Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Disgrace of the Jew in JM Coetzee's novel

Since finishing Disgrace by JM Coetzee something has been nagging at me: The sense that there were an abundance of Jewish characters and references, that may have explicit and implicit meanings. Coetzee loves to write in multiple layers. My favourite of his recent novels, Diary of a Bad Year, set in a three-story building and offering three interconnected narratives, demonstrates this not only in meaning but structurally as well; each story is separated and alternating on the page. That the protagonist of Disgrace may be Jewish is never mentioned, but his name, David Lurie, suggests it, just as it suggests his "lurid" behaviour. As the spiritual/quasi-religious layers of the story began to reveal themselves I started thinking less of Lurie as a 'fallen angel' or a lucifer-type character whose arrival spells disaster for his daughter once he has been cast out of the rarified ivory-tower 'heaven' of academia. Instead, I thought of him as the marginalized disgraced Jew of history, cast out from the center of social acceptability like his daughter's farmer neighbour Ettinger (another Jewish name) whom she relies on for support and protection. And the reference to rabbi Isaac Luria, the famed Cabbalist, became apparent, especially when joined with the name of his student paramour Melanie Isaacs. The lechery for which Lurie is disgraced, his unrepentant stance before his academic inquisitors, and the way he appears to represent a Cabbalistic worldview - in which the spirit of the Creator is regarded in female sexualized terms (the Shekinah) and penetrates the world to provide the lifeforce for all of creation - convinced me of David Lurie's Jewishness. Lurie carries all of the hallmarks of the Jewish liberal, urban, art-loving, secular intellectual. There is even a section of the novel about Lurie's sense of having been scapegoated. If true, Coetzee is peddling in some disturbing stereotypes, the lecherous Jew, the selfish Jew, the unrepentent Jew, the Jew in need of reform and rehabilitation.   

Monday, July 15, 2013

DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn't like Waiting for the Barbarians because it was so earnestly allegorical (a story that has self-conscious aims of being important, statement-making literature) and Disgrace teeters on the edge but manages to stay on the safe side. David Lurie is a fascinating character, a middle-aged man who, on principle (a romantic notion of the eminence of desire) is unrepentant about his relationship with one of his students and is prepared to suffer the consequences for the sake of his ideals. And yet he is a man for whom love exists only in the poetic abstract, the component of selflessness, all but absent from his life. Lurie is exquisite in his loneliness and disconnectedness. Everything begins to change when, after being dismissed from his university teaching position, he seeks refuge with his daughter, a lesbian farmer living in the dangerous townships. The realities of life lived close to the ground and hard choices begin to impinge on Lurie's privileged (urban, elitist) worldview. The main strength of this novel is in Coetzee's multi-faceted evocation of the psychology of exploitation and its political echos in a post-apartheid South Africa struggling with self-transformation. The weakness is when it begins to feel heavyhanded and too earnest. The sections of Lurie writing an opera based on the memoirs of Lord Byron in Italy dragged down a novel that otherwise moved at a solid clip. In spite of his avowed dislike of traditional religion, Lurie eventually finds that salvation, for one who has fallen from grace, requires a form of self-sacrifice.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil BeachOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My wife read this novel first and then handed it to me, which ended up making for a very interesting discussion afterward. It's essentially the story of a single moment in the life of two people on their wedding night, the fears and expectations, and ultimately the way they deal with disappointment. McEwan's prose are forensic, unsheathing layer upon layer of a point in time, to give the reader the sense of how momentous every moment truly is; personal and collective histories all mathematically adding up to a decision, an action, or inaction. He is less interested in the aftermath than in meticulously rendering the emotional and geographical landscape, subterranean as well as above ground, not to mention the importance of climate, in this the case, the late 1950s, on the cusp of the era of sexual liberation, the women's lib movement, the pill etc. Why do I say it made for an interesting husband/wife discussion? Because McEwan tells the story from both points of view, and I wasn't sure that he got the woman's side right. I was thinking that his portrayal of Florence as sexually frigid to the point of suffering was a bit extreme. But my wife said she thought it accurate, especially given the era. I was a bit disappointed that in the end McEwan raps the story up by recounting the way that the decisive moment played out in Edward's life and in Florence's it's left open-ended. Not sure what McEwan's reasoning was, but it felt like he baled, prematurely, and maybe given the events of the wedding night that's what he wanted the reader to feel. True, it left me unsatisfied, which would be clever, but in this case, not in a good way.

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