I haven’t changed my opinion halfway through a novel so drastically in ages. Which was a good thing, because the first 70 or so pages of J. M. Coetzee’s late 90s South African Booker winner Disgrace had me pretty bored. It opens with a poetry professor in his early 50s embarking on an affair with a student. Yawn yawn yawn, read it all before. Full of discussion and analysis of poems, male-gazey sex scenes, tired middle class intellectual divorcee issues that can regularly be found in the most boring Booker-winner-type novels. Like Midnight’s Children. Thus, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this, it just appeared to be the shortest book in a big pile, so I thought I’d get it out of the way.
ANd, yes, the first section bored me, tired me. But after the affair inevitably goes sour and the professor is hounded from his position, he leaves Cape Town to stay with his daughter in the depths of rural South Africa. And things happen, issues arise, he almost begins to change and develop, and he is forced to confront and accept (begrudgingly) his diminishing place in the world. In some respects he is a callous and selfish womaniser, but in others he is a charming and friendly sensualist… It is a novel that deals with sexual politics and the ideas of possession of the body in dramatic and very serious terms, offering intelligent and compelling emotional arcs that buffet a reader pretty relentlessly from the important event in the centre of the novel through to its end.
Though a sense of place, of location, is not as strong in this as in The Grass Is Singing (a Doris Lessing book I recently read that also deals with issues of race and isolation in rural South Africa), its evocation of post-apartheid social interactions and the guilt resultant from years of unpleasant, ingrained racism is strong, and interesting and powerful.
Lots of stuff about dogs, as well, about compassion being easier to find for animals than people. This is perhaps a key, underlying, theme.
A moving book, and so much better than the middle-aged-man-fucks-a-student-it-becomes-a-scandal novel that it seems to be at its opening. I’d recommend.