Posted by: Corri van de Stege | September 16, 2008

A book review – or rather, two books reviewed

At last, here is my review of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace :

David Lurie is a professor in Literature who spends ninety minutes a week with Soraya, a prostitute, and is happy with this until he happens to see her in the street, with two children.  She knows he has recognised her and withdraws.  He’s alone  again, after two divorces. 

This is the scene setting for what follows next in this novel which is a very minimalistic account of an affair with a student, who logs a complaint against him, or rather her parents/boyfriend do this.  David refuses to apologise or to admit guilt and resigns from his post at the university.  He relocates temporarily to his daughter’s isolated small holding.

The telling of the story is in a very sparse and effective language, a few sentences convey a whole history, enough to make us understand situations, emotional effects and characteristics of people.  About David’s daughter, Lucy:

She talks easily about these matters.  A frontier farmer of the new breed.  In the old days, cattle and  maise.  Today dogs and daffodils.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Their relationship is wonderfully elicited.  There’s a conversation between them, which indicates the distance travelled by his daughter, away from him, not just in geography but in terms of generation.  And then there’s the fact that he is her father, and he is not sure how to deal with that relationship: is he still trying to protect her or is he simply meddling?

But he is a father, that is his fate, and as a father grows older he turns more and more – it cannot be helped – towards his daughter.  She becomes his second adoration, the bride of his youth reborn.  No wonder, in fairy stories, queens try to hound their daughters to their death!

Ultimately the book is also about growing older in a country fraught with the white-black dichotomy and where the balance of power is shifting away from the white certainties.  David Lurie and his daughter are subjected to a savage attack which leaves them both marked and unsettles their relationship further, contrasting their different responses to their situation and where they live and how to resolve this threatening atmosphere.

In the end there is no solution and for me at any rate this is a book as much about relationships and changing political environments and growing older as it is about acceptance of the human condition, where there is rarely a happy ending, only one in which there is a certain resignation and acceptance of that condition, and the ability to live with that.

At the moment I am also reading in Coetzee’s Stranger Shores, which are essays 1986-1999.   As the blurb says, Coetzee is someone who won the Booker Prize twice, as well as numerous other literary prizes.  This collection covers a vast array of Authors, ranging from As Byatt to ‘translated’ authors such as Harry Mulisch and Cees Nootebook (both Dutch), to Dostoevsky and Naguib Mahfouz’s The Harafish (which I have not read).   I have not read them all but I am impressed by this very readable collection, and it is nice to dip into when you are a bit at a loss, not in the mood to read a full story or novel, but just want to exercise your mind on something that you can cope.  I like the way he admonishes the translator of Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven, and says more or less that he is too lazy, using ‘locutions that make Mulisch’s Holland sound like he is in England and evokes English, rather than Dutch settings: ‘Stop that nonsense mate!’

Definitely, ‘mate’ is not a Dutch term and although literally translated you could translate ‘Hou toch op met die onzin kerel’ as ‘Stop that nonsense, mate’  – perhaps Coetzee is right to admonish the translator for trying to make this a very English-sounding exclamation.’  I really should go back to the original, I guess.    

But there are more essays in this book, on different authors, and it’s like picking cherries, take one here and there: it is well worth it, one to savour a bit longer and when the mood takes me.





  1. I feel like I should thank you for reading one of “our” writers! And as interested as I am in Coetzee’s other writing, I think I should pay attention to other writers now. Maybe I’m looking for happy endings (or at least the promise of mutual understanding). The ‘new’ SA is rather polarised at present. But we live in hope …

  2. Agreed. The Discovery Of Heaven needs to be read in Dutch if you can. It so much a novel of language and place and culture I am actually surprised it did so well internationally.

    Stranger Shores is a neat collection of essays and nice to dip into. I particularly enjoyed his notes on translating Kafka’s Das Schloß.

  3. (Writing from the depths of Wales – again! – and taking aeons to send and receive messages via this Mobile Connect USB Modem)
    Pete: I love reading Coetzee – he uses the SA background to tell us something that is universal: perhaps there are no happy endings, really?
    Ario: Thanks for this – I think I am ready to read Mulisch (again) and this essay definitely was a prod to do just that. Yes, I think you’re right that much of his writing is about language and place, the Dutch language and place.
    I haven’t got the collection with me, but will definitely read the Kafka one – it looks intriguing

  4. The Master of Petersburg put me off reading him for a long time. The nuances of the relationship depicted in this book might make me want to read him again. Great review. 🙂

  5. I’m way behind on blog reading, but I enjoyed this post, as well as catching up with your last three.

    Your Sunday music/books day sounds delightful. We heard the pianist Lang Lang play on Sunday, and were fortunate enough to have box seats directly behind the piano so I could see every movement of his hands. He is a remarkable young musician…never have I seen anyone play with such delicacy and emotion, yet with great energy and technical prowess. So exciting!

    I’ve never read any Coetzee…so thank you for enlightening me about this author.

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