Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace image

 

Published 2008 by Vintage (first published 1999)

 

As someone who has grown up and continues to live in South Africa, I found ‘Disgrace’ to be a completely apt portrayal of the country and the spirit of insecurity lived by everyone in the nation, with a white perspective in particular.

How do I even begin to write this review in a way anyone could understand? My personal reaction mingles with the carefully created plots and themes. A country that has moved beyond the atrocities of apartheid, has moved out of the international community’s gaze to live its freedom.

David Lurie is a member of the generation that will live through both South Africas. As he ages, through the changing universities, where his love of classical poetry no longer finds the same level of expression through the courses he runs, he has an affair with a prostitute and, later, with one of his students. Races mingle – an example of how we have moved forward; this previously prohibited act, but still forbidden – for her age, the ‘abuse’ of his position. The affair ends with a borderline rape, a commission of inquiry in which he will admit guilt, but will not apologise; is too old to submit to counselling or a process of change.

In his disgrace, he goes to stay with his lesbian daughter on her farm in the Eastern Cape and we get to see his adjustment to a different kind of life. Until they are brutally attacked.

The build-up to this is written in such a way that it creates the tangible fear experienced by all of South Africa’s occupants, as South Africa is one of the crime capitals of the world. An introduction to this explores men acting on sexual impulses – creating irony as the protagonist explores his grief in the wake of his daughter’s sexual assault and her reaction thereafter.

It marks a change in who he is – an acquiescence to ageing, mortality, change. He has the desire to fight and blame in what would be an antiquated way – something his daughter will not allow, although she was the victim of a crime committed in revenge, in hatred for who she was and what she represented. It threw the curtain between their generations, to paraphrase the book.

The crime also marks an abandonment for Lurie – of hope, justice, himself, and his dreams.

JM Coetzee has written a brave novel – one that unearths the status quo in post-apartheid South Africa, disturbs, terrifies, disheartens. It is real (I hope this is so for international readers too). It is written in a way that could be expected from a Nobel laureate. It is haunting, a piece of history, a masterpiece.

 

[Post-script: The above review was something of a knee jerk reaction to reading ‘Disgrace.’ It has, however, had a very lasting effect. It is representative of so many current themes in South Africa – white identity, fear, guilt; gender roles, sexual crime and abuse, crime and our anticipation, fear, and means of coping with it. All of this is examined in a book that also explores getting older, desire, evil, and how context can change us and freeze us in terms of who we are in a home that is changing – mostly for the best, but one that is not without its victims.

 

‘Disgrace’ has altered me in that it has changed the way I look at South Africa, its news reports, and people years after attaining freedom. It is something of a dystopian outlook, but one that can celebrate the country’s achievements and simultaneously mourn its shortcomings. It is a time of limbo in a country that has overcome atrocities and has yet to reach its pinnacle.

 

Watching the film complemented the book quite well, although it had some disturbing, graphic scenes that will be hard to forget. I think that is the nature of ‘Disgrace’ – the story will linger on and make you think on themes it is sometimes more comfortable to forget but, perhaps, that is the sign of a great novel – one that affects consciousness to the core and moves you to a new vantage point from which to assess the world.]

 

The Liebster Blog Award

liebster-blog-award1

 

I am delighted to have been nominated for the Liebster Blog Award by Lydia of My Feather Quill. I started this blog as an outlet for my feelings on the books I had read, hoping to start a community of people who would love talking about their top 100 favourite books (whether they are classics or not) and their quest to find them. It is still very new, yet I have found myself completely immersed in the blogs of others I have found along the way. The community is there and my blog is but one facet of it.

 

Here are the rules:

 

  • Link back to the blog of the person who nominated you.
  • Display the Award logo on your blog/post
  • Answer the 10 random questions or make up your own questions/facts about yourself – I have decided to go with my own invented number list to mix it up a bit.
  • Nominate 10 other bloggers for the Award and link their blog sites (see below).
  • Notify the bloggers of their award – if they want to carry on the Award, by answering their own 10 questions, that’s great if not there is no obligation to do so, sometimes it’s just nice to hear that you are appreciated :-)

My nominees are as follows:

 

Interesting Literature

My Feather Quill (in return, but it is a great blog!! 🙂 )

Lemonwood

Mushka

Life in Literature

Looking for Darcy

Intellectual Imperialism

Ilene on Words

Raspberry Writing

The Elusive Scribe

 

[Apologies in advance if some of you have more than the prescribed number of followers – it can be quite hard to see on some pages]

 

10 favourite things to do: Read, write, draw, run, eat sushi, daydream, troll on Twitter, watch movies, smooch my fiance, play with dogs.

favourite foods: Sushi, soup, pasta, seafood, stew, pomegranates, melons, mash, roast chicken.

of my favourite songs: Kashmir by Led Zeppelin, A New Error by Moderat, Salt Sweat Sugar by Jimmy Eat World, Babel by Mumford and Sons, The Clincher by Chevelle, The Tourist by Radiohead, Shiver by Coldplay, And so it Goes by Bob Dylan (subject to change at  any point).

7 of my favourite authors: Julian Barnes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Alessandro Barriccio, Alain de Botton, Michael Ondaatje, Henry Miller

things that annoy me: Lies, injustice, selfishness, disrespect, arrogance, getting out of bed before I’m ready.

things that make me laugh: my cat Abra, QI, my office banter, Gordon Ramsey (although it can be more of a howl of disbelief), laughing on my back – I could suffocate on my own laughter when it happens.

fears: heights, violence, snakes, rodents

3 wishes: a life full of love, the freedom to write all day, a chance to see the world.

of my heroes: my mom and the man I am going to marry (soppy, huh?). At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, they have both saved me at some point or another.

1 secret: I took a day off of work to read the end of the Twilight series. How will I live with the shame??!

The Misogynist by Piers Paul Read

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Published 2011 by Bloomsbury UK (first published 2010)

 

I can imagine most people would need to be in the right frame of mind to read ‘The Misogynist.’ 

The book follows the story of Jomier as he deals with disheartenment and resentment at his wife’s extra-marital affair and their subsequent divorce. It is a dark satire that, at times, borders on a rant about society’s downfalls and the futility of human relationships. 

I can see why this book wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes, but loved it for its style and the sincerity of the character development; feeling almost sadistic in laughing at some of the protagonist’s musings and recollections. 

‘The Misogynist’ was always going to fall victim to mixed reviews but, personally, I consider it a victory by Piers Paul Read.

‘Metroland’ quotes

The orthodoxy runs, that if marriage is founded on less than perfect truth it will always come to light. I don’t believe that. Marriage moves you further away from the examination of truth, not nearer to it. 141

 

Every morning, at breakfast, I would gaze disbelievingly at my family. They were all still there, for a start – that was the first surprise. Why hadnt some of them run off in the night, wounded beyond endurance by the emptiness I divined in their lives? Why were they all still sitting where they’d sat the mornig before, and looking as if they’d be perfectly content to be back there again in another twenty-four hours? 39

Metroland by Julian Barnes

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[First published 1980]

 

As a huge fan of Julian Barnes, reading his debut novel was always going to be steeped in expectation and even a hint of bias. This doesn’t mean that ‘Metroland’ was disappointing in any respect.

 

‘Metroland’ follows two friends in the throes of adolescence. They treat this time as a mere preparation for adulthood, as if they are enlightened in the ways of the world and the purpose of their youth. They live lives of angst, cynicism, and elitism as teenagers; looking forward to evolving into their adult selves for the freedom and sexual liberty. It is a petulant effort to break from authority in all of its forms. The irony is that they start displaying the bourgeois contemplation they scurry to avoid.

 

As Christopher gets older, and these theories of how things would be are dispelled by real life, the ideologies linger on in the background, as if having some kind of applicability. When he moves on to Paris, it is still in the adolescent desire to find the synthesis between art and life, yet he slips into the persona he so desperately sought to avoid in his youth. Toni, on the other hand, is hell bent on sticking to his rebellion. Christopher’s time in Paris, however, sees him given the distance from Toni to be truly autonomous and develop as he pleases. There is a distinct rejection of Englishness, with a tone reminiscent of his teenage musings – a feeling of belonging in the anonymity; a role of camaraderie fulfilled by Toni during his school years. He is desperate not to be average, and this is a time of discovery.

 

Christopher joins the masses in experiencing the rite of passage to adulthood as a difficult one. He flounders, yet carries on, laying pain down to experience. Barnes uses unusual emphasis in terms of plot, glossing over those experiences that are considered major life events, and concentrating on those most would rather forget. This is in keeping with the story and works well in terms of style.

 

‘Metroland’ is a book that looks at expectation versus retrospect. The boys’ adhesion to their boyhood ideologies means that the reader is forced to ask whether he or she is disappointed when Christopher grows into a conventional working, married man, with a mortgage and plans for his family. He doesn’t stick out as extraordinary by his adolescent standards – something Toni has no problem pointing out to him as he lives his reality. Toni, on the other hand, similarly doesn’t strike the reader as an immense success. Do Christopher’s justifications for how he lives his life and loves his wife convince us that there is beauty and art beyond the banal? Is there something wrong with him finding contentedness and security in having all of the things his teenage self would have rejected?

 

I found myself intrigued by Barnes’s insights into human relationships, projections, and the nature of marriage as the book continued – that, no matter how, in terms of expectation, Christopher may be a “sell out,” his life still yields surprises and the remnants of a youth, which combine to hold an all-pervading power.

Tropic of Cancer quotes

What is written in the stars, or in my blood, I know nothing of. I know that I spring from the mythological founders of the race. The man who raises the holy bottle to his lips, the criminal who kneels in the marketplace, the innocent one who discovers that all corpses stink, the madman who dances with lightning in his hands, the friar who lifts his skirts to pee over the world, the fanatic who ransacks libraries in order to find the Word – all these are fused in me, all these make my confusion, my ecstasy. If I am inhuman it is because the world has slopped over its human bounds, because to be human seems like a poor, sorry, miserable affair, limited by the senses, restricted by moralities and codes, defined by platitudes and isms. I am pouring the juice of the grape down my gullet and I find wisdom in it, but my wisdom is not born of the grape, my intoxication owes nothing to wine…

 

I want to make a detour of those lofty arid mountain ranges where one dies of thirst and cold, that “extra-temporal” history, that absolute of time and space where there exists neither man, beast, nor vegetation, where one goes crazy with loneliness, with language that is mere words, where everything is unhooked, ungeared, out of joint with the times. I want a land of men and women, of trees that do not talk (because there is too much talk as it is!), of rivers that carry you to places, not rivers that are legends, but rivers that put you in touch with other men and women, with architecture, religion, plants, animals – rivers that have boats on them and in which men drown, drown not in myth and legend and books and dust of the past, but in time and space and history. I want rivers that make oceans such as Shakespeare and Dante, rivers which do not dry up in the void of the past. Oceans, yes! Let us have more oceans, new oceans that blot out the past, oceans that create new geological formations, new topographical vistas and strange, terrifying continents, oceans that destroy and preserve at the same time, oceans that we can sail on, take off on new discoveries, new horizons. Let us have more oceans, more upheavals, more wars, more holocausts. Let us have a world of men and women with dynamos between their legs, a world of natural fury, of passion, action, drama, dreams, madness, a world that produces ecstasy and not dry farts. I believe that today more than ever a book should be sought after even if it only has one great page in it: we must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and soul.

 

It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonising, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a  last expiring dance. But a dance!

 

“I love everything that flows,” said the great blind Milton of our times. I was thinking of him this morning when I awoke with a great bloody shout of joy: I was thinking of his rivers and trees and all that world of night which he is exploring. Yes, I said to myself, I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. I love the amniotic fluid when it spills out of the bag. I love the kidney with its painful gall stones, its gravel and what-not; I love the urine that pours out scalding and the clap that runs endlessly; I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that Amazon and the Orinoco, where crazy men like Moravagine float on through dream and legend in an open boat and down in the mouths of the river. I love everything that flows, even the menstrual flow that carries away the seed unfecund. I love the scripts that flow, be they hieratic, esoteric, perverse, polymorph, or unilateral. I love everything that flows, everything that has time in it and becoming, that brings us back to the beginning where there is never an end: the violence of the prophets, the obscenity that is ecstasy, the wisdom of the fanatic, the priest with his rubber litany, the foul words of the whore, the spittle that floats away in the gutter, the milk of the breast and the bitter honey that pours from the womb, all that is fluid, melting, dissolute and dissolvent, all the pus and dirt that in flowing is purified, that loses its sense of origin, that makes the great circuit toward death and dissolution. The great incestuous wish is to flow on, one with time, to merge the great image of the beyond with the here and now. A fatuous, suicidal wish that is constipated by words and paralysed by thought.

 

‘…the monstrous thing is not that men have created roses out of this dung heap, but that, for some reason or other, they should want roses. For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will wade through blood. He will debauch himself with ideas, he will reduce himself to a shadow if only for one second of his life he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality. Everything is endured – disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui – in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life intolerable.’

 

–          Page 102

‘When I reflect that the task which the artist implicitly sets himself is to overthrow existing values, to make of the chaos about him an order which is his own, to sow strife and ferment so that by the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life, then it is that I run with joy to the great and imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me, their stuttering is like divine music to my ears.’

 

–          Page 254

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

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[Published 2005 by Harper Perennial. First Published 1934.]

‘The super structure is a lie and the foundation is a huge quaking fear. If at intervals of centuries there does appear a man with a desperate, hungry look in his eye, a man who would turn the world upside down in order to create a new race, the love that he brings to the world is turned to bile and he becomes a scourge. If now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and scar, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defences left are his words and his words are always stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of a personality. If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what is really his experience, what is truly his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens and no god, no accident, no will could ever again assemble the pieces, the atoms, the indestructible elements that have gone to make up the world.’

(Page 249 – 250)

If there is a passage in ‘Tropic of Cancer’ that is representative of the whole book, I think this may be the closest to it.

It is a reader’s act of rebellion to order a book knowing that it has been banned in countries around the world for decades. Indeed, my own trusty bookstore had never put a copy on their shelves. In the context in which it was published, I can understand why it was so harshly criticised and why so many efforts were made to muffle this voice from the world. What I don’t understand, however, is why, in the twenty-first century, when “mommy porn” is so popular and sex is to be found in every medium so freely and openly, it would continue to be so controversial – so much so as to receive very negative reviews and to be labelled as ‘vile’.

On completing the book, I have reached two possible reasons. The first is that those who disliked the book did not read it to the end. The other is that the reading of the book was done on a superficial level.

The introduction to the Miller in Paris in the early parts of the book comes in almost hallucinatory bursts and rants – unapologetically declaring this book to be no work of art in an ugly world. One gets the sense of an ending right at the beginning. He contextualises this very quickly by making himself out to be something of a masochist in a place stripped of all the attractions that make it so popular for artists. It is a dark place – somewhere he suffers with hunger, poverty, and homelessness in aid of a lifestyle sated with debauchery. This is all so he can write (and perhaps better understand himself) in a place that should (and occasionally does) offer inspiration and, even then, he admits that many of his ideas remain unwritten. Paris is dispelled as a place of dreams.

His encounters with the numerous whores in the book (often through his bohemian acquaintances) are sometimes graphic but, for the most part, show a man who gets to know the ones he likes and their individual characters, whilst collectively treating them with derision. Individually, he explores their emotions, their tempers, their drives; rejecting any semblance of virtue and delicacy.

What results is Miller’s love-hate relationship with a city and its inhabitants in a modernist, surreal book that removes any traditional notion of ‘the writer’ and his work, giving the reader a realistic portrayal of the world. This view smashes the facade that makes people feel comfortable and reveals the obscenity and vulgarity of the world in a way that was revolutionary in the ‘30s. Paris takes on a character of its own, bordering on a monster at times – one that woos and enchants you, yet consumes you as if with disease. It is as if he is constantly searching for reality in life’s lowest realms – a self-inflicted journey and one in which Miller feels almost immune.

He aligns women with Paris; as symbolic of Paris. Experiences with women are supposed to be utopian and sex is an act of balance and of violence that is, at the same time, beautiful and artistic. This view, however, is a question of perspective. This woman could be a whore, a different reality that shows something that is not sacred and is not exclusive. As unsettling as ‘Tropic of Cancer’ is even for the modern reader, these are passages that are driven by anger and confusion rather than lust.

 

Put in the context of literature, ‘Tropic of Cancer’ is the Dadaism of the book world. He is calling the hidden underbelly of reality art in a way that readers at the time must have suffered as abrasive. Miller flits between scenes making the book almost fractured, yet it merges into a single, heaving beast as the pages go on, and that beast is Paris. But, in addition to being Paris as a whole, it is also Paris after Mona, his wife. The city in ‘Tropic of Cancer’ is like a parallel world – one far removed from the esteemed destination loved by others. His almost (at times) depraved rants and cursing he knew would be so controversial as not to be considered literature by the critics of the time. My challenge is that people read it as more than an act of rebellion; for more than the superficial sex scenes like the dog-eared library book that gets teenage, pubescent pulses racing. Read beyond the sex and it becomes a painting that takes many hours of viewing to understand and become clear.

This book has many hidden depths – it was a challenging read, but one that I believe I will endeavour to make a few times in my life. It is a work of genius done no justice here but, more than that, it is a work of freedom.