When J.M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel prize in 2003, the Nobel committee spoke of one of the (relatively few) recurring themes in his writing - "... the downward spiralling journeys he considers necessary for the salvation of his characters. His protagonists are overwhelmed by the urge to sink but paradoxically derive strength from being stripped of all external dignity." That pretty much sums up David Lurie, the central character in Disgrace.
The novel invites us in with one of the great openings I have read in recent times - 'For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.' The 'he' in question is David Lurie, a professor of languages and communications, in post-apartheid Cape Town. We are invited to witness as his passion overcomes the meek protestations of his better judgment and he gets into an affair with a student (and not just any student ...). What follows is a personal train-wreck made all the more bizarre by the self-destructive behavior of the person at the center of it. David leaves Cape Town, and goes to live with his daughter in the countryside. But the downward spiral has only just begun.
I do not know much about racial relations in South Africa. And I can only vaguely guess at how radical it must be to get to the other side of an apartheid past. Disgrace, tracing the small, rather inconsequential life of a minor scholar, was, for me, an education in the complex realities of multi-racial coexistence in a post-racist society. This is a book of racial nuance, a book that is thoughtful without being heavy.
Coetzee's greatest asset is his sentence construction. He builds a grand story from the most delicate, short sentences. The simplicity reels you in, and you are lost. 'Ageing is not a graceful business', he says early in the book, 'A clearing of the decks, at least, so that one can turn one's mind to the proper business of the old: preparing to die.' Talking about why someone of his age might be attracted to, and have an affair with a young (too young!) girl, here is what he says - talking nominally to his communications class about Wordsworth - 'As sense-organs reach the limit of their powers, their light begins to go out. Yet at the moment of expiry, that light leaps up one last time like a candle-flame, giving us a glimpse of the invisible.' And then when the unfortunate affair gets to its predictably bad outcome and the harrassment forms make an appearance - 'The deed is done. Two names on the page, his and hers, side by side. Two in a bed, lovers no longer, but foes.' How do you not to fall in love with writing that can come up with this?
As David's life has a change of pace going from Cape Town to Salem, the storytelling grows slower, and more langorous, but never descends into floweriness or indulgence. The literary father, absorbed in things like the difference between 'burned' and 'burnt' moves in with his earthy daughter and her animal loving friends (dignity of animals - another recurring theme with Coetzee I am told), and the relationship is never easy. As the downward spiral continues, David is brought face to face with mortality - and powerlessness. 'His pleasure in living has been snuffed out. Like a leaf on a stream, life a puffball on a breeze, he has begun to float towards his end.' Acknowledging to a believer his own lack of faith, he asks 'Is it enough for God, do you think, that I live in disgrace without term?'
Maybe there are authors out there who can make a few sparse words do so much. But there can't be that many. Coetzee is in top form in Disgrace. He creates the literary equivalent of painting Birth of Venus with your four-year old's crayons. And he has won a fan for life.