Book Review: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

A new acquaintance of mine asked if I had ever read the book Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.  I hadn’t, though I had read several others by the South African writer.  We talked about many things that morning, and, to be truthful, I had forgotten all about the book until about a week later, when a package arrived in the mail with a gift-wrapped book. Inside was a copy of Disgrace with the note: “I hope you enjoy this half as much as I did.”

And so I began.

Disgrace is the story of David Lurie, a 52 year-old, twice-divorced, white South African professor of Communications and Romantic poetry.  Quite early in the novel he is forced to resign from his university under the disgrace of having sex with one of his students.  As Lurie  rationalizes to himself, the sex itself was not rape, but it certainly wasn’t completely consensual.  He admits guilt but not contrition–which infuriates even those trying to help him.

In disgrace, hounded by reporters, and bereft of his job, Lurie leaves town and drives out into the eastern countryside of the Cape. There his daughter has some land where she raises flowers and kennels dogs.  He is there presumably to write an opera on Byron, Byron’s mistress Teresa, and her husband.  But it is not the most conducive area for such refined creation: it is a hard land and an area still simmering in the afterbirth of the post-apartheid era.

As Lurie settles into the rhythms of country-life, of physical labor and simple pleasures, even volunteering in an animal shelter, his life is once again shattered when he and his daughter are attacked by three men.  All the dogs are slaughtered, Lurie is doused in alcohol and set on fire, and his daughter is gang-raped (and impregnated) by the three men.  The very crime for which Lurie was censured has been visited trebly on his daughter.  The very world he has known–the power he has always arrogantly assumed for himself–has been violently wrenched away.

As both father and daughter try to come to terms with the horrors that have visited them, as they learn more and more about the identity of their attackers and their relations to people they know, and as they struggle with the essential character of each other’s personalities, Lurie comes to better realize the nature of the world around him.  His views on racism, on feminism, even on animal rights, must be examined and re-calibrated.  The world he has known is, simply, no longer.

I knew nothing of the book when I opened it. I thought it was contemporary, not published in 1999–a mere five years after the historic elections in which the African National Congress overwhelmingly won and from which apartheid’s demise can best be dated. The difficulties that Lurie has in understanding the new order, the distrust, fear and violence among the various peoples, even the “modernization” of the University all make better sense. (Lurie’s teaching of Communication is in itself ironic–Communication skills are what this country and its people are badly in need of.  An expert in the British romantic poets–those type of courses are considered fluff in the new university structure–Lurie teaches both Communications 101 and Communications 201. The one Romantic Poets course he teaches is a salve that the administration gives its older professors.) In many ways the novel is a reflection of the birth pangs of the new country: it is violent, bloody, and at times deadly.

Does everything get resolved?  Of course, not.  Is Lurie a better person at the end?  I’m not sure.  I think he is. Early in the novel when a tribunal is questioning Lurie on his womanizing, he states that he believes that every woman he has bedded has “enriched” him in some way.  The question at the end of the novel then must be  “has the violence and catastrophe that he has suffered also enriched him?”  Again, I don’t know. But he is a different man than he was at the beginning of the novel.

J.M. Coetzee

And while the summary of the plot seems rather dark, the novel itself is quick moving and understated.  It is a very subtle but easy read, and it sucks you into its disparate worlds–the urbane world of the university and the stark world of the South African countryside–quite easily.

And so much dovetails together within the novel: the womanizing man of letters writing about that grand literary womanizer Byron; the mirrored rapes; his evolving attitudes towards women underpinning his new understanding of animals; his role as both teacher and father. It all comes together seamlessly and wonderfully, not like a patchwork quilt, but a beautifully woven cloth–like the Ashanti patterned bedspread that Lurie’s daughter presents to the woman living on her land.

J.M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for Disgrace in 1999, four years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. His writing is succinct and accessible. In many ways he is a quiet writer, not at all flashy. (Not surprising, considering that his dissertation was on Beckett.)  Intelligent, subtle, and layered, the writing is satisfying and rewarding from the very first, and ages richly with subsequent reading.

Rejection: a writer’s two-way street

 

Ah rejection! It is the most certain part of the writer’s life. And we all have had our share. Putting something out there, for someone else to judge, to deem suitable for his or her journal/magazine/anthology/contest, is risky. The odds of receiving a “no” are much larger than receiving a “yes.”

At least they are for the less established writers. Which is the majority of us.

Having said that, however, 2012 has been a particularly successful year for me. Even Duotrope–the wonderful submission/market site that I use– congratulated me saying that my “acceptance ratio” is higher than average for users who have submitted to similar markets. And my rate for both fiction and poetry is a measly 21.4%!

But lately, I’ve hit a fallow patch. Stories going out, rejections coming back.  Indeed, one journal (who in fairness won’t be named) e-mailed the same rejection to me three times in one day! Talk about Churchill’s black dog in the afternoon!

So at the moment, I have eleven pieces out there awaiting some editor’s thumbs up or thumbs down. Two have been out there for five months.  If I continue at my current above average pace (hah!) then I can expect two of the eleven pieces to get the okay.

And when that happens all the self-doubt and depression (understandable with a three-pronged rejection) disappears and one once again fantasizes about quitting the day job and really getting it done fill an hour or two of my daydreams.

♦     ♦     ♦

Now, the other side of the coin is that we as writers must do our fair share of rejection, as well, if we are to do the task well.  I believe it was Hemingway who once said that he knew he had had a productive day if in the morning he had three pages of manuscript and by afternoon he had only one. That’s a lot of rejection. That’s a lot of concision. That’s a lot of word choice.

Someone once told me that if I really love a particular phrase or passage, I should probably discard it! Reject it! My love of it is a signal that it is too”special” and doesn’t belong in the work. And he is probably right. Be careful when you are feeling particularly “writerly.”  Not a good portent for good writing.

Another story I heard was that the writer Ray Bradbury would complete a piece, date it, and file it away for a year to the day to begin editing it. He believed that when he first completed a piece, he was too enamored with it to critically re-write, edit, and polish.

But who has that kind of time?

I know one of my many faults is to believe something is finished well before it is. I do not edit well on a computer screen and there is a certain part of me that cringes at printing out drafts.

So my August 1 resolution will be to do better editing, better re-writing. Maybe I’ll even start printing out my work to look over…but certainly on both sides.

♦     ♦     ♦

P.S. Originally I had no  graphics in this post because

I wrote it on my iPad on a cross-country plane with WiFi from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.

How cool is that?

But when I got home my interior clock was a bit askew, so I returned and added some images.

Next Post

I thought this was an interesting post. She seems an intelligent and thoughtful writer, and I am going to try to track down her book.

ph.d. in creative writing

As writers, we live double lives: lived once in the world of others, and again, in the quiet of our own minds. It takes a certain amount of will and courage to leave with regularity the circle of humanity in order to enact a kind of theft, which is one aspect of what the writing life seems to be.

Anne Germanacos is the author of the short story collection In the Time of Girls (BOA Editions). Born in San Francisco, she has lived in Greece for over thirty years. Together with her husband, Nick Germanacos, she ran the Ithaka Cultural Studies Program on the islands of Kalymnos and Crete, and taught writing, literature, and Modern Greek. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has appeared in over eighty literary reviews and anthologies, including Dzanc’s Best of the Web 2009. She and her husband have four…

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A quibble with electronic publishing

I’m a little worried.

Just a little worried.

The majority of things I’ve had published are in print. They  haven’t earned me a fortune–five dollars here, twenty dollars there–but a least I have a copy of them. Actually, two copies of them, because most of the ” legitimate” small journals pay in copies. They publish your story, poem, essay and pay you with two copies of the issue in which you appear. Two copies placed with the others in a chest at the foot of my bed.

And then along comes the Internet. Instant gratification. Electronic submissions. Electronic responses. Usually much quicker than traditional ways.

The best story I think I’ve ever wrote was published on line. “Nadja and the Dream of Teeth” first appeared through the Dublin Writer’s Workshop in the journal The Electric Acorn.

Then it was published electronically by The Richmond Review (UK). The editor at The Richmond Review was wonderful. She asked questions, made good suggestions, and, overall, made me tighten things up.  All through e-mails. From across the pond. This was the internet at its best.

And then it appeared electronically. It was beautiful. Nice layout. Clean font. Well done. I was proud of the story and proud of its being out there.

Now several years later, the site is down. Just a blank white page. Try it. Google “Richmond review uk” and you’ll find the link.  And then a pure white page. Where is my story? Not there. Not archived. Nowhere. And it was a legitimate journal!

Sort of the same thing with another story– “Pierced.” Except the journal it appeared in didn’t disappear; it sold its domain name to a Japanese company. Try to find my story and you’ll be staring at a beautiful chrysanthemum surrounded by Japanese writing. I am pretty sure that it is not my story translated into Japanese.

So. No big deal. Two short stories that meant something to me but certainly not to anyone else. Vanished. Pouf! But what if this was important material? Is there a fear that important things might simply disappear after a given time?

I know the saying that nothing ever disappears in cyberspace, but will future researchers, historians, students all have the tools necessary to recover those things that have?

Granted there is much that is superfluous, so much that is ephemeral on the Web. Much of it–my own scribblings included– really doesn’t deserve a long shelf life. But, by caching materials away so easily are we also tossing away things of lasting value.  I don’t mean the works of a future Shakespeare or a document of “Declaration of Independence” import.  I mean things like the novelist Rick Moody’s music reviews on Rumpus or Margaret Atwood’s book reviews for The Guardian or the Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s powerful reading of “At Roane Head.”  My fear is that this stuff–which is important stuff, important aspects of our culture, glimpses into who we are–will someday disappear.  Without a trace.  Without record.

Is it the nature of blogging or on-line writing in general to be ephemeral? Is that what is the draw? Do we read it not expecting ever to go back to it.  I don’t know.

But it does worry me at times.

Susan Sontag

I have always been fascinated by Susan Sontag. I envied her seeming crystal-sharp intelligence, her confidence in her opinions, her strength in writing, her omnivorous reading.  While I certainly have not read everything of hers, I have read quite a lot.  Once as a reader for The Franklin Library’s First Editions, I read the galleys of The Volcano Lover, her historical novel about the triangle between Sir William Hamilton, his wife Emma and Lord Nelson. It was the first piece of fiction of hers I had read. Like all of her writing it was intelligent, sharp and incisive.  And it had a truth that can only be found in fiction. Her following novel, In America, was not as satisfying for me–it seemed undone.  Or perhaps overdone, might be a better word, for the brilliant characters and storyline are over-examined and over analyzed as if Henry James were writing the screenplays for MadMan.  The novel is crushed by the intelligence.

However, I have read much of her non-fiction: Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966),  On Photography (1977),  Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1978 and 1988) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). (The Illness as Metaphor book was revamped in 1988 in order to address the scourge that was AIDS in the 1980’s.)  It is this non-fiction, her essays that make her an major figure of the late 20th-century.  It is in these essays that the true brilliance shines. Hers is a hard intelligence, but a very clear intelligence.  Her Against Interpretation gave readers an argument “against what something means” and for “what something is.” It includes insightful–and new–readings of  Sartre, of Beckett, of Bresson, among others.  Illness as Metaphor moves us from the tuberculosis and consumption that affected so many of the 19th century’s literary characters and creators to the cancer that became the overriding metaphor of the twentieth.  On Photography discusses the relatively new art of photography–only since the mid-19th century– in a way that will change how even the most amateur viewer–myself– views photographs again.  And at the beginning of the second Iraq war, I once gave a section of Regarding the Pain of Others to a class of 18-year olds, and it surprised me how well it worked with theml.

A few years ago, I went to the Brooklyn Art Museum to see a photographic exhibit on Sontag by Annie Liebovitz, perhaps America’s most famous and celebrated portraitist at the time. Liebovitz–who had had a decades long romantic relationship with Sontag–captured Sontag’s final years, among family and friends. Many of them were during her final days, during her final battle with cancer. To this day I don’t know if I am more affected by the words Sontag wrote or the images of her that I saw that day.  Both, suggest an admirable toughness and wit.

What I also don’t know is why today, the NYTimes decided to publish a sampler of Sontag’s work in the Week in Review section of the Sunday paper. There is no anniversary that I know of. It just appeared.  But good, it made for a good read on a Sunday morning, and a good afternoon going through some old books. The excerpts are just that–excerpts–but they show the range, the depth and the honesty of her writing and her mind.  The article is below: enjoy it.

Sontag by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Opinion

A Sontag Sampler

By SUSAN SONTAG
Published: March 31, 2012

Art Is Boring

Schopenhauer ranks boredom with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life. (Pain for have-nots, boredom for haves — it’s a question of affluence.)

People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us. But most of the interesting art of our time is boring.

Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (This doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.) We should not expect art to entertain or divert anymore. At least, not high art. Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye — but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented).

If we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

On Intelligence

I don’t care about someone being intelligent; any situation between people, when they are really human with each other, produces “intelligence.”

Why I Write

There is no one right way to experience what I’ve written.

I write — and talk — in order to find out what I think.

But that doesn’t mean “I” “really” “think” that. It only means that is my-thought-when-writing (or when- talking). If I’d written another day, or in another conversation, “I” might have “thought” differently.

This is what I meant when I said Thursday evening to that offensive twerp who came up after that panel at MoMA to complain about my attack on [the American playwright Edward] Albee: “I don’t claim my opinions are right,” or “just because I have opinions doesn’t mean I’m right.”

Love and Disease

Being in love (l’amour fou) a pathological variant of loving. Being in love = addiction, obsession, exclusion of others, insatiable demand for presence, paralysis of other interests and activities. A disease of love, a fever (therefore exalting). One “falls” in love. But this is one disease which, if one must have it, is better to have often rather than infrequently. It’s less mad to fall in love often (less inaccurate for there are many wonderful people in the world) than only two or three times in one’s life. Or maybe it’s better always to be in love with several people at any given time.

On Licorice, Bach, Jews and Penknives

Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long- haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.

Things I dislike: sleeping in an apartment alone, cold weather, couples, football games, swimming, anchovies, mustaches, cats, umbrellas, being photographed, the taste of licorice, washing my hair (or having it washed), wearing a wristwatch, giving a lecture, cigars, writing letters, taking showers, Robert Frost, German food.

Things I like: ivory, sweaters, architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts, making lists, wagon-lits, paying bills, caves, watching ice-skating, asking questions, taking taxis, Benin art, green apples, office furniture, Jews, eucalyptus trees, penknives, aphorisms, hands.

Things I dislike: television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games, dirty or disorderly apartments, flat pillows, being in the sun, Ezra Pound, freckles, violence in movies, having drops put in my eyes, meatloaf, painted nails, suicide, licking envelopes, ketchup, traversins [“bolsters”], nose drops, Coca-Cola, alcoholics, taking photographs.

This material is excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming book “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980,” by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff.  A version of this was originally published in the NEW YORK TIMES, April 1, 2012.

Letter-writing, letters, Beckett and love

About five years ago, I traveled to Durban, South Africa.  I flew direct from Washington, D.C. to Johannesburg and then a short flight from Johannesburg to Durban. It is a grueling flight–19 hours in the air and plenty more in airports.  But during the flight, I read volume one of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940.  I must admit I was enthralled–and may be the only person to have read the nearly 900-page collection in one sitting. Nevertheless, three years later I am now reading volume two ( The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956).  Certainly there is a touch of the voyeur in reading another’s letters, and, for me, not a little hero-worship in reading the letters of Beckett as he casually mentions Jack Yeats, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Nora Joyce, etc.  (The first letter in this collection is a postcard that he had sent to Joyce, a pre-printed, government regulated correspondence limited to family news because of the war.  Beckett sent the postcard from Paris to the Joyces in Switzerland, saying that he and Suzanne were all right.  He wrote it on January 12, 1941 and it arrived in Switzerland on the 17th. Joyce never received it, however, having died on the 13th, the day after Beckett wrote it. )

Anyway besides the snoopiness and the adolescent-like hero worship, the letters have me thinking of correspondence in general.  Except for writing thank-you notes –a good habit I learned from my father and my uncle–most of my correspondence now is through e-mail. Even the majority of my manuscript submissions are done electronically with the cover letter included in the submission.  Yet there is something about letter writing I miss.

A love letter, or any kind of letter for that matter, is so much more intriguing to receive–and more fulfilling to write–than a text or an e-mail. During a 10-day trip to Paris, I once wrote fourteen letters back home to the love of my life. I can still see the thin hotel stationery, the blue, white and red airmail envelopes, the soft lobby light in the ragged hotel under which I poured out my soul. Today, those letters probably mean more to me than to the person that received them. They capture a unique moment in my life, an amber-encased slice of who I once was.

In that sense,  I take pleasure  in reading  letters that I have written or received in the past–they transport me to where and who I was at the time they were written.

(Perhaps  the most beautiful love story I have ever read is by an Irish novelist named Niall Williams entitled Four Letters of Love.  It is a wonderful novel that revolves around letter writing–as well as around painting, fishing, the Aran Islands, death, heartbreak and redemptive love.)

What about you? Have you  given up on snail-mail completely? I worry about the impermanence of all our correspondence, of the ephemeral nature of e-mail and texting. True, they say that every stroke of your keyboard can ultimately be retrieved and that nothing in cyberspace really disappears, but are the biographers and historians of the future going to have access to these? Is the estate of a future Samuel Beckett going to allow some academic to sift through the computer files –deleted and saved–of the person whose name is entrusted to them?  I cannot say. But I do know the thrill of opening an envelope, of slipping out a hard-stock card, sheets of creamy stationery, or ripped pages of loose-leaf.  Am I simply missing some golden-hazed memory or have we truly lost something special?

E-mail me what you think.  Hah!

Voice

I am fairly new to this blogging thing, but I am not new to writing.  However, I am finding it very difficult to find my “Voice” here on these pages. Reading other journals and blogs, I find that the writers seem so confidant, so knowledgeable, so sure of what is important. And I am not. My writing–particularly my fiction–is informed by uncertainty. In the simple “boy meets girl” scenario, for instance, my characters are left hanging. That’s about it…”boy meets girl.”  Rarely does he get her, and if he never gets her, then he certainly can’t lose her.  It is perhaps my version of a Beckettian void (and probably more suitable to a shrink than to a blog.) So where does this void fit in with a regular blog?

Are bloggers just pretending that they know? Or do most of them feel that they are expert in some one thing or another? Is the internet a means for validation of their opinions, of the worth of their personal world view?  I don’t know.  It is difficult for me. For example,  I loved the movie The Beginners, but I know as many people who found it too slow and pointless. Why should I then write about its worth? To prove to myself that my judgement is correct? To initiate a conversation? I don’t know.  I need help here.

I guess, ultimately, my question is “What is the purpose of an individual’s blog?”–mine in particular. I have found that it is good for my thinking, for my productivity, for my thoughtfulness (not the same as “my thinking”). But wouldn’t a private journal do the same? The difference, I have found, between the two–the blog and the journal–is that I am more careful with the blog.  Knowing it is going “out there,” I am more careful with what I write, more careful in its correctness, more conscious of the language.  And I guess that is a good thing.  At least for my writing.   But again, why do it?

Can anyone help?  Are there people out there who can tell me?  Would love to hear your response to my questions.