I’ve just finished reading JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, which left me thinking more about its themes than about Coetzee’s writing itself. That’s a good thing, I reckon. You don’t want writing to get in the way of a good story.
Disgrace is not a comfortable story, and by the book’s conclusion I was emotionally invested. I wanted someone to slap Lurie (protagonist), I wanted to solve race relations in a day, I wanted to eliminate rape and violence from the face of the earth.
What I love about the book is that it’s not overly long, it’s written simply, and it’s clear. While the story is underway (plot moving forwards), we are simply and innocently led along the path without any punctuational or grammatical distractions. No interruptions. Lambs to the slaughter. The only times when the words on the page are noticeable are times when larger themes are being interrogated. We are drawn to notice the relationship between language and what it represents, between theory and reality. We are forced to stop and Think Bigger.
One such moment is when Lurie, an academic, is giving a lecture on Wordsworth’s Prelude. It’s been years since I read it, so it came as a grand surprise to be plunged head-first into a Bigger Theme: that of usurping (encroaching upon), specifically in relation to the mind’s archetypes.
Wait: mind’s archetypes? Yes. Pure imagination, without ‘the limits of sense-perception’ (Coetzee’s words); without the usurping quality of the senses. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this as a traveller – in the physical sense, but also on the journey through life. We have expectations and ideas about how things will be. We wait for the moment, and then in a flash it is there, and there is only a very short moment – or perhaps none at all – when we experience the sensory impact of that. Because then it becomes, for example, ‘the visual image burned on the retina’ (Coetzee again).
The question, of course, is: can there be balance between the two? The mind’s archetypes and the sensory experience. And this, I think, is the larger theme of the book which is embodied in the journey of Lurie.
It is a beautiful piece of art, for all its horror.