The deadly serious games of J M Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’

The South African-born academic dr Andrew van der Vlies has been teaching JM Coetzee’s novel Disgrace to British students for years, and found that they often lacked the necessary background knowledge to engage properly with the text. This was one of the reasons why he wrote a book dealing with of the novel’s setting and references, such issues as the representation of race, gender, the land, and animals, and its concern with language, power, music, confession, and allegory. He spoke to Africa is a Country about  his analysis of Coetzee’s popular novel:

Why have you singled out Disgrace for a book-length study? Considered against the novels and autobiographical texts Coetzee has produced since Disgrace (Elizabeth Costello, Slow Man, Youth, Summertime), does it still stand out as one of his best works?

I proposed the title to Continuum because of my experience of teaching Disgrace at the University of Sheffield (I’ve now moved to a post at Queen Mary, University of London). When I started at Sheffield, my first proper academic post, I was asked to lecture on Disgrace, so spent a great deal of time thinking about it, and time every year since going back to my thoughts about the novel. I had some wonderful experiences talking about it with third-year – and also MA – students in Sheffield.

It was, however, a tricky novel to lecture and run seminars on. I felt British students needed more context than they had immediate access to (or were willing to find for themselves) in order to engage meaningfully with the book. Most tended to read it fairly superficially. Not all thought sufficiently about the narrative perspective, for example. So, on the one hand, this book tries to offer a concise and accessible introduction to the novel and its contexts without over-simplifying – or telling the reader what to think (though it’s not aimed exclusively at non-South Africans). On the other hand, it also presented an opportunity to offer some of my own critical analysis. This is a reader’s guide in a series aimed at students and the general reader, but it also offers bona fide literary-critical analysis along the way.

As to whether the novel still ‘stand[s] out as one of his best works’ – well, a pragmatic answer to your question is that Disgrace seemed the novel most likely to appeal to the publishers. But of the books you mention, it’s definitely the most popular with general readers and has generated the most debate. I do think it’s an extraordinary work of literary fiction. But that’s never reason enough for me to spend time on a book – I’m really as interested in the attendant questions about literary value and readerly expectation that a book like Disgrace allows us to think about. What is literary? Who decides on value? Are there subjects that a novel, particularly from South Africa, can or can not legitimately tackle, or tackle in certain ways? As a literary scholar I’m interested in those questions, and Coetzee, it seems to me, is always interested in these types of questions.

The book’s description says ‘Sometimes regarded as offering a bleak picture of post-apartheid South Africa, Disgrace has also been read as an ultimately hopeful novel about renunciation and redemption.’  Could you  explain briefly how one can arrive at such an optimistic reading?

Well, that’s not necessarily my reading. That’s the point of a tag line – it interpolates for an imagined reader who thinks the novel is about grace (or the absence of grace, which may or may not be something like ‘disgrace’), and suggests there might be another way of reading it. I don’t mean to be flippant! Some people do read the novel as a depressing report on what they think Coetzee is presenting as the appalling and inevitable failure of the post-apartheid state. Others cotton on to the dogs, or the music (but especially the dogs), and insist on reading the novel’s final bleak image as suggestive of some kind of dignity through renunciation on the part of the character David Lurie. I think the novel is playing all sorts of games – deadly serious ones. Whether or not it’s possible to read it optimistically is perhaps one of them.

Should one read Coetzee’s emigration to Australia as an intertext to his writing? If so, what implications does it have for a reading of the novel as being about ‘renunciation and redemption’?

No, I don’t think so. I think those who want to read it as significant in some way demonstrate some of the least attractive South African characteristics (I’m not sure whether I should qualify this with ‘white South African’ or not – I don’t think so; perhaps it’s more to do with class). We’re good at taking shots at those who stand out from the crowd. And we – or some of us – are quick to label people traitors.  There seems to be a lingering judgment in some quarters that Coetzee didn’t write directly enough about social conditions under the late-apartheid state, yet painted himself as an opponent of it, and then packed off to Australia after writing a novel in which black men rape a white woman. (I touch on some of these responses in the section of my book that deals with reception. There’s a memorable quote from Athol Fugard, and there’s also, of course, the reading by some elements of the ANC.) But I think that to hold this view is fundamentally to misread the novel – or at least to want to read the novel as a certain kind of document. And, as a patriotic émigré South African (who nonetheless, of course, reserves the right to be critical, etc.) myself, I want to say, too, that people can live where they like without that being a comment on their view of their country or its politics. I think that’s been difficult for South Africans to accept because of where we’ve come from.

One of the chapters in your book deals with the book’s performances. What have your impressions been of the film version starring John Malkovich?

I write about this briefly in the book. I don’t think it’s a very good film, but I don’t say so in as many words. I’m more interested in the kinds of readings that the film closes down, rather than opens up. It seems to me impossible, for example, for the film adequately to convey that the novel’s narrative is focalized through Lurie. That’s the primary concern I had with the film. There are several other things I could say, but I’ll quote myself in summary instead and leave you to read the book!: “the film of Disgrace offers a narrative of white South Africans’ experience of life under majority rule that does not sufficiently complicate its narrative focalization, or convey the ironies inherent in that focalisation in the novel; the film thus runs the risk, both with local and global audiences, of reinforcing tropes of black peril and white panic that the novel, in its complexity, seeks always to challenge” (89-90).

Another chapter deals with the text’s reception. Back in 1999 it received much criticism from the ANC for its perceived Afro-pessimistic representation of the country. Do you think their reaction had any merit? How did the reception inside SA differ from the international reception the book received?

Again, I can’t summarise easily, and I deal with these issues in the book. Whether or not the ANC criticism had merit (really the criticism of a small group of ANC politicians; David Attwell does some work identifying who they likely were in his essay on race in the academic journal Interventions) is debatable. On one reading, the stereotypical depiction of black men as rapists might justifiably be said to be racist. But I think the book as a whole works so hard to contextualise the rape, and Coetzee’s whole oeuvre insists on the right of fiction to be a kind of discourse that is not beholden to ideological judgment, that this reading is difficult to sustain. Ultimately, what you think of the response depends on how you construe literature and the literary. As to South African and global reception: again, there’s too much to say for a summary. Global readers tend to want a particular kind of narrative from a South African novel, or a novel that’s able to be pigeonholed as ‘South African’. They want, by and large, reportage, or an allegory. Coetzee flirts with these expectations, but subverts them too, I think. It would probably be true, though, to say that, with the exception of the small circle of well-off, largely white academics and liberal readers of fiction in South Africa, Disgrace is probably more widely regarded (and certainly more widely read) abroad.

Perhaps more broadly, could you give your impressions of how the SA literary landscape has changed in the past decade or so since Disgrace? What have been the main themes emerging out of that literature? Any specific texts that you would like to highlight as interesting, provocative or innovative?

It’s changed a great deal in that there is a very lively publishing scene for South African novels in English – there’s always been a livelier one for Afrikaans fiction. I struggle to keep up with all the new novels on the shelves of Exclusive Books and Wordsworths and Clarke’s in Cape Town when I’m in the country. It’s of variable quality, of course. I think the primary themes and concerns remain fairly consistent: memory and trauma in the wake of the TRC, narratives of childhood or rites of passage (playing on innocence, ignorance, difficult knowledge, etc.), questions of race and ethnicity. I have high regard for everything by Coetzee, Zoë Wicomb, Marlene van Niekerk, and Ivan Vladislavic. I’ve recently been quite entertained by Lauren Beukes. I think Karen Press and Rustum Kozain are extraordinary poets. I’ve a stack of detective novels I need to get to…

I wrote about some trends and recently emerging names in a piece in the UK Independent newspaper, which you can read here.

Herman Wasserman

8 thoughts on “The deadly serious games of J M Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’

  1. “…I want to say, too, that people can live where they like without that being a comment on their view of their country or its politics. ”

    No, they can’t. “Patriotic emigre” is undeniably cognitively dissonant. You don’t have to be defensive about that, but you can’t confront it by denying it.

  2. I am surprised that ‘background knowledge’ and ‘context’ are required to engage fully with book. The book, in a sense, contains all context and background required to engage with it. That’s why it’s so good.

  3. I disagree with Justin wholeheartedly. I too am a South African living in Scotland, where I’ve largely been brought up. I’ve had the choice to return and have chosen to remain in the UK for now – but if anyone took that as a comment on how I feel about South Africa or my future intentions, they would be totally wrong. I love South Africa and will return. But whether I do or not has no bearing on my identity as a South African, a participant in its politics, and a writer about that country.

  4. Justin: “No, they can’t. “Patriotic emigre” is undeniably cognitively dissonant. You don’t have to be defensive about that, but you can’t confront it by denying it.”

    Interesting statement. I never once considered my moving to South Africa as a political statement or as a comment in regards to my feelings of the United States or the UK. Didn’t think I was trying to deny my reasons. Reasons seemed rather straight forward and had little to do with world politics, but much to do with marriage and the negotiations marriage brings.

    Perhaps you could expound more on your comments for me to understand fully what, by de facto, my not living in the country of my birth or citizenship(s) means?

    In the meantime, back to the article at hand. Thank you very much for this. Very interesting, indeed.

  5. Thanks for the comments. Not wanting to speak on Andrew’s behalf, let me just say, as a South African also living abroad, that I always find it strange how migration is the one thing that never ceases to raise hackles with South Africans. It’s our blind spot. I think our (South Africans’) attitudes towards migration (and we know how violent those attitudes can turn) say a lot about our intolerance for difference and Otherness in general, and our inability to look beyond our own parochial views of issues that concern us.
    Don’t get me started on how one’s opinion about South African politics etc. gets dismissed once people learn you reside outside the country!

  6. I take Justin’s comment as a perfectly valid one about my vocabulary. I should have thought more carefully about differentiating between émigré and expatriate, strictly defined, viz.

    émigré — a person who has left their own country in order to settle in another, typically for political reasons.

    expatriate — a person who lives outside their native country.

    (Both The Oxford Dictionary of English, 2nd edition revised).

    I should rather have called myself a patriotic expatriate. I can’t claim to comment on whether Coetzee would rather be regarded as one or the other. But to read his location as a comment on his commitment to anything in particular seems fatuous in the face of his work’s great project to undermine such insistence on purity or absoluteness.

    I think Hermann is on the money. The obsession with racial ‘purity’ that so blighted our past seems to have morphed into an obsession with something like a purity of situational affiliation.

  7. @ Kirsty
    I said you don’t have to be defensive…and yet there you go.
    My point was not that emigres cannot be patriotic. Everyone is full of contradictions. But lets acknowledge that and explore it rather than deny it. Particularly from South Africans who emigrated in the 90s, assertions that that act says nothing about their views of their country are simply not credible. Of course it says something. It says that you have mixed feelings. Thats okay. Talk about it. I bet it would make for an interesting discussion.

  8. In keeping with the question of context let’s talk about the elephant in the room: one of the major threads in the issue of emigration in SA is the narrative of abandoning a failing state that is articulated most loudly by right wing whites, and increasingly by liberal whites also. This raises the hackles of a lot of South Africans who hear it, sometimes correctly, as an indictment of post apartheid SA and by extension as a racist statement. They wonder why people who seemed quite at home under the oppressiveness of apartheid now find the new dispensation so intolerable. The newness and fragility of a hard won order makes people very defensive justifiably or not.

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