For a fiction writer looking to consider technique, Disgrace provides plenty to sink our teeth into. Coetzee makes some interesting stylistic choices as well as engages with some difficult subject matter. It is not an easy book, to read or study.
I’m going to start with some ridiculously simple basics, but I think in this case they are important. Disgrace is written in the present tense. That alone is a choice worth examining. The present tense is a powerful, but tricky medium. Obviously, it brings immediacy to the story. What is happening is happening right now, in something close to real time. It may sound contradictory, but being this close to a story can actually slow things down. The narrator can get bogged down in the minutiae of each and every action.
Fortunately, Coetzee imposes some necessary distance on the present tense story by using the third person. In other words, a filter:
For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex very well. (A description of his arrangement with a prostitute named Soraya follows).
Soraya is tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically, he is old enough to be her father; but then, technically, one can be a father at twelve.
This is a strong opening with a particular narrative voice. It establishes a close third person (allowing us access into the head of our main character, David Lurie) while at the same time making it very clear that a wry, opinionated (even slightly patronizing) narrator is in control of the story. This layering is one of the novel’s most successful elements.
This attentive narrator takes us through a period of Lurie’s life beginning with his regular appointments with a prostitute and ends with him confronting the fact he has lost the ability to seduce any woman he chooses. This story unfolds quickly, 10 pages in total, and weaves together back story, descriptions of Lurie’s thoughts and habits, and the situation leading him to the real story. Chapter One is an introduction of sorts, skillfully handled and economical. It doesn’t start in the thick of the action but brings us to the real story much more quietly. But appropriately. Words aren’t wasted and this is really important.
Chapter Two is an intense, extended scene. Lurie attempts to seduce one of his students. In this chapter the narrator virtually disappears. Between each line of dialogue or action, we get Lurie’s unfiltered thoughts. This is quite hard to pull off without losing the larger picture of what’s going on. But as the scene draws to a close, the narrator steps back in and asserts his more objective view over what’s been going on. An extremely effective method of making sure the reader understands the parallel emotion of the scene – Lurie’s nearly pathetic intensity and the girl’s wavering thrill. She’s flattered but also nervous.
Skip ahead. The next few chapters catalogue the love affair. He pursues, she gives in, she draws back, he fumbles. The affair becomes a scandal and Lurie must quit his position at the university where he teaches. Again, Lurie’s actions and thoughts are both explained and then sometimes criticized by the narrator.
He does not feel nervous. On the contrary, he feels quite sure of himself. His heart beats evenly, he has slept well. Vanity, he thinks, the dangerous vanity of the gambler; vanity and self-righteousness. He is going into this in the wrong spirit. But he does not care.
This distance remains extremely important, the only way for the narrator to help the reader develop his/her own feelings about the situation and more importantly, about Lurie.
A close third person narrator can be difficult to pull of effectively. We want to get inside our character’s head but in doing that can lose perspective beyond that character and, more importantly, about that character – which is the whole reason to use third person instead of first. Coetzee keeps just about as close to David Lurie as possible but he doesn’t merge with him and this is really important. He keeps a thin boundary – with narrative tone and an eye to Lurie’s surroundings. Lurie translates most of the reader’s impressions of each scene but he doesn’t dictate them – that distinction is key.