J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ and one-word titles

When discussing J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, one should probably start with its title. As you may have already noticed, it is one word long. It is striking in the promise that it implicitly makes in exploring the nature of the abstract concept of disgrace in itself. Reading the novel for the second time I was keen to figure out exactly what it is that Coetzee is saying about disgrace, more on that later, but is also set me off on the collecting of one-word abstract titles.

When I first learned about the novel as an undergrad, it was mostly through Ian Watt’s interesting but flawed study, The Rise of the Novel. For Watt, the novel was the first form that took account of the specific nature of the world. Social milieux, individualism and consumerism were the driving forces behind the emergence of the genre; abstraction was not within its repertoire. This is what makes the grand statements that underpin these one-word titles so captivating, it takes what is supposedly the most modern literary genre while pledging a return to medieval morality plays, when ‘human nature’ was not something we placed in quotation marks.

My bookshelves were as good a place to start in pursuit of this genre-within-a-genre as anywhere else and as such I submit the few that I have that do qualify, some that don’t and the few that are marginal or limit cases.

Yes

Martin Amis’ novel Success is one such example, but in terms of its exploration of the theme is sets for itself I’m uncertain how successful it is. It details two brothers, one of whom is more successful than the other in sexual, financial terms. At roughly the halfway point, the less successful, ‘nicer’ brother begins to overtake the other, only for the reader to find that the initially more successful brother’s success may have been a meta-fictional game all along. Success is moderately diverting as a narrative, but makes no grand statements in the way that one might wish. I own a copy of his novel Money and I’m hoping that it turns out to be more successful in that regard.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is not strictly a novel, but from the parts that I have read (thin ice), it arguably anticipates the methodology of the maximalist novelists, such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace with its encyclopaedic knowledge of classical myth and the scope of its ambition. Since Ovid’s subject matter is change, it stands to reason (and also idle speculation, I suppose), that he is articulating a vision of a world based primarily in change. That said, this figuration of Ovid as a poet who is aware of the mutability of all things is a very modern understanding.

Another example is Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, a deft and fun examination of how our supposed free society offers more in the way of paralysis and frustration than fulfilment. His more recently published novel Purity, presumably qualifies too, but I haven’t read it yet. So.

I’m reliably informed that Milan Kundera’s Ignorance counts too, aswell as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. William S. Burroughs’ Junky may well also, it all depends on whether or not Burroughs acts the social diagnostician in it and says something in the way of all people being, in some way, junkies. Michel de Houellebecq’s Submission also springs to mind.

No

As fun as it would be to discuss in this regard, Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey don’t qualify, simply because of the presence of the definite article, bringing their total word counts to two and two respectively. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, John McGahern’s The Barracks and many, many others don’t qualify for the same reason.

Paul Auster’s Invisible doesn’t count, the title is a bit too specific, but if it was called Invisibility, it could have, seeing as much of it is concerned with the general flightiness of the phenomenal world and the fundamental unknowability of all human beings, how their inner lives are rendered invisible to us.

The less said about John Williams’ Stoner and Philip Roth’s Everyman the better, they were two novels that I had been looking forward to reading for a long time and as such read them back-to-back. They turned out to be so disappointing I tapped out in the last fifty to seventy pages. That was a bad week. However, Roth deserves an honourable mention for engaging in the kind of thematising that these titles should encourage; the title is pilfered from a morality play about exactly these same kind of Big Questions about The Human Condition. However, it provides interesting takes of none of these and depicts instead the life of a highly successful businessman who realises that he should have stayed with his first, gently aged but of course still quite attractive wife Phoebe, rather than the supermodel that he ended up with. In both we’re supposed to be gently swept along in the unearned melancholic nostalgia and believe that they hold some kind of significance for the ‘everyman.’ Bilge.

Will Self’s Umbrella and Emma Donoghue’s Room are unfortunately not included for their quite literal object titles. Though one could no doubt mount an argument to the contrary James Joyce’s Dubliners, Ulysses must be disallowed also, again because of specificity.

War and Peace is a near miss, Tolstoy should have chosen one or the other.

Maybe/Haven’t Read Yet

I haven’t read A.S. Byatt’s doorstopper Possession yet, so I am unsure whether is qualifies. If the novel says Something Important about how the human mind can be overtaken or become obsessed with something outside of itself, it might well do. Updates when they become available. Ditto John Banville’s Athena (though I’m dubious, if the novel is concerned with any of the things that the goddess Athena supposedly embodies, wisdom, courage, etc, it could get through on a technicality), Paul Auster’s Leviathan and John McGahern’s Memoir (if it deals with the nature of Memoiring, yes, if it’s an Irish misery narrative, no).

So what does Coetzee’s novel say about the nature of disgrace? Even after two readings, I’m not quite sure. Reading the book always makes me look up the defintion of disgrace and internally flit between the book and The Compact OED. A disgrace is the disfavour of one in a powerful and an exalted position, “with the withdrawal of honour…which accompanies it.” Archaic definitions also involve deformities, this will be important later.

The novel depicts David Lurie, a lecturer in romantic poetry in a South African university. He begins an affair with one of his students and when this is found out, he becomes a shamed public figure. Lurie refuses the mandatory media narrative of public apology, contrition and rehabilitation and maintains that he was only being true to himself. His stubborn commitment Nietzschean ethics ultimately loses him his job and he retreats to his daughter’s farm.

While Lurie is staying at the smallholding, helping out with various menial tasks, the farm is attacked. Lucy is raped and Lurie is disfigured. To Lurie’s horror, Lucy keeps her farm, intends to keep the child that she has conceived and marry Petrus, a man who is implicated in the attack. Lucy explains that she intends to live this life ‘with no cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity,’ and Lurie’s gloss on her decision is as follows: “Like a dog.” “Yes,” she replies. “Like a dog.”

One can see why it is difficult to know what to make of this, when the only recourse against the trials that life submits one to is to abandon one’s dignity altogether. Lurie casting himself as a Byronic hero, as a “servant of eros” is unconvincing at best, self-indulgent at worst, a lecturer on poetry hopped up on his own iambs, ignoring the very real power relations present in his affair with his student Melanie. It is also his luxury to do so, and to plead the cause of his own individuality. In order to Lucy to continue to eke out an existence on her farm, she has no other choice.

Lurie’s own rationalisation is that: “It was history speaking through them. A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors.” We must submit ourselves, Coetzee seems to be saying, if not strictly to disgrace and hopefully, not to what Lucy undergoes, but to the ways in which life humbles us. what life humbles us with. It’s not a consolation, but anyone who’s read the ending will know that isn’t what this book is for.

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