He is mocked, tortured, forced to wear women’s clothing, and starved. But he has been purged of his illusions: he finally understands that “the world of tranquil certainties we were born into is about to be extinguished.” Here is the central idea in novel after novel, the fundamental perception: the world we know is coming to an end. The last days are upon us. Ten or twenty years ago Coetzee’s vision of the apocalypse seemed utterly reasonable. Immersed in the chaos and violence of South Africa under apartheid, who could have anticipated anything but disaster? His prophecy of doom was bolstered by the gravity of the headlines: the fires of Soweto, he seemed to be warning us, would not stop at the shores of Africa.
The aesthetics of eschatology has an ancient appeal. Yet so far at least, our universal longing for a collective ending has not been satisfied. Civilization, however fatigued, limps forward, disappointing all those who cheerfully predict extinction. The Cold War ended with a whimper. The cataclysm of South Africa never occurred. Terrible inequality persists, of course, as does extreme violence, but the grand Manichean drama of apartheid subsided with a surprisingly small amount of bloodshed. Now for the first time, Coetzee has written a novel about post-apartheid South Africa. Winner of the  Booker Prize for 1999, Disgrace has been almost universally lauded, hailed as an new phase in Coetzee’s work. Here he employs no tricks of post-modern playfulness; even the prose is bare, stripped of his usual flourishes. No other of his fictions has been so steeped in the details of ordinary life. And yet, strange to record, the emotional landscape has not altered. If there has been any reconciliation or amelioration in contemporary South Africa, Disgrace does not record it. Coetzee, almost defiantly, has written his bleakest novel yet.
Professor David Lurie is another aesthete conscious of his own obsolescence. The author of books on opera and William Wordsworth, he now finds himself an adjunct professor of Communications, “since Classics and Modern Languages were closed down as part of the great rationalization.” The legacy of Western culture is alive for Lurie; his inner monologue refers casually to Origen and Oedipus, Richard Strauss and Gustave Flaubert. However, this vast inheritance has no meaning to his students. “Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate, they might as well have been hatched from eggs yesterday.” Lurie manages to survive in this strange new world until he initiates an affair with a vulnerable student. After she files a complaint of sexual harassment, he is dragged before an inquisitorial committee and then dismissed.
So begins his sojurn in a netherworld of destruction and suffering, the necessary journey for every Coetzee character. Lurie travels to the Eastern Cape where his daughter Lucy has set up a smallholding. She is immersed in the practical realities of farming, irrigation and flower-selling, a far cry from the abstract pursuits of her father. “There is no higher life,” she insists. Yet she is idealistic in her own way, sacrificing the comforts of the city in order to build a new South Africa. Her good intentions are not reciprocated; her neighbors resent her and covet her property. The turning point of the story comes when Lurie and his daughter are attacked in her home. She is raped; he is set on fire. Coetzee renders this scene brilliantly, underscoring its  horror with Lurie’s sense of his own absurd helplessness.
He speaks Italian, he speaks French, but Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa. He is helpless, an Aunt Sally, a figure from a cartoon, a missionary in cassock and topi waiting with clasped hands and upcast eyes while the savages jaw away in their own lingo preparatory to plunging him into their boiling cauldron.
Liberal fantasies vanish in a moment of crisis. While the tumor of apartheid is gone, the disease of violence continues. “It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country… Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant.” Pity, justice, mercy: illusions bred in the blindness of comfort. The new world will be car-jackings and Communications departments, random violence and political correctness. No Wordsworth, no Byron. Countryside and university alike fall into chaos while David Lurie stands alone, the unsympathetic remnant of a vanished civilization.
Despite the realistic shell of Disgrace, Coetzee is not finally interested in social commentary. His melodramatic view of South African life serves to heighten our sense of David Lurie’s alienation. The savages are not to blame for the downfall of civilization; darkest Africa is not to blame; the corruption lies inside ourselves. There is a trick here, akin to one of Coetzee’s best works, Waiting for the Barbarians. In that book, the much-feared barbarians never materialize; the fear of barbarians, we realize, is a projection of our own savage natures. Likewise, the blank landscape of Disgrace reflects the emptiness of its central character. David Lurie takes his place in a long tradition stretching back to Dostoyevsky and beyond, of characters enfeebled by their own self-conscious belatedness. If his students know too little, Lurie knows too much.
Early on in Disgrace we learn that “for as long as he can remember, the harmonies of The Prelude have echoed within him.” But only the dark aspects of The Prelude echo in Lurie: the imagination unable to connect with anything outside of itself. Lurie discusses with his class a passage from The Prelude, in which Wordsworth, seeing Mont Blanc for the first time, grieves “To have a soulless image on the eye/ That had usurped a living thought.” As the book progresses, the “soulless” world usurps Lurie’s exhausted perception more and more. History enroaches upon his comforts. His house is intruded upon, his daughter. But in the rough justice of Coetzee, he is only paying for his solipsism. The novel is structured around two rapes: the rape of his daughter by a gang of black men, and his own “rape” of Melanie Issacs, his student. He acknowledges the element of coercion after one encounter with Melanie: “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless, undesired to the core… As though she had decided to go slack… So that everything to her might be done, as it were, far away.” His self-absorption brings to mind what Coetzee said about South Africa in his Jerusalem speech: “At the heart of the unfreedom of the hereditary masters of South Africa is a failure of love.”
 There is a price to be paid for this failure to love. In the case of Lurie, he must see his daughter impregnated by a rapist. In an essay on the apartheid theorist Geoffrey Cronje, Coetzee has suggested that the fear of (and the desire for) miscegenation was a key element of apartheid. The mixing of blood “is the end of things kept apart at every level: sexual, social, conceptual. The breakdown of the system, the breakdown of repression, threatens the self.” David Lurie is not a racist, but he practices his own personal kind of apartheid: he keeps apart. Over the course of the novel he must renounce all his distinctions, all his markers of identity. Even though Lucy knows that her rapists might come back, she refuses to prosecute them or leave the farm. Her father wants justice, but she only wants to fit in. Even if it means she must bear a child of a rapist, even if she must marry the man who had been her servant, Petrus, the sly, acquisitive farmhand. Petrus offers her protection, but in exchange she must turn over the rights to her land.
“Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.”
“Like a dog?”
“Yes, like a dog.”
Appearing nearly at the same time as Disgrace was a peculiar volume entitled The Lives of Animals, consisting of a lecture Coetzee delivered at Princeton University as well as responses to his lecture. The lecture takes the form of a story about an elderly Australian novelist named Elizabeth Costello who speaks to an American college audience about animal rights. Eschewing specifics, she engages in a sweeping denunciation of humankind: “We are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it…” What makes this book strange is that Costello’s views are so unconvincing. Powerful arguments can exist  on behalf of animal rights, even this radically egalitarian version. But Costello does not make them. Her arguments are vague, repetitive and incoherent. She refuses to acknowledge any complexities. Furthermore, Costello turns out to be an unsympathetic character. Her own family dislikes her. She is cold, rigid, even a bit crazy. How should we understand this baffling book? As a fiction, insubstantial; as propaganda, flimsy. If Coetzee shares her opinions, why not grant her his rhetorical skills? Or why not simply speak in his own voice?
Elizabeth Costello bears a striking resemblance to Lucy, the daughter in Disgrace. They are both remote to the point of autism, both unsentimental in their personal affect, and both speak in opposition to the assumptions of Western reason. Costello argues against human power over animals. Lucy does not polemicize this way, although she also prefers the company of dogs. But she renounces her human privileges, identity and property, with an almost masochistic glee. While her father wants to impose his values on history, she embodies acceptance and passivity. At the end, Lurie finds Lucy working in the fields: “His daughter is becoming a peasant… solid in her existence, more solid than he has ever been.” She is the “natural man” that David Lurie never could be. While Lurie is a bit afraid of her, he admires her, and we are meant to also. Elizabeth Costello articulates a similar receptivity in her argument on behalf of animals. Her logical flaws are recompensed by the supposedly irrefutable appeal of her argument: “There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.”
This statement is the sort of airy declaration a theologian might make, but not a novelist. It bears little relation to human life as experienced by anyone save perhaps a Bodhisattava. Even Elizabeth Costello, who argues for absolute compassion, finds it impossible to think herself into the being of her daughter-in-law. One would imagine that a novelist most of all would grasp the difficulties of true empathy, how rare it is, how elusive. A novelist, not only because the novelist must be a student of human relations, but because the novel is an exercise in thinking “ourselves into the being of another.” To believe in imaginary characters, to become enmeshed in their complexity, is a way of learning empathy, not as a homily, but as an experience.
It is not an experience Disgrace provides. Here is the crux of the problem with Coetzee. For all his brilliance, he lacks one skill critical for a novelist. By and large, his characters do not live on the page. We are always conscious of the puppet master manipulating. In his earlier novels, this seemed to be part of his method, a stroke of playfulness in an avant-garde tradition. But greater realism requires greater psychological depth. David Lurie can’t understand his daughter’s decisions and neither can we. Symbolically, she provides an excellent counterpoint to her father; in human terms, she is implausible. We await a moment of vulnerability, an explosion, a revelation, that never comes. She speaks in the same polite tone throughout; she does not seem to grow, or change. To her father, and to us, she remains a blank mysterious figure, a useful symbol, but never alive. “I have a life of my own,” she tells her father, but what it consists of we can’t discover. Her character is an unproven theorem.
In his egotism, his lugubrious self-pity, and his pretentious, ironic intelligence, David Lurie is more vivid. Coetzee has an amazing talent for weaving internal dialogue into the forward momentum of a story. He captures the wanderings of consciousness brilliantly, without sacrificing narrative excitement. Disgrace is utterly gripping, and yet, in the end, unsatisfying. Lurie is too knowing; there is no dramatic irony. Since he is so thoroughly cynical from the start, his downfall registers only as a flat extension of a steady state. He loses his job, but his job never mattered much to him anyway. He pays for his “crime” but never repents. Near the end of the book he makes an unexpected journey to see the father of the student whom he seduced. But what seems at first like it might be a scene out of Dostoyevsky is emphatically non-cathartic. Lurie can only offer a stiff apology: “I am sorry for what I took your daughter through.” After he theatrically touches his head to the floor, he thinks, “Will that do? Is there more?”
Redemption can be corny, of course, but, in its own way, so can despair. The negativity of Disgrace is relentless. A novel has no obligation to be cheerful or optimistic, but as Wallace Stevens said of poetry, it must change. Change makes a story. While neat resolutions are irritating, that is an obstacle every novelist must overcome. It is a difficulty Coetzee has traditionally skirted. Others books of his, such as Foe, begin brilliantly, and then peter out. Perhaps it has been a question of imaginative fatigue. With Disgrace, it appears to be a deliberate refusal. In the last few chapters, Coetzee seems to toy with the reader’s expectations, offering up moments of grace for Lurie and then deflating them.
After initially dismissing Lucy’s concern for animals, Lurie starts to volunteer at the local animal clinic. The mass euthanasia of dogs affects him more than he expected. He eventually takes on the job of incinerating their remains himself – “the dog undertaker,” he calls himself. He wishes to give “honor to corpses.” It is genuinely moving, his Antigone-like effort to overcome “the disgrace of dying.” The concept of disgrace, it turns out, goes beyond the sins of colonialism, or an old man’s sexual avarice, or a young woman’s rape. At its base is our incomprehension of our own mortality. “Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone… this room that is not a room but a hole where one leaks out of existence.”
At the end a dog with a withered leg falls in love with Lurie. “The dog would die for him, he knows.” Of course no one will adopt it; Lurie considers saving him. But in the end, he consigns the dog to its death. The final words of the novel are stark: “Are you giving him up?” “Yes, I am giving him up.” There is something very seductive about this insistence on renunciation, this chilly mystical logic. But Coetzee stacks the deck. Not only must Lurie see his daughter impregnated by a gang of black men; not only must he lose his job; he can’t even keep a lousy dog. And since we never are made to feel what Lurie’s attachments mean to him, his renunciations have no real dramatic power. Coetzee has a fixed idea (the world as abbatoir) and drives his fictional universe into the dust trying to make us accept it. The ending is beautiful, but it has the feeling of a sermon. A sermon only moves in a single direction, whereas a novel can move in many directions at the same time. This is what the form of the novel offers its readers: the freedom to see from different angles at once. Coetzee can’t tolerate such ambiguity; he subjugates his stories to a stern discipline.
Disgrace is a depressed book. It is cool and elegant and unreproachable. It has the flatness of deep melancholy. Whereas in his earlier books, Coetzee described ordinary objects as if he were seeing them for the first time, here the prose is careful, constrained, unmessy. It doesn’t seem as if Coetzee is discovering anything as he writes, only repeating tricks that have worked for him before. There is a sense of creative exhaustion and a conscious unwillingness to combat the exhaustion. “I fight against becoming one of the forgotten ones of history,” cries one of Coetzee’s early heroines; and while her plaintive wish may be futile, or ridiculous, or destructive, at least she is fighting. The fight has gone out of the characters of Disgrace. One difference may be the absence of the first person narrator. The gloom of earlier Coetzee novels was counterbalanced by the vitality of their voices. For all their despair, they were at least attempting to communicate. In Disgrace, on the other hand, there is only a shrinking from the world. Perhaps such quietism strikes the perfect note for our wildly prosperous and weirdly despondent era, but, as art, it is insufficient. “Unless one is improved by what hurts one, it can’t be of interest to others,” wrote Marianne Moore in a letter to the young Allen Ginsberg. “If we share in the conspiracy against ourselves and call existence an insult, who cares what we write?”
Review of Disgrace
From The Yale Review