18 December 2012


Reading Diary: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

They walk back along an irrigation furrow. Lucy's bare toes grip the red earth, leaving clean prints. A solid woman, embedded in her new life. Good! If this is to be what he leaves behind--this daughter, this woman--then he does not have to be ashamed . . .

"Are you working on something in particular?" she asks . . .

"I have plans. Something on the last years of Byron. Not a book . . . Something for the stage, rather. Words and music. Characters talking and singing . . . I thought I would indulge myself. But there is more to it than that. One wants to leave something behind . . ."

"Doesn't being a father count?"

"Being a father . . . I can't help feeling that, in comparison to being a mother, being a father is a rather abstract business . . ."

When I pulled my copy of J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace from my shelves last weekend, all I planned to read was a certain dining room scene, which I then wrote about in Locus Focus: Take Eighty-Four. Of course, I ended up rereading the whole thing, and getting so much more out of it than I did back in uni. It all but demanded a Reading Diary entry.

And I would have been happy to oblige even if it didn't fit the Top Secret December Theme--which it does! =P

So what do the English classic Howards End and the American movie Gran Torino have in common? And what do either of them have to do with the South African novel Disgrace? To give a detailed answer would spoil all three stories, so let me just ask another question--the question which all three of them have an answer to . . .

Who shall inherit the country?

One of my most enduring memories from uni is one professor's comment that the scuffle over who would ultimately inherit the house called Howards End was E.M. Forster's way of addressing the issue of which class of people would ultimately inherit England. I remembered it when I saw which character in the Clint Eastwood movie ended up owning the prized Gran Torino, driving it into the future of the United States. And I recalled it again this weekend, as I reread the conclusion of Disgrace, ten times as shocking to me this time as it was the first time around, when I had had no idea how explosive the friction between different factions often was . . . and how demoralising, even dehumanising, the path to a united country could be. 

All three stories are also driven by the theme of fatherhood, and all have characters who weren't as fantastic at the natural role as they could have been, only to find themselves fulfilling it in other ways, not necessarily well. In Howards End, the paternal is compounded with the economic; in Gran Torino, it is also mixed up with the racial; in Disgrace, it is topped off with the piece de resistance of sex.

I still remember how my class gasped when our lecturer revealed the one piece of the puzzle we hadn't seen, but that a South African reader would have picked up on in an instant. The reason the professor's affair with a student is so scandalous is not just because they are far enough apart in age to be like father and daughter, but also because he is white and she is black. It isn't that he has abused what should have been a paternal role toward a student; it is that he has just underlined for everyone the paternalism that has characterised race relations in South Africa for hundreds of years.

But what of his own natural fatherhood, the counterpoint to all this? 

There is one scene in which he muses that a father used to be thought a failure if he could not produce a son--then reminds himself that his only child, a daughter named Lucy, is just as good as any son. It is not clear whether he is just rationalising. At another part of the story, he thinks that a middle-aged German settler, whose adult sons have all returned to Germany, has ultimately failed as a peasant--because he didn't produce enough male heirs to end up with at least one who would take over the family farm. And because of these "failures" of the fathers of his class, one day all the land settled by whites since their arrival in South Africa centuries ago will belong once more to the local blacks.

Perhaps that is how it should be: history coming full circle. I know some people who'd say this outcome is also poetic justice. But what Disgrace suggests is that the context does not matter: it is always a tragedy not to leave an inheritance to your children. 

Image Sources: a) Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, b) Howards End by E.M. Forster, c) Gran Torino poster

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